“Should our toddler sit with us in church even though she’s disruptive?”

I know we’ve discussed this on PrayTell more than once, but this week there’s a featured discussion forum on about toddlers in church. The discussion itself dates back to 2004, but is still receiving comments (you can sort by most recently posted).

I found it interesting to see the interactions between the different liturgical theologies (“what do we come to church to do”) and the answers to the practical question. Clearly, one’s understanding of the purpose of worship is foundational for the answer of the question, even though other issues, like parenting style, understanding of how children develop faith, and sensitivity to approval/disapproval to the local community play a role as well.

How much do forums like this one contribute to contemporary Christians’ understanding of liturgy, its purpose, and their role in it?


  1. These forums are useful – how much they contribute I suppose is kind of variable, since indeed different faiths and communities have different theologies. It’s a very worthwhile discussion on a theoretical level, at least.

    The best answer I’ve ever seen to the practical question is also variable – if the child is being only mildly disruptive, deal with it in place. Small children fidget, and life, even at church, isn’t perfect. If s/he is throwing a full-throated, high-volume tantrum, take ’em outside until they’re done [knowing that no adult is likely to talk them out of it, but eventually they wear out]. In between, try to calm them, then leave if they don’t settle in a couple of minutes. A child who’s upset isn’t learning much about worship or God, and often a few minutes can deal with the problem or get it out of the youngling’s system and leave them better able to sort-of concentrate.

    There are special graces for those who will take small children to church, for sure.

  2. I’m continually amazed that people expect young children to act well in church all in one gulp. Children need quiet prayer time with parents at home, visits to church on off hours to get used to the place, and gradually ramp things up until they can worship for the usual hour or so. But after 167 hours of television, active play, vocal expression, pets, bright colors, and snacks on demand, why would we expect a person to utilize the 168th hour any differently?

    That said, kids of all ages belong in church, as much as possible.

    1. Usually the reasoning goes that they’re trying to teach them to act properly in church. Okay, fine, but small children will act how they’re going to act, and the adult’s ability to influence [those who think they’re in control are deeply delusional] this is somewhat limited. You’re right, introduction and practice away from worship time helps a lot. Still, two will be two, rules be danged.

      Actually, an unknown person can often be of help during a fit, by breaking the child’s concentration on the tantrum, but doing this in church isn’t generally feasible. In a grocery store line, easy as pie, but not so during Mass.

  3. It’s very hard to educate children to be composed in church if it’s not something they are educated to be composed outside church. Certainly, children in church today often exhibit behavior that would have caused them to have been frozen (temporarily) into icicles by adult glares only 40 years ago, when it was more socially accepted that adults in general could enforce social norms over children in general. That norm having ebbed considerably (and not entirely for ill, but not entirely for good, either, if you think it takes a village to raise a child….), it’s hard to replace it via improvisation.

  4. While I’m sure there are special graces for those who bring their children to church, I hope the font is similarly running for those – of us – who often have to endure what goes on in church… as well as what doesn’t.
    From a presider’s perspective, I love the sounds of children who are being children: laughing, crying, talking are wonderful to hear. Children – old enough to be corrected – who sit and bang the pew, who drive their various church vehicles up and down the bench, are an entirely different matter. I’m not even going to mention the frequency of visits to the bathroom! Of course, the real matter is the parent who sits and allows it to happen, who does nothing more than open another juice box or bag of cereal to quiet the child and settle the behavior. The sad truth is that the “church behavior” of some children (and adults, for that matter) is the same as their “out of church” behavior. There is little age-appropriate awareness or appreciation of the sacredness of time and space. Consistency can be a good thing, but not in all cases. While we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) tolerate adults (both young and older) texting and telephoning in church, why is other inappropriate behavior and response more acceptable? What is the magical age at which children act appropriately… or parents act like parents? I think it is most laudable that families want to worship as a family. I’m not convinced that the Jones family can/should compromise the prayer of the Smith family. Having just come in from an especially raucous evening liturgy (with some of the prime “offenders” in the first row!), and my spleen having been vented, I’m feeling much better.
    I’m wondering, though, if I should be finding such delight and relief in saying, “The Mass is ended. Let us go… IN PEACE.”

    1. Fr. Bede,

      I will not in any way dispute your comments about children old enough to be corrected [who should not have ‘church vehicles in the first place, anyway!]. No excuses for irresponsible parents.

      Bathroom visits I have to give a pass on; when a small child says it’s time to go potty, the rule is to believe them and take off for the bathroom. Now. [Consider the consequences of not doing so, if you disagree. Or ask the ushers who had to clean up a problem during Mass at my parish this morning. . .] This holds true at least until school age, and probably through first or second grade.

