“Your screaming kids are distracting me,” a reflection on children’s witness

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, a regular reader, shared this link on Facebook today. I have been told several times that I shouldn’t bother coming to church until my kids are older, and I have been asked to leave even when my kids were quiet and still. Every time, showing up for that next liturgical celebration seems a little bit harder. Reading something like this helps.

On the good days, when no one seems to be looking at me, or when someone smiles at my son giving the peace, going to mass with my children can be this kind of spiritual awakening: an awareness that I do not exist only for myself, not only for my family, but for my church and for God, who love my children much more than I can manage. On the bad days, my kids are at least a useful reminder that I’m not as good at praying as I like to think I am.

“Your screaming kids are distracting me,” by Meg Hunter-Kilmer.


  1. As a pastor, I welcome the presence of children — those who sit quietly, and those who do not. But I don’t merely welcome them quietly in the silence of my heart. I verbally welcome them, in various different ways, which they notice and appreciate.

    Once, when I was beginning my ministry in a new parish, I asked various people and groups about tensions in the parish. “Every parish has them, ranging from minor irritations in some places to major fights in others. What’s causing tension here?” When I asked this of the worship committee before my first Sunday, they told me it was this issue of noisy kids.

    Sunday came, and there were no noisy kids. Oh, there were kids, but they weren’t noisy. It’s July, I said to myself. Maybe they are at camp or on vacation. But July came and went, and so did August, and no noisy kids. Finally, at another worship committee meeting, I asked them about this. “Where are the noisy kids?”

    Their reply caught me off guard. “Oh, the kids are there, but they aren’t being noisy any more.”

    “Why’s that?” I replied.

    “Probably because you act like they belong there,” one of them told me. “In your first sermon here, you said that Jesus spoke in parables and stories, using the stuff of ordinary life, and then you stepped out of the pulpit and onto the steps of the chancel to preach. That got the attention of the kids. ‘What’s he doing?’ they wondered. The next week, you came out of the pulpit again, and the story you told in your sermon featured a child as the one who brought good news to hard-hearted adults. The next week, when the acolyte knocked over his taper and it clattered on the stone floor, you didn’t call down fire and brimstone like the former pastor once did, but simply had him pick it up. The next week, you had a reference to Green Eggs and Ham, which they noticed and held on to.”

    Another member summed it up: “You include them, and they return the favor.”

      1. Metro KC — but be warned: I’m a Lutheran pastor, not a Roman Catholic priest.

      2. I guessed that from “former pastor.” Nothing wrong with ecumenical pilgrimage!

  2. It’s sad to me when a parent (usually a mother) feels out of place in Church because a toddler is fussing. If we don’t know each other well enough for us older mothers to be able to give younger mothers a hug to let them know we’ve been there to, how can we love one another?

    My children all live elsewhere, and there aren’t any grandchildren as yet in any case. Nothing is sweeter for me than the sight of little kids. Their chatter reminds me of birds.

  3. My pastor once took a visiting priest to task because the visiting priest stopped mass and glared at a family with a crying baby until the family left the building. My pastor (a 63 year-young priest) told the visitor (a 30 year-OLD, newly ordained priest) that we are a FAMILY PARISH, which means there are families attending mass. Some of those families have young children, and some of those young children make noise at mass! My pastor told the visitor to get over himself. We have never invited that priest back.

  4. We never thought of ourselves as parish-shoppers, but the unwelcoming spirit toward children (ours and others) at our former parish changed our minds. It was an astonishing environment–parishioners so dedicated to the pro-life cause as to stand out in the elements forming human chains in January, yet so willing to say things that ranged from thoughtless to cruel simply because children had come into the Sanctuary and acted like children.

    Once, on a 36-degree winter morning, my infant daughter started crying during the conclusion of the first reading. The cantor stepped up to begin the Psalm and gazed down on me with a look that said, ‘We’ll begin as soon as you’re gone.’ He waited for me to get up and leave. I’m not insensitive to the noise she was making, and we’ve always been steadfast that noisy children should be taken out if they won’t quiet quickly. (They should return once quiet.) But this particular Mass was in a gymnasium with no narthex, no cry room, nowhere to go. And, it was 36 degrees outside.

