Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why do I...

...take my children with me to Mass? Why don't I leave them in the church nursery? After all, if I cannot focus totally on what is being said, read, and sung, aren't I missing the whole point of being there anyway? If I can't concentrate totally, why do I go at all?

I have been posting a bunch lately, but there will probably be a lull over the next four days while I am in Atlanta visiting my family while hubby takes a business trip...

Anyway, back to the initial question... which has many answers. There are lots of reasons why I bring my children to Mass with me from the time they are tiny babies, and lots of reasons why I do not leave them in the nursery. I am going to begin with why I don't leave them in the nursery because that relates more to the attachment parenting perspective.

First, I would be interested to hear - in case people from different regions want to chime in on this - how common are church nurseries in your area? I have been told that among Catholics, it is a southern thing and that many Catholic churches in the North do not have nurseries. I am not sure if this regional difference is the same with most Protestant denominations...

One of the key pieces of parenting, to me, is the attachment process with my babies. In order to best facilitate this, many mother who practice AP keep their babies with them at all times. So, leaving the baby in the nursery - even if only for an hour - is a disruption to the concept of mother-baby togetherness. A nursing baby of course needs access to the breast frequently, and so unless the mother is also in the nursery, then the baby cannot nurse on-demand (another thing most AP mothers do is nurse on-demand rather than on a set schedule). So for the most basic reason, as an AP parent I don't leave my children in the nursery because I believe in keeping them with me - and I am in the church!

Other reasons for avoiding the nursery are numerous and probably some knit-picky... and this is in no way meant to bash church nurseries. I am sure many have competent, loving caregivers and are clean, safe environments. Not having used the one at my own church, I have no idea. But I have worked in day care enough though to have some concerns regarding the environment of child care facilities. So many of these reasons also go along with things that make me leery of any child care facilities for babies and toddlers!
So, some other reasons:
* Is it really clean in the church nursery? How often do they sweep, vacuum, sanitize tables and changing tables, clean the toys that other babies put into their mouths?
* Especially during cold and flu season, do I want to expose my children to the germs there? Again, if the cleaning is not adequate and hand washing is not done enough, then illnesses are likely to spread. Some parents don't keep their kids home if they are sick, and many church nurseries don't have (or don't enforce) a policy about children with fevers, snotty noses, coughs, etc. A friend recently shared her concerns that some of the kids in the nursery may go to day care during the week, increasing the amount of germs they are exposed to and then bring into the nursery environment.
* Do I know the caregivers? Many people do, I am sure. My concerns about caregivers are how attentive they would be if my baby was crying and how they would handle discipline. I have seen caregivers put 20 month old children in time-out for crying because they missed their mothers! To me, that is not acceptable, nor is yelling at one and two year olds from across the room rather than going and physically helping them carry out your requests.
* What about food? Some church nurseries will provide a snack - is it something I want my child to eat each week? For a toddler who may not eat much anyway, I would want to make every calorie count, and if they are eating sugary snacks, white flour, HFCS, artificial colors, etc., then they would be even less likely to eat something more nutritious at lunchtime. Also, what about children with allergies? Do they take precautions so that those children are not exposed to allergens? Do the caregivers share the children's food around with other kids? I have seen that happen - the food brought by one child is given to another because the first child wasn't eating it. Then mom and dad think kid ate the food when in reality, some other kid (whose parent may not have wanted them to eat the colored Goldfish crackers!) ate it.
* What are their beliefs regarding babies? Will they leave them in the bouncy seat, the exersaucer, the swing as much as possible and only pick them up to feed or change them? Do they feel that babies should be content to be sitting alone the whole time and yell out, "Oh, you're okay!" to a crying 9 month old?
* Babies and toddlers are not "social" in that they need to interact with other kids their age. Developmentally, this is just not true. A 20 month old does not have to be around other one and two year olds to "have friends" and learn how to "get along with others." This will come with maturity. Much better is for children to be around loving adults and mixed ages of children. The older ones pave the way for the younger ones, helping to teach them new things and how the routines of life go by their example.

