Why Taking My Small Children to Church Is Worth the (Tremendous) Effort

My kids are ages three and under, but I talk to them about God. I tell them the Bible stories, teach them about showing love to others, even sprung for a teething rosary. And every Sunday, we have “the church talk” on our way there, reiterating why people go to church and why it’s important to be as calm and quiet as possible: though today they are too little to fully grasp what we do there, it’s a place full of people we don’t want to disturb as they try to listen and pray.

And despite these measures, the torrent of infantile wailing and gnashing of teeth that so often awaits me in that Sunday service is almost enough to trigger an existential crisis.

I grew up attending weekly Catholic Mass and then studied religion in college. The church has always been a place I could go to find peace, learn, and connect with something bigger than myself. Since my kids started joining me three years ago, despite having still attended Mass almost every Sunday, I may have heard four minutes of sermon, total. So it made me wonder — as both a woman of faith and a mother of young children who could pass for your average exorcism candidates some Sundays — why bother taking them at all?

Here’s a general breakdown of our family’s church experience:

  • Preparation. Getting there on time requires careful forethought (and, regretfully, sometimes our not church voices). We need to pack snacks to occupy them for at least the length of the homily — they can’t be gooey, smelly, or easily scattered. We need toys that are quiet and small but engaging, easy to spot when “accidentally” dropped under the kneelers, and not so hard as to cause physical damage when thrown directly at the people in front of us. It’s a lot like preparing for any other outing, but with a greater emphasis on showering first and bonus points for religiously themed pop-up books.
  • Being distracting. Sometimes, my kids distract the sea of faces behind us in an endearing way, with adorable expressions or by playfully cooing. (Some people become uncomfortable by this — I do catch your vibe, teen girl, but it’s keeping my baby quiet to stare unflinchingly at you so I’m not going to stop it.) Most of the time, however, the kids are unsuccessfully doing tricks on the kneelers and falling, trying to eat the “raisin” they found on the floor, or screaming because the ACOUSTICS ARE PHENOMENAL They send me chasing them down the aisle. They lift their feet to my chest while I’m holding them and push off like determined little competitive swimmers. And whether it’s due to a crying baby, a potty emergency, or just an unstoppable urge to run to the back and slap the decorative stonework, we seem to be out of our seats as often as in them. Their behavior is nothing unusual for kids their age, but it’s amplified by the ceremonial environment — and everyone seems to notice. Despite my best efforts to contain their distracting presence, I fear those sitting around us leave contemplating little but the Church’s stance on birth control. I generally leave only sweatier, and brimming with thoughts that should probably land me in confession.
  • Is it a holiday? Better double dip into the holy water. It’s Christmas Eve, the candles cast a solemn and mystic glow over the impeccably decorated church. The house is packed — not even standing room left — and your kid is SO FREAKING EXCITED/TERRIFIED ABOUT SANTA COMING TONIGHT THAT HE IS LITERALLY SHAKING. Everyone is hopped up on red and green M&Ms and itchy from their overpriced, matching ensembles. The family in front of you is playing with some toy that your kids are actually hanging over the pew to gawk at, squealing how Santa will bring that to your house tonight. (How’d you forget that one, MOM?) Your newborn is crying hysterically because her nap got cut short to make it to this service, but you are claustrophobically trapped where you stand because of the crowds. Everyone you went to high school with is back in town, watching this unholy breakdown and silently thanking God that they are in a stage of life where they can still go drinking tonight. Please, God, give us one more silent night, eh?

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I want my kids to experience firsthand a congregation full of people gathered to worship together, to feel like a part of this vast family. After all, that’s how my siblings, husband and I were all raised. As very young children, we learned to sit still and respect what was going on around us, except for the time my husband sat under the pew, ranting, “I AM THE DEVIL!” And except for the time the man in front of us kept glaring over his shoulder because my brother was crouching under the pew and tickling his feet as he kneeled. And except for the time my sister was hauled, kicking and screaming, down the communion line: “I WANT. THE BODY. OF CHRIIIIIIST!” (Those wafers did look delicious in the pre-First-Communion age, no?)

There is almost no reason for these to exist, except as pretend Eucharist for baby Catholics.

So maybe there’s a learning curve to all this quiet reverence. Most of us got there eventually. And until my kids do, you will find me whispering to them to look around for angels, to admire the beauty in the biblical art surrounding them, and to remind them that this is God’s house so please stop climbing on the furniture. We strive to disrupt as few people as possible, and I don’t intend to let them bring snacks and toys forever. But sometimes, when my daughter is dancing to the music in the back of the church, or when my son is singing “Hallelujah” with his adorable toddler dialect muddled by graham crackers, I can’t help but feel the love we all came there for.