    As it is, our children have attended Mass weekly (sometimes, more often) since they were only a few weeks old. We’ve had bumpy experiences with infants, but no trouble at all since they became toddlers. They’re able to sit quietly and absorb the action around them. That’s an ability they’ve been able to adapt to theatrical performances, orchestral performances, movies, etc. I’m convinced that being brought to Mass has disposed them to be listeners as children, a skill that will be valuable in their lives for spiritual reasons and many others.

    We have found a parish (17 miles away) that is much more welcoming toward children, and we’ve been very happy there.

  5. The kid who stretched out in the pew for a nap during the Easter Vigil as a toddler is planning on volunteering with the Franciscans for a year.

  6. Thanks for posting this here Kimberly. I’m not sure if you have kept up with the replies on my Facebook page, certainly the link was “liked” by many, mostly women interestingly enough.

    I started to think about what is at the heart of communal worship – which reminded me of Kimberly’s other post, about private and public spiritual practices.

    In any case, I always like to mention what the pastor at my worship parish always says to parents as they get up to leave with their crying child, “Hey come back! Don’t worry! That’s what we sound like to God!”

  7. It’s not uncommon during a Byzantine Divine Liturgy for parents to bring their infants to the priest for holy communion. Whether the parents receive or not is another question. Even so, the parents are often beaming as the priest places a tiny particle of the eucharist in the baby’s mouth.

    While it is theologically possible in the Roman rite for an infant to be confirmed and receive holy communion at baptism, this has not been our tradition for centuries. I wonder if infants and young children would be more at peace if they were also admitted to holy communion. Certainly, however, any baptized infant, no matter how young, is a member of the Body of Christ and the assembly. He or she should not be denied attendance at Mass, just as any other Catholic should never be denied attendance.

    The pastor of my parents’ church, who I otherwise hold in very high esteem, once before offering the final blessing at Mass sharply asked parents not to bring their young children to the high Mass. If one is baptized, one should attend any Mass he or she is able to attend regardless of age. It’s not as if chant and polyphony is sung for the entertainment of older persons. If entertainment is the sole purpose, a stereo would instead suffice.

  8. I would suspect that there were bawling children in those house churches in antiquity. Therefore, what does not change humanly? Furthermore, we must remember that our Lord Jesus Christ, doubtlessly, screamed at his circumcision.

    My wife and I took our daughter to church-going since her infancy. She was fully initiated at the Easter Vigil at the age of nine. Throughout that time and beyond, we thought that the sounds of of infants and toddlers were and are not offensive. Rather, we thought them incarnational. That means being mindful of all those sounds during worship.

  9. In our parish we provide families with very young children with many options. First, we make it clear that these families are welcome. They may bring the little ones into the church. We also have a large, well staffed care center for kids 3 and under. We have another area for four and five year olds that provide these little ones with a little child’s experience of worship. We have a large baptistry with glass walls that give clear sight lines to the altar. And we have a still larger commons area which also has good sight lines. Both of the latter have good audio as well. My personal belief is that parents should reflect prayerfully on how much sense it makes to expect babies and toddlers to act like miniature adults by sitting quietly throughout the mass. They wouldn’t think of expecting that of them in a theater. I have no problem blocking out the crying sounds but I actually feel sorry for them. They need to make noise and move around. I think most worshippers appreciate it when parents take kids out until they settle down. In our church they can do that in spaces that are airy and ample.
    I make my love for these children and their parents obvious during and after mass.

  10. I admit that I used to feel angry and somewhat condemnatory of the young parent(s) when a young child’s noise during Mass distracted my paper-thin attempts at prayer. Then friends of ours lost their 4 mth old son to cot death (SIDS).