So maybe I am a bit paranoid here, but I have seen lots of things in daycare settings, mother's morning outs, and church nurseries that I wouldn't want happening to or around my baby or young toddler. If a teacher hands out a few potato chips to my three year old, it's not such a big deal, but if they are feeding them to my 14 month old while she is walking around the room... a much bigger problem in my opinion.

So, on to the most important thing: why do I take my children to Mass? It is not just so I can avoid leaving them in the nursery!

I believe in going to church as a family. Mass is a weekly event - maybe one day we'll work in some daily Masses as well ;) - and for Catholics, this is obligatory. We don't skip Mass unless there is a serious reason such as illness. We attend Mass when we travel, even if it is inconvenient. Therefore, it is not an option to just not go to Mass. So even if I end up in the vestibule (fancy word for an entrance or lobby-type area, in case anyone is unfamiliar with the term) because my toddler is fussy or squirmy or loud, then I still am obligated to go. For Catholics, the meaning of Mass is the Eucharist. We go because we are supposed to go and worship Jesus and receive Him in Holy Communion. It does not matter if I miss the readings or cannot sing the hymns... it is not about me, and it is certainly not about how Mass makes me feel or what I get out of it. It is about worshipping Jesus, not about meeting my needs to feel spiritually fulfilled. Of course, it is nice to feel spiritually fulfilled, and all people go through times where they feel less fulfilled than other times in their lives. Perhaps being occupied with small children is one of those times... and perhaps it can become more spiritually fulfilling if embraced with an attitude of, "I am working to raise souls for Christ, and I am trying to be compassionate to my children as He would be to them. he would want us to teach them about Him, to bring them to Him, even if they cannot behave in a quiet, "church-like" manner." Offering up your sacrifices of not being able to follow the whole homily )or missing part of the Mass due to a temper tantrum or a fussy baby, or whatever) is a way of worshipping God. We turn our hardships over to Him and unite our suffering with His, remembering that He suffered far more than we are due to not being able to hear the Gospel reading! We can always go back at a quieter moment (or do this ahead!) and read the Mass readings ourselves if we feel we need more spiritual nourishment and understanding.

So, Mass is a family event for us. We feel that as parents, we are the primary educators of our children as God has assigned us to be, and we take that role seriously with regard to religious instruction from infancy! And since doing is one of the best ways of learning, we do Mass with our children. They learn that it is so important for us to be there - and that it is important to us that they are there! Some churches have a "children's liturgy," which I have somewhat mixed feelings on (okay, only slight mixed feelings - I am mostly not in favor of it!). I do think it is good that they are trying to provide religious instruction on a level that perhaps is better understood by the children, but again, they leave their parents to do so (unless parents come with them, thus leaving Mass for the readings and homily), and I like that the children return for the most important part of the Mass. However, often the children's liturgy is done in contradiction to the GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) , which states that an ordained priest or deacon be the only one who presents the Gospel during the Liturgy of the Mass. There are often not enough of them to go around, and the instruction of the children's liturgy often falls on a lay volunteer. Also, I am sure that some offer a reverent atmosphere and present good information for the children, but I am also sure that some are merely controlled chaos. I also don't care for the idea of taking the children out of the Mass - it sends an unintentional message that Mass is only for older children and adults, and that little kids need something "fun" and "special" to make Mass worth their while (I have posted about the child-centered stuff before! ;).

