Supporting Parents of Young Children in Mass

So, Bonnie at A Knotted Life, asked on facebook if it would be so incredibly terrible if there were a nursery for young toddlers at a couple of masses a weekend. I decided I was in need of penance so I read the comments. Click over at your own risk, it’s just…a lot.

I like Bonnie’s page because just about everyone there is charitable in their comments, so it’s a nice break from “You’re an ISIS Catholic!” “NO! YOU are an ISIS Catholic!” (And yes, that really did happen, I will not link to it.) And true to form, people were pretty nice to one another. Lots of opinions were expressed.

So, yeah, I’ll wade into it here.

1. A nursery is not a bad thing.

There, I said it. There is nothing inherently evil about having a nursery during one mass at your parish for toddlers. If done correctly, it can be a great thing. I’ve been to parishes where it has been run sort of like a pre-school Catechism. Or ones where it was informal but they played quiet hymns in the background and had mostly religious toys and books for the kids. I’ve seen it be a terrific ministry for helping young parents who are at their wits’ end (and too upset to receive the Eucharist by the time that came around) about having their loud and sometimes misbehaving toddler at mass. However…

2. There is a wrong way to run a nursery.

And that is to make all parents of toddlers feel as though their child must be in there strictly because of his or her age. I remember a family at my parish as a teenager who had two wonderfully behaved little boys at mass. I was aghast at the ripe old age of fifteen when the mother told my mom that as she was sitting down at mass one day, an older woman tapped her on the shoulder and pointed and said “the cry room is over there.” Unacceptable. The existence of a cry room or nursery should not be used to remove all children from mass. Yes, I understand there is an “age of reason” and before that children are not expected to be at mass, but neither should they be banished. Several people in Bonnie’s comments come from Protestant backgrounds where a segregation between children and adults exists in services and were worried that the mere suggestion or introduction of a nursery would relegate their parish to that norm. Recently, Katherine of Having Left the Altar, was trying out new parishes in her new home state and found one that segregated families of small children to the back few rows of the church. Families could move up if their children could “behave” during mass. So, it can happen even without a nursery or cry room present. So, yes, their fears could be realized, but I do believe that if the expectation up front is that this is only one option (and put it in the bulletin if you have to!) it can be avoided. Obviously a segregated parish is problematic in many ways and is to be avoided. Just in Katherine’s situation, what constitutes behavior good enough to move up? What if a family has older children who can behave like angels but toddlers and infants too? Is the family required to split up? Are the older children allowed to sit alone? So, yes, this is NOT how we want a nursery to go in our parishes for sure. An option, NOT a requirement.

3. A Nursery CAN be a ministry

Yes, you read that right. For the parents who need this, dialogue could be encouraged between families, fostering community. Also, volunteers from youth ministry or grandparents whose grandchildren live far away can be encouraging to these families. Those teens can be proof to parents that these times do end and the child who couldn’t sit through mass can one day be a guiding light for others.

4. Parents who put a child in the nursery should not be made to feel guilty.

Not every kid can sit through mass. Not every child should be in mass all the time. Yes, for some of us, having a child in mass becomes a near occasion of sin. I have an eight-year-old who cannot make it through mass. She sits with her father in the vestibule and they can see and hear but she also has her freedom to move and occasionally make a little joyful noise unto the Lord. While many of us love seeing families and children in mass, we should be understanding of families that can’t all go to mass together or who need to have a member in the vestibule/cry room/nursery and be sensitive to that need. On the flip side…

5. Parents who bring toddlers to mass should not be made to feel guilty. Or be asked to leave.

For most children, I would say that the only way to learn to behave in mass, is to be in mass. And for my boys, it has largely worked that way. Yes the screaming toddler or crying baby is distracting, to say the least. However, I would that child is our future. Literally. He is not just carrying his families genes forward, he’s carrying the Church that way. Shutting him out for being who he is at that point in his life, does not help. When I say that a nursery should not be considered mandatory, that means for all children. Some parents who have reasonably well behaved children may choose to put them in the nursery and some parents with less than spectacularly behaved children may choose to bring them into mass. When the disciples shooed away the “annoying children” did Jesus applaud their work. No, the Gospels record that this way:

but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14

Notice Jesus didn’t specify, “the well-behaved pious children.” If my boys had been in that crowd, one of them probably would have hit the other for something. Yes, in front of Jesus and all. And let us not forget is the the holy sacrifice of the mass we are taking part of. Sometimes sacrifice means we don’t get to hear every word of Father’s homily.

Mass can be difficult with young children. Is it a terrible thing for us to offer something that might make it easier for some families? No, in fact, it could be quite a blessing. To take it one step further, a parish may see a need for families like mine with a child with a disability to offer respite service for the family during mass. We should see these as acts of charity, however, and not make them rock-solid rules nor criticize those they were intended for for not using them or using them too often.