Today, their favorite part of church is dousing themselves in the well of holy water and pondering sacred mysteries like, “Does God sell animals?” But I hope that one day my children will feel at home within these church walls because it was a place we took them over and over, passing our faith to them and reminding them how special it is — and that one day their own children will give them a dose of holy payback. Like that page of the hymnal one of them just ate, this too shall pass.

Pizza be with you all.

DISCLAIMER: This post is intended only to reflect a recurring struggle I find myself dealing with as a mother. I wholly recognize that there are so many other ways to nourish the hearts and souls of our children, most of which are probably even more fulfilling and less peppered with the steely gaze of the few unyielding elderly. I have full respect for parents who choose not to take their kids to organized religious institutions, and also for those who leave their kids at home or make use of a “cry room” or nursery. I just assume you’re all going to hell. JUST KIDDING LOL.

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9 thoughts on “Why Taking My Small Children to Church Is Worth the (Tremendous) Effort

  1. So I’m a recovering catholic who grew up as part of the church, as my dad did what is now called “worship band”. Much more folk-y in the 80’s though. Anyway, hubby is Lutheran and I “converted”, we found an amazing church that meets in a movie theater and is focused on youngish families. Fast forward 8 years and I’m the kids ministry director (rather than the public school teacher I’d always thought I’d be). We have “Sunday school” but we call it kids church. We do an entire service in the next theater. Why? Because before I found our amazing church, I used my kids as an opportunity to check out. I wasn’t “getting it” and I wasn’t connecting. Being without your kids in church, but having them experience a relationship with Christ at their own level is amazing. And when I can actually get into church (I’m there, just working) I can breathe easy and recharge for a minute. Plus, if any kid is in “big church”, the harried patents only get sympathetic glances or offers to hold the baby/ toddler/ six year old who is not having it this morning. I hope you love your church! If I were still catholic , I’d be dragging them to mass too. But my kids get it each week! (I’m always amazed at that!) I’d encourage you to try another church, just to see the “other side” 🙂

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  2. A few things:
    1. I just saw this and realized I forgot to respond, so apologies for being 3 months late on this!
    2. I am SO familiar with the folk mass! Our family friend used to play the triangle in ours — I’M A FAN 🙂
    3. I love that idea, and as my kids get older, I will definitely be looking for more Sunday School-type experiences to engage them and allow them to develop their own faith. But I do love having that time together as a family in church. I’d hate to miss out on that as they grow and get better at sitting with us! And our church’s stance on children’s presence is actually pretty positive (we don’t even have a “cry room” option); they believe the sounds of children are a sign that the church is alive and has a future. (We were SUPER ALIVE today, in case you were wondering 🙂 ) But you’re right — I should definitely try different churches. My husband was raised Lutheran, too, so maybe that should be on our list as well!
    Thanks for your comments!

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  3. Pingback: Why Taking My Small Children to Church Is Worth the (Tremendous) Effort - BLUNTmoms

  4. Wow Catherine! This was so awesome and for the first time in my life I COL! (chuckled out loud) and was rewarded with sideways glances from my family members!

    I have given up anger for lent this year. The next time I struggle, I will offer up my prayer for you and your family. I am encouraged by your spirit and I am inspired by your writing. Thank you for displaying your honesty in a way that is accessible and hilarious!

    And Sauces With You!

    *see what I did there? ^^^ 🙂

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  5. As a Hindu, I find it a bit tough to navigate the terror of congregated worship. Our temple is very welcoming to littles but it is still nerve wracking when my son yells “It’s TOO loud!” when they start ringing the bell. However I cleverly devised a way to visit the temple by going during the Aarti only “singing part” and worshiping at home with a small mandala “altar”. Maybe sneaking into church during communion and reading passages from the bible at home might work until they are older 🙂

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    • Haha and risk depriving them of the holy water splashdown? I wouldn’t dare 😉 We do lots of bible study and praying and singing at home too, and despite the hassle, it warms my heart to know they feel at home there. I just have to send out a special prayer that the parishioners surrounding us come with some extra patience also 🙂

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  6. OH gosh this was such a great read!! Although we don’t go to mass, I can clearly see me and my family in all of the scenes at church and I honestly thank GOD we had a place for our kids to go every Sunday! LOL Can I confess something? I couldn’t wait to go to church for that reason! It’s a BREAK! Oh, and I get to worship and all that too, ahem… of course! I absolutely love that you are nourishing their budding faith with so many wonderful things- I’m sure they will come to know God’s peace much like you did. I pray my kids will too… ❤

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