By keeping the children in Mass with us from infancy on, they grow up learning the appropriate ways to behave in Mass. I know that some people keep their children in church even if they are wailing nonstop, and all the parents do is ignore or make empty threats about "if you don't stop, we're going to x..." and then not following through on that. I am sure we have all seen this, and so I want to state that I am not condoning keeping the children within the church when they are interfering with other parishioners' worship. I think little baby noises are fine, hearing a child's voice here and there, or things like loud and a bit too late "Amens" (my four year old) or the repeating of a response a few times (my 20 month old's "Shall be healed! Shall be healed!"). But if the talking goes on and on, the child is just too loud and doesn't understand the concept of whispering or cannot apply it very well (we lucked out so bad on that one with Caroline! Cecilia doesn't get whispering yet...), or if there is crying or otherwise disgruntled baby/toddler noise, then they need to be taken out of the church. I am glad that our church now has closed-circuit TVs in the vestibule. Most churches at least have the sound piped into the vestibule via speakers, which hopefully encourages people to be reverent in the vestibule as well (although it can be really tough if you have to work against a rowdy crew in the vestibule!). Going to the vestibule because of fussing or yelling or whatever is, to me, just a natural reaction, not a punishment. If my four year old was hitting the people in front of us with the songbooks, then I guess it'd be a punishment... but I am talking about taking a crying child out. Mass can be a long experience for a toddler or young preschooler! They might just need the change of scenery. But going into the vestibule is not a "reward" for us, either. Cecilia does not get down to run around and play when we go there. It is hard if other kids are running back and forth across the room when you get to the vestibule - fortunately this rarely happens anymore, at least not at the Mass we attend. She must stay in my arms or on my lap - so in the sling is a good place for her. Nursing is also something we might do in the vestibule if she's upset, although we'll nurse in Mass as well if she is not making a loud disruption... nothing quieter than a nursing toddler in Mass (except for maybe a sleeping one!) - and not only is she being still and relatively quiet, which is appropriate Mass behavior, but I get to stay in the church and hear some of the readings too! Nursing in Mass is win-win, in my opinion.

So, what can be done so that the entire Mass is not spent taking children in and out? This in itself can be disruptive to some parishioners, although if done a few times at appropriate times in the Mass, I think it can be done respectfully. Some of the things I have done in Mass to try to keep the toddlers content (it is usually not the babies, who are content to sleep in the sling or nurse or just be held):
* Point out important parts of the Mass, important people. "Here comes the cross down the aisle! the priest is following behind. There he goes up to the altar." Name the priest and deacon and point them out. This is all done in whispers and subtle gestures, of course.
* Point out the sacramentals within the church... the prayer candles, the tabernacle and red candle ("That means Jesus is here with us!"), the stained-glass windows, the statues of saints, the crucifix... some churches have these along the sides and in the back, where you can walk a bit with the restless child in your arms and look at these things yet not disturb anyone else. I know this is not an option in some other Christian denominations that may not have many candles or statues, etc... I love that we have these "teaching tools" available for our children (and ourselves!) to learn through our senses of sight and touch and smell!
* Sing the hymns and say the responses. These happen throughout the Mass, so they offer variety along with the sit, stand, kneel variety... there are different things going on frequently during the Mass!
* Try to sit close to the front (but on the aisle in case of need for quick escape!). When they can see the altar more clearly, there is more to keep them interested. This might not work well until the child is two or three years old, though... some toddlers might not care at all. Caroline got to the point where she knew Father Jim would genuflect behind the altar, and she would say, "Peekaboo!" quietly when he stood back up and was visible again.
* Try not to bring in many toys, food, and other items intended to distract. The reasons we don't do this are because we don't want to set the expectation that we bring toys in Mass - once they are older, the toys will have to be taken away! I also don't want the toys to become scattered around and annoying to people nearby. That said, sometimes rummaging through Mom's purse for a moment can be a relief to her if she has a busy toddler. A plastic rosary, a couple holy cards, or a small children's Bible can be used as well. Cecilia liked to pick up a "Pray for Vocations" card with the Pope on it from the vestibule. I have seen parents handle toys in church very well and not so well... bringing just a few quiet items, maybe books or a few pencils and paper... while we really don't bring anything "extra" to Mass, I don't think it is a bad thing unless parents overdo it. Many parents are very mindful when their children's items are about to cause a distraction. Some are not - and you end up with markers being used on the church furniture and strewn across the vestibule floor where people need to walk. My concern is that if more and more/bigger and better toys are needed each week to keep a child satified, then what will that turn into? I have seen older kids (five, seven, ten) playing Gameboys (or whatever handheld video game systems are called nowadays!) in Mass - some with headphones on, some with the volume turned up where people around them can hear it! I even saw a kid who was playing his video game during the consecration (for non-Catholics, this is the point in the Mass where the priest is holding up the bread and wine which are becoming the Body and Blood of Christ - the most important and reverent part of the Mass!) and he apparently was having trouble getting past a certain point in the game - so he handed the video game to his mom, who willingly obliged and got him past the difficult spot right there while the priest was doing the consecration! Even if our own children are being disruptive during Mass, we can teach them by example and model the appropriate way to behave in church - and not playing video games, or even allowing them in the church building, can be a way to model this! I like to remember that even if my children are behaving inappropriately, my own reaction is more important than what other people think about them being obnoxious or about me "not disciplining them" right or not putting them in the nursery in the first place... what is important is that I show my child how to behave, that I remove him if he is getting to actually be disruptive - which communicates to him that we don't stay in church if we are loud, rowdy, whatever - and that I give him ample opportunities to be in church so he will gradually learn how to behave there.

