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Debate: Do children’s liturgies encourage rowdy behaviour?

Or are they the best way to teach youngsters about the Mass?

By on Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Well-behaved children receive Communion at a pontifical solemn high Mass in Washington (Photo: CNS)

Well-behaved children receive Communion at a pontifical solemn high Mass in Washington (Photo: CNS)

In this week’s print edition of The Catholic Herald, Andrew M Brown argues that children’s liturgy might make badly behaved toddlers worse. He writes:

What is to be done about children in church? I know Our Lord said: “Let the children come to me… do not keep them back; the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” But there’s no getting around the fact that badly-behaved toddlers are a pain in the neck, and disrupt Mass for everybody else.

As a rule, few priests dare to stand up to yummy mummies and their bellowing progeny. The trouble is, many of the parents seem to practise what the psychologist Aric Sigman calls “laissez-faire” discipline. Desperate to be friends with their children, they’re terrified of upsetting them.

Another problem might actually be children’s liturgies. They’re designed so that the youngsters don’t get bored, but do these sessions actually prepare them for what a “grown-up” Mass will, or ought to, be like? Do they instead accustom children to the idea that making a racket is part of worship?

John Medlin of the Latin Mass Society thinks he has the answer to the rowdy toddler question: it’s the Tridentine Mass. “Speaking broadly,” he assures me, “you’ll find that there’s no need for ‘quiet rooms’ or play areas – certainly not for separate children’s liturgies – at Traditional Rite Masses.

“Children genuinely pick up on the fact that something special and beautiful is happening – helped by the deportment of their parents. If tears and squawks break out, Traddie parents quickly whip the little blighter outside and calm him/her down.”

Perhaps, as John Medlin suggests, a truly reverent Mass might make children quieter. They may sense that “something special and beautiful is happening”, and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

On the other hand, young children get bored easily at Mass, especially as they are unlikely to understand exactly what is going on. Surely it is better for them to attend a liturgy that is specially designed for them, that can help them understand fully the sacrifice of the Mass.

Or are there other problems with children’s liturgy? It is, after all, more catechesis than liturgy. Is it, in fact, the best way to teach children about the Eucharist?

So, does children’s liturgy encourage rowdy behaviour? Or is it the best way to teach youngsters about the Mass?

  • Athanasius Kircher

    I don't think they encourage rowdy behaviour, but they are part of the problem. First, I worry that they aren't always valid – a priest is allowed, at a children's Mass, leave out large chunks of the Canon and, from what I recall, the Creed.

    A 'children's Mass' seems to me to do the opposite of acclimatising children to the 'adult' Mass. It creates the illusion that Mass is a time for fun, rather than a solemn occasion, I think. And as such, children taken to an 'adult' Mass expect something which deliberately holds their attention.

    I'm afraid the only way to get children to behave when going to Mass is by taking them early, taking them often, and ensuring that they understand what is going on.

    The habit of taking children out for the 'Liturgy of the Faithful', while of ancient provenance, also I believe is bad for a child's behaviour when they are finally allowed to come to the Mass in full. I am deeply dubious about the catechetical value of drawing a picture of the good samaritan, and remember from my own childhood hating being taken out for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

    I'm afraid it requires a fairly traditional mixture of good discipline parental watchfulness, parents explaining what the Mass is about, good catechesis, and regular exposure.

  • Philothea

    Oh my goodness, I am not a traddy parent but I do not let my children make a fuss at Mass, and even though it is “just” a NO Mass they know it is special and scared, and have done since they were babies. I think always keeping them in Mass and always teaching them that Mass is the high point of the week helps – both our children literally run to church so they can be with Jesus. I am a convert and attended a Baptist chapel as a child – the children were removed at every service before the sermon and “communion”, and when I was old enough to stay put, I was conditioned to think that it was boring. So we keep our children in with us, where they belong. And I agree with Athanasius that helping children go to Mass early and often and helping them understand are vital – even our toddler knows what happens at Mass and why.

  • Christina

    I'm sorry, Traditional Rite Mass is the solution? Perhaps, if you also restore the kind of parenting and corporal punishments used back in the day.

    I have gone to Byzantine rite masses which are highly reverent and I am sorry to say that not even the adults were quiet and well behaved throughout- because as beautiful as the incense, the smells and the bells are, not even the adults get it.

    Children today grow up in front of the TV so they need stimulation and considering that some parishes barely keep their 80yr olds awake there should be no wonder that the kids get bored.

    I find that the most important thing is to keep families and children INSIDE the church. Not in a play room, not behind sound proof walls.

    We are extremely blessed to have the best children”s liturgy in the world at out Byzantine Catholic parish (the Creed is not left out btw!) Yes there are some parents who bring their kids just for the show- the parents are the show- but the amazing thing is that every single liturgy is packed, you have about 30 children sitting together at the front and about 20 more in the choir and the parents sit with those who are too young or in the pews, on their own, actually participating in the Mass rather than running around and stuffing cheerios in their childrens' mouths.

    It is incredible to see how much better behaved children are when they have to sit among strangers (even if it's other children) and they are being watched by others (there are always 2 ladies at the front guiding them into prayers, sitting, standing and kneeling).

    I am amazed to see what incredible things can be done in a parish for a family and I am very saddened to think that others do not see the necessity of Children's mass, done properly!

  • Philothea

    Christina, my children are not growing up in front of the TV, and they do not get bored at Mass. Do you really know adult people who get bored at Mass? I have to say, even my toddler doesn't get bored. She doesn't listen to the homily but quietly looks at her prayer book or holy cards or just cuddles up, but the rest of the time, she is listening, watching, taking part. No cheerios either! I only feed the children when they are babies, and once they are not dependent on milk for their food, they wait until after Mass. Personally I hate the idea of handing my children over to strangers for teaching them how to behave at Mass and LOVE seeing them grow in patience and understanding and taking part more and more, outwardly and spiritually.

  • mtervaportti

    Very seldom do we have the chance here in Finland to attend a traditional Mass, but certainly our VERY lively daughters, 9 and 5, do behave better when the celebration of Mass is respectful of the Mystery, when music, action and prayer are all oriented towards God.

    A prayerful, holy celebration interests the children even by the wordless beauty if offers, by the atmosphere of mystery, sacredness, and “totality” it brings about.

    On the other hand, attending once a wedding where at one point guitars were played, our daughters, then maybe 6 and 2, started spontaneously dancing in the church. Well, not a good sign.

    Anyway, I would just say that our experience is that children do not need to understand everything but rather be immersed into something bigger than their imagination. With little catechesis and patience during Mass that is possible to achieve.

    Let the Mass remain (or become again) the last peaceful and meaningful refuge to people tormented by haste and superficiality. Let us teach our children to esteem a Holy Mass worthy of the name Holy. A children's liturgy is not what the children need.

  • Jeannine

    If the parents reverently worship at any mass then the children will follow suit. Period!

    The Extraordinary Rite tends to attract large families. In order for these families to flourish & live harmoniously, an extra amount of discipline must be a seriously undertaken.

    A properly worshiped children's mass incorporates child appropriate faith-filled, songs or hymns, along with the priest inviting the youngsters to sit quietly in front of the alter as he talks to them about the gospel. Anything more than that invites a circus-like atmosphere which can happen anywhere during any adult-focused mass, like in my parish.

    Just a thought for the statement, “The trouble is, many of the parents seem to practise what the psychologist Aric Sigman calls “laissez-faire” discipline. Desperate to be friends with their children, they’re terrified of upsetting them.” Or maybe they're afraid of being turned in for child abuse by some person who has no idea on how to raise children!

  • PhilipH

    In my church we've tried to involve the children in the mass as much as possible. After the children's liturgy they help take up the offetory gifts to the sanctuary, also we have formed a small children's choir that sometimes sings worship songs during or just after the mass. In my opinion if the children feel part of the worship and liturgy and that they are there to take part instead of just be quiet for an hour or so, they are far more likely to want to come and far less likely to misbehave.

  • nytor

    I agree with this:

    “Children genuinely pick up on the fact that something special and beautiful is happening – helped by the deportment of their parents. If tears and squawks break out, Traddie parents quickly whip the little blighter outside and calm him/her down.”

  • nytor

    “worship songs”? are you trying to raise little Tabletistas?

  • akp1

    I agree with this :

    “Another problem might actually be children’s liturgies. They’re designed so that the youngsters don’t get bored, but do these sessions actually prepare them for what a “grown-up” Mass will, or ought to, be like? Do they instead accustom children to the idea that making a racket is part of worship?”