    Since then I fiercely and genuinely thank God for bawling infants, tantrumming twos, globe-trotting threes etc, BECAUSE THEY ARE ALIVE! And I thank God for that.

  11. I was surprised when I started going to church and saw that small children were there. I’d thought children went to Sunday school at that time. I still remember my one visit to a Sunday school when my parents attended an Anglican church service – I was introduced to the song “Jesus Loves Me” 🙂

  12. One way to help keep very small children quiet is to play a quiet, inconspicuous little game of peek=a=boo with them. Catch the baby’s eye, then move your head our of sight. Invariably it will look for you. Keep it up for more fun. And nobody notices but you and your new little friend 🙂

  13. If our children cannot feel at home in their Father’s house, then there is something wrong.

    Fractiousness in all except the youngest of infants results from being ignored. If, like me, you talk to young children about their experiences in church, they are all about feelings of disengagement. Peter is spot on in involving children as full members of the Church. If we do not believe that to be true, and that they have just as much right as us to be there, we should not have baptized them. Engaging children in worship is an art, and when well practised will normally lead to greater engagement on the part of adults too.

  14. I guess I’m the only grinch around here. I have certain expectations of behavior, which I enforced on my own children, and when I see other parents let their children behave in ways that would not have been acceptable in my family, I feel impatient at the parents. I have to resist the urge to intervene – take the toddler away from the sanctuary, silence the baby with a pacifier or a bottle, separate fighting siblings, remove the child who keeps kicking at the bench in front of him, etc. (I also have to resist when I hear a parent talking to their kid in what I consider harshly abusive terms).

    Instead, I try to remind myself that other people have a different tolerance threshold and ignore the parent’s non-reaction or excessive reaction to the misbehavior. But sometimes, it is still possible that disapproving glances escape from me in spite of my efforts…

    1. Children’s behavior is not merely a function of their parenting. Children come to us with their own neurophysiology, including temperaments that incline them toward more or less noisiness, more or less ability to be quiet for more or less time.
      I used to envy the parents whose children sat quietly through mass. Mine never did. But it wasn’t because they weren’t taken, it wasn’t because they weren’t used to sitting with parents for quiet things, like talking or reading a book. They were just more rambunctious then other tots. They grew up just fine, and one is now a professional church musician.
      Like some of the other oldsters here, I generally don’t mind the noisy little ones at mass, I admire families for making mass a priority in their lives, even — or especially — with active little ones.I appreciate the growing life that the little ones represent. And yes, they ARE fun to smile at and play peek-a-boo with, especially if it gives a parent just a bit more quiet for even a few minutes!

      1. One of my psychology professors in graduate school said he was a strong behaviorist until he had children. The one was very quiet from day one; the other was very noisy from day one. He managed to enliven the quiet one a little bit, and calm down the noisy one, but just a little bit.

        While most of our personality and behavior is shaped by our experiences and the situations that we find ourselves in, our basic excitability and sociability are two areas which have substantial genetic components.

        While we can learn new behaviors in both those areas which can compensate and balance out our basic tendencies, we also have to remember that punishment generally only suppresses rather than extinguishes established behavioral tendencies.

  15. I’m (typically) going to add an old, grampa Walton sort of observation and musing.
    Returning from the CMAA Colloquium I noticed after boarding and the plane actually getting air-borne that despite the presence of all sorts of children, infants, toddlers, primary school age, a very peaceful humm, a plane full of relatively quiet people, save for a row of young bucks whose efforts at attracting the flight attendant resembled and sounded like those of chimpanzees. I digress.
    Somewhere’s mid-flight, I hear the voice of a little girl, maybe between 5-7, talking to mom right behind me. And then came the requisite little feet pushing on the back of the seat cushion. And I marvelled at how, now at 61, I took that “disturbance” as a massage, both to my sacroiliac and to my attitude. Then I thanked God for that child and her mom providing me that reflection.
    We encountered some turbulence. Nothing to worry about, not a peep from anyone. Then I reflected again as turbulence does sometimes breed crash anxiety- would that little girl and all the children onboard, be better off not on the plane with mommy, or with her in the darkest of moments? (This is NOT meant to be macabre.)
    What’s funny is how many young parents with squirmy, howling infants/toddlers are drawn to sit near the choir! And the microphones near the choir. And sometimes it is unnerving. But giving the parents or kids the stink eye is as un-Christian a reaction that I can imagine.
    When we are in church, we are in our Father’s House. Where we ALL belong. And at whatever time we finish our earthly pilgrimage, we’ll all face the darkness. But we won’t be alone. And I hope that what we all remember are smiling, loving faces, and that the Face we’ll next see is our Parent’s.

  16. Parents can be urged to be sensible about their kids. We take sitting still for an hour for granted, and I know adults who can’t manage it. Why the heck would we think two-year-olds could handle an hour without the usual stimulation they get at home?

    Do we coach parents to get their kids used to silence in the home? As children are old enough to go to Mass, do they get warm-up time on other days of the week: time to spend 10 to 15 minutes in a pew, 20-30 minutes in the eucharistic chapel, before swallowing a whole hour of Mass?

    Too many people think of children as mini-adults.

    I think it is possible for children, even girls and boys with emotional difficulties, to blend into a worshiping congregation. And if they can’t, then parents should feel welcome to bring them to liturgy, to leave if necessary, and return when they can.

    I remember a friend’s one-year-old wandering off during daily Mass, and crawling up to the altar. The priest, who had just finished the epiclesis, gathered her up in one arm, and did the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer gesturing with the other. The child was returned at the Sign of Peace. That’s the kind of welcome we need in our parishes–and not just for the little kids.

  17. Todd: Too many people think of children as mini-adults.

    Exactly. We forget that Jesus asked us to become like little children, not to make little children become like us.

  18. Speaking of witness: recently I was at Mass with a child who, upon returning to her seat after communion, tugged at the sleeve of the older child in from of her until she turned around, then stuck her tongue out to show her the Host on her tongue, before whispering loudly and excitedly, looking smug: “I got it! I did my first communion last week, and now I can eat it!!”

  19. Todd’s comment about mini-adults, and Paul’s following it, reminded me of something else that is the underpinning of my parish… Jesus blessed the children and taught the adults; we’ve reversed that and now suffer the consequences.

    This offers us very child friendly (and not irreverent or out of control) liturgies and great community, along with a now-thriving adult faith formation and enrichment effort.

  20. The story is told… Archbishop Sheen was preaching eloquently one Sunday morning in a large cathedral in the northeast. In the 6th row from the pulpit, a mother was struggling mightily to calm her very cranky and loud baby. After a few minutes, she realized that the child was not going to be silent, so she decided to leave. One option was to walk to the side door nearest the pulpit; the second was to take a long walk with a screaming child to a door in the rear of the church. Choosing the former route, she walked as quickly as possible, only to be stopped by the archbishop as she passed under the pulpit. “Madame! Don’t remove that precious child from the house of the Lord! He’s not bothering me at all!” “Archbishop,” she relplied, “you’ve got it wrong. It’s you who is bothering him!”

  21. Anyone have a comment on Liturgy for Children? That probably deserves its own discussion. The type I like involves taking the children to a separate area for the readings and returning them at the prayers of the faithful. It allows the parents to relax and hear the readings and homily, it gives the kids a break so they are settled for the rest of the Mass, and it allows the kids to be introduced to the Readings on their level. Given that a lot of kids think David led the Israelites out of the Garden of Eden, the “homily” tends to be very, very basic. Even at that, there were many times in which the kids came up with insights that astounded me. They were hearing the Scriptures and giving an honest reaction rather than repeating back what they knew the Scripture was supposed to mean.

    Some priests can call the children up to the sanctuary and present a homily suitable both for them and the adults. The type of children’s homily I absolutely hate is the “kids say the darndest things” version, in which the goal seems to be to be amused at the interplay between the priest and kids.

    1. The Children’s Liturgy of the Word is becoming very popular in local parishes with parents and kids. I have not heard any unfavorable comments.

      Another interesting device I saw once on Canadian TV was a pastor who invited the children to come to the large circle of two steps that surrounded the altar at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer. After saying “Peace be with you”, he send the children to their families to give them the sign of peace. Gave the children very significant roles in the Liturgy as well as an opportunity to work off some of their energy.

    2. We have an outstanding CLOW program at our parish, held during the 9am and 11am masses during the school year, and only the 11 in the summer. It is not unusual to have 100+ children there. (We are a large parish.)

      It is always moving to see so many kids process out, with their own book in hand.

      There is yet the issue of kids too young for the program – often the ones that are screaming. I like my pastor’s response (see my other comment further up), which is not unlike Sheen’s!

  22. Who knows what kind of thing is taught in the Children’s Liturgy? Much better is the sermon for the children. This is more work for the priest but usually more rewarding for the adults too.
    It is not a matter of dumbing down the sermon: more a matter of explaining clearly and avoiding jargon.

    1. I would respectfully disagree. It is not about dumbing down or not, but about what an appropriate homily is.

      I think that the Children’s Liturgy of the Word is much more appropriate… and in any parish worth its salt, you know what is happening.

      1. But Fran, as a parent you are not at the Children’s liturgy with the children. So you do not know what they are told.
        As for the sermon my point is that the work needed to make it clear for children is probably of benefit in making it clear for the adults. By avoiding words that one does not use everyday, or explaining them, the priest has to think carefully what he is trying to say.
        Try listening to some long French sermons and I think that you will see my thinking most clearly.
        Short and to the point seems good to me. If there is a need for footnotes and scriptural cross references these may be in the newsletter to be studied at home.

      2. @Peter Haydon – comment #32:
        Thank you Peter. I do know and trust the operation of my parish staff, so that without being present, I would have complete confidence in what happens. I do realize that might not always be the case.

        As to the sermons, I am blessed to be in a place where clear, thoughtful and meaningful homilies are offered – free of jargon, heavy dogma and so forth. They are still not that appropriate for the children, who seem to learn and know so much as a result of what is happening at our place. Again, this may be unique to place.

      3. @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn – comment #33:
        Lucky you Fran. I hope that those teaching the faith, in whatever circumstance, do the job well. That is not easy. They would not wish to contradict the parents of the children but the parents themselves may not have been taught well.
        Good on you

  23. Who knows what kind of thing is taught in the Children’s Liturgy?

    Who knows what kind of thing is taught at Faith Formation a/k/a Religious Ed?

  24. If you are looking for a parish that welcomes children and all of their additions to the liturgy, come to Delaware. I have been taking my twin nieces to mass from age 2 yrs and they currently are 4 yrs, 6 mos. They will be the first to tell you that they love going to church. Now whether it’s cause they get to go to the “little room” (CLOW) or whether they get a donut after mass for good behavior or because they get to dance with Fr Greg (they are his greatest fans)..it’s all good! Our clergy are welcoming, the members of the parish celebrate their “noise” and they add their precious voices to the celebration with their 2 second delay to “thanks be to God”.

    I don’t know how children are to learn to “behave” without exposure? Ours certainly learn to love God and to know that love in return from being there. Reading of the experiences of others, makes me thankful for my ‘Resurrection’ experience.

  25. Hi, I stumbled across this site while trying to see if I could find a suitable picture for my little children’s group here in my parish in Dublin Ireland. We count our selves very lucky to be honoured as cathecists and trusted with peoples children at our children’s worship. We do not dumb down the Gospels or readings, we use a version which children understand, and, we use our time with them to make them feel that they are a special part of our church, not just ignore their needs. In a country which has suffered due to scandal and abuse in our churches, we are very fortunate to have parents who trust us and, who enjoy hearing what they did at Mass. I for one wish there had been masses like this when my children were little… Regards, Ann Baker Dublin Ireland

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