For us, we always start Mass inside the actual church and move out to the vestibule if needed. Caroline can remain in Mass the whole time, rarely needing to be taken out at this point. So one of us (almost always Daddy) stays with her (while I take the toddler out). I can see that if we had two or three younger ones that it may be more difficult - if both parents are occupied with squirmy/fussy babies and/or toddlers, then it may be a better option to start in the vestibule or in the back of the church right near an exit until the youngest ones are a bit older, and then they can gradually try to sit in the church... baby steps. Even if you have to be in the vestibule the entire time, the point is that you are going and your children know that Mass on Sundays is something that the family does. You are not staying home because the children cannot handle it - you are going and working on it and making the best of it, all while teaching them through example that Mass is important!

I know there is more I could say on this (but it is late!)... Mass is very important to Catholics, and including the children helps them to learn that it is a way of life for us. My children end up learning the responses and prayers and many hymns just be being there at church. They learn the Stations of the Cross and terminology like Pascal candle, bapismal font, and tabernacle. They learn to genuflect and to make the Sign of the Cross. They learn about what it means to be Catholic.


Maureen said...

My Mom and Dad made the family sit in the front row at Mass so that if we misbehaved everyone would see...and that always scared us straight!!

Kris said...

with 5 kids, we've gone both routes. With our oldest ones, we used the nursery, because at our church it was parent run and we knew everyone who was in there, because we all swapped Sundays. However, that being said, I always felt weird about it. With our younger ones, we had one child who absolutely refused to go in there (talk about "child-led"!!), so we kept him in Mass with us. It was, suprisingly (at the time!) not more difficult to have him there, especially as he got older. Interestingly enough, our church nursery ended up ceasing, as we had less and less families using it. Sounds like a trend to me, or families staying together in Mass! I had a friend who actually talked to a priest about this very issue, because she had 3 small children with her in Mass and felt like she wasn't able to pay attention at all and was feeling very guilty and wanted some absolution. The priest's respons was beautiful, and I've always kept it close to my heart since she told me about it. The priest told her that Gof gave her those children as her vocation, and she was faithfully living that vocation by bringing her children to God in the Mass. God knew the intentions of her heart, and there was no absolution needed. She was doing what God asked of her, and that's all we can do as mothers, and God is fully aware of that. Here's a great article in Inside Catholic, written by my friend Kate, that addresses this very topic: http://insidecatholic.com/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6171&Itemid=48

Erin said...

I actually read that very article by Kate after you first told me about her blog! I think it was the first thing I read... and it was either that article or another one where some commenters got really angry about breastfeeding in church...

Kris said...

Yes, there was another one about breastfeeding in Mass. She got some really ugly responses to that one!! She also had another post where she wrote an "open" letter to a gentleman at our church who routinely glares at her if any of her kids makes a peep during daily Mass. The beautiful thing was that we have a newsletter at our church, in addition to the bulletin, and they published a couple of her articles about this topic in there. So it got a lot of discussion!! It's a hot topic. As one of my friends said today (we were discussing your post): our faith tells us we're supposed to be totally open to children, yet we're not supposed to bring them to Mass? We were also talking about families where husbands are deployed (mine is leaving AGAIN in January) for the military - are the Moms supposed to hire a babysitter so they can get to Mass each week, so as not to disturb people with their children? This is a real hot button issue!!

Lisa said...

When my children got to an age where we thought it would disrupt their nap or they would be too disruptive in Mass, dh and I would alternate-- he would stay home and I would go and then vice versa. That being said, when they reached preschool age, we have all attended Church together as a family. It is wonderful to share who and what we are with our kids. Jesus was a baby, too. I'm sure God understands. :-) You are there every week where you should be. It will get better.