    Once the children come back in they want to show Mummy & Daddy what they've done in CL; then take the rest of the Mass to calm down. But it helps if the parents actually tell them to 'shush' – we find most just look at them with that 'oh isn't he/she cute/wonderful/etc' look whilst the rest of the congregation work hard to not get distracted!

  • Mac

    re the statement
    “I don't think they encourage rowdy behaviour, but they are part of the problem. First, I worry that they aren't always valid – a priest is allowed, at a children's Mass, leave out large chunks of the Canon and, from what I recall, the Creed.”
    Since when has the liturgy been like something in a science lab? It saddens me to read statements that suggeast some Catholics see liturgical worship in such a narrow way – so far removed from the directness and “down to earth” approach of Jesus of Nazareth – but then I sometimes wonder whether some groups in the Catholic Church are more interested in the letter of the law than in what He had to say.

  • LiberalTraditionalist

    I'm sorry but I can't agree with John Medlin. Both the London and the Oxford Oratories have weekly EF masses and my experience is that at those masses, the kids are noisier and the lack of parental control is even more apparent.

    The answer is for today's parents to instil some sense of decorum and dignity – a church is a holy place and the mass is a sacred occasion – why would any parent consent to see the mass defiled?

    I didn't send my children away for the childrens' liturgy and they were perfectly behaved at the time. They, in turn, didn't want to go to the children's liturgy as they felt it was too far dumbed-down.

    Whatever the solution is, it probably doesn't lie in adults deciding what is best for them; the church has tried this for 35 years and it hasn't yet worked.

  • Sr Sandals

    Children's liturgy should be abolished – faith and its practice are handed on mimetically (we imitate those we choose as our models). To send children out of mass is to deliberately fail to hand on (to transmit) the fullness of the faith and its practice. Children's liturgy is therefore a stumbling block, and we know what Jesus said about those.

    Parents whose children lack the maturity to practice their faith by worshipful prayer are in urgent need of 'churching', a painful and truly self-giving act on the part of the parents to hand on their Faith to their children as though it was a matter of life and death, which in fact it is!

    Like learning to overcome distractions in prayer we must as parents make a concerted effort to teach our children to pray. If our home life is drenched in noisy media and distracted-ness then the task is truly onerous, since children only behave in the way that they are taught to behave, so how can they suddenly become prayerful when this aspect is not taken seriously at home.

    Parents too must be mindful of others – if their child's behaviour is actively distracting from the prayerfulness of the mass then they must be removed at once as a sign of solidarity with the rest of the Faithful.

    This to-ing and fro-ing, together with careful teaching and particular emphasis on imitation of how and why to pray, are a real pilgrimage, which if taken seriously and patiently, yield results. To be laissez-faire or 'not bothered' if your children are destroying what little sense of prayerful and recollected worship there is in your parish is an disgraceful act of selfishness as well as neglect. The pain of a parent having to miss much of mass is a sacrifice seen by God, and you are still participating fully in his praise, and you will be rewarded. The Devil though may use this opportunity to try to tempt you to despair, or give up, but the fact is, that you must keep turning to God and giving your child this example as though nothing else matters (e.g. to take your child out of mass only to start engaging in chat with others is not what its about – your child needs your attempts at catechisis, no matter how unproductive they seem at that moment).

    Really, handing the Faith on to your children is a matter of life and death – if you take it seriously you will do it through love and patience. To hand this important parental responsibility to busy bodies who mean well but are usually part of the problem, in a totally unrelated and even contradictory parallel 'service', is a massive problem for the Church, a church rapidly forgetting how to hand on anything to the Faithful. Children's liturgy divides us from our parental responsibilities, which is to hand on the Faith, not to 'play school'.

    And if your children are 'bored', and are need endless 'distraction', then I'm afraid you too are part of the problem and you are failing to bring your children up in the Faith properly. Its not rocket science.

    How is it made easier? Three things to hand on a Faith as though it was the only thing that mattered:

    1. Sell your TV and buy good books to read to your children, including the Bible
    2. Prayer together as a family every day
    3. (most radical and I'm afraid most important) Take your children out of school and teach them yourself everything you know, and learn together everything you don't know – the system of schooling (which pretends to be 'education' but is no such thing) is a true stumbling block to truth, knowledge, understanding, beauty and goodness.

    Some children need to be 'churched' for longer than others but it is a pilgrimage