      I would certainly hope that the graces also accumulate for those who patiently endure these things. My original remark did assume, though I did not state, that the parents were making a good effort to reduce or contain the disturbance. Lazy folks have a much reduced claim on the grace.

      Can’t answer your last, I’m afraid.

  5. This is indeed always a question with a complex diversity of answers and opinions and options – and which will become even more relevant for me now that I’m expecting our first child!

    I have always been pretty relaxed about kids (or mentally challenged adults, of which we have three or four in my parish) sounding off in church. But, my husband is not so sanguine about it. My distraction threshold is apparently much higher than his, and I can manage to worship comfortably and easily even in the midst of mild chaos and some noisemakers – him, not so much. We had a very long and serious conversation about it after one particular Mass where he had the misfortune to sit in front of a mentally handicapped adult who sounds off a LOT during Mass. My husband was extremely upset and distraught about it, and was completely unable to worship. (I should mention that our church doesn’t have a cry room, and that not having one was a conversation piece during our renovation meetings 5 years ago – the decision was finally that God said “let the children come to me” – he didn’t say “let the QUIET children come to me”).

    So, while I am still happy to have some distractions from children or adults, rather than to segregate them out, I am also be sympathetic to my husband’s (and others’) very real frustration about it. I do think that, ultimately, it is the maturity of the parents that determines how well their children behave in church (and determines just how much of a distraction they become), and educating parents to this fact is not always easy.

  6. One of my favorite things in church is to hear a little one exclaim “yay!” or clap his hands when we finish singing a song. One of my least favorite things is to hear a little one cry and cry and cry and the parent just lets them wail right there in the pew. Kids make noise: If it is brief, and intermittent, let it go. If it is prolonged, please take the child out of the sanctuary until he is calm.

  7. I always feel bad for the little tykes. I don’t think they have the capacity, based on my preparatory reading about children’s brains, to learn much of anything from liturgy as toddlers. There are lots of things they can learn at home about prayer, having quiet time, etc., but the liturgy requires an actual human brain before any real ‘learning’ can take place. Very young children don’t have human brains yet; they have just the reptilian and mammalian core, and are in the process of literally ‘growing’ a human neocortex. Why put them through the misery, and distract the rest of us from praying, meditating, listening, singing? Of course, I thihnk it is a very good idea to bring them to church at times other than liturgy, so that they can wander and explore, ask questions, and begin to absorb the beauty of our sacred spaces. And yes, so that parents can teach them to speak quietly in church, so that they will be ready when the day comes for them to join the assembly.

  8. Having small children in worship is a challenge I don’t always care to face on a Sunday morning (we have three). I agree with many comments already expressed, especially a) that children belong in worship unless they are very unruly and b) a large part of the worship experience for children is enhanced when it is practiced at home. This was the genius of Luther’s catechetical move: get the family to pray together, recite the Creed, read Scripture. This was one of the parent’s duties. He literally moved the liturgy of the hours from the monastery to the home.
    But one thing has not yet been mentioned. What about the accessibility of our liturgy? I teach a course “Children in Worship.” I don’t like the title because, as I discovered teaching it, it’s not what we can do in worship for children but much more how do we make worship more intergenerational and multi-sensory! Adults get as bored as kids, they just now better (usually!) how to behave. I work with the students to find ways of being creative with the order of the liturgy that will include more art, different engaging music, varying rituals, getting bodies moving, etc. We just assume that the children need to “fit in” but we don’t think as presiders and teachers what we need to do in the planning of worship to help them “fit in.”

  9. I serve in a Russian Orthodox Church in LA (as deacon). My wife watches our 22-month old, who rotates from bored, interested, engaged. Keeping her away from the candalabria is one challenge, along with restraining her when I process to the ambon with the Gospel book or swing the thurible throughout the temple.

    Despite the challenges, it is always a joy for us (in the byzantine Rite) to bring her to the chalice for communion. She too is able to fully participate in this rite. My wife is convinced that removing her from church will establish leaving the liturgy at a certain point as the norm. I know communion for infants and toddlers is a challenge for my brothers and sisters in the Roman rite, but I hope the possibility of offering communion to little ones might enter the Roman discussion at some point. Our little one always looks forward to it.

    Orthodox culture is often impatient with restless children, so it is up to teachers and pastors to set the tone. When asked, I always quote Alexander Schmemann, who referred to children’s presence in the church as desired and needed despite their restlessness. He called their contribution “holy noise.” And indeed, it is not unusual for a child to pray for the assembly by publicly proclaiming “Amen,” when the choir or leader is slow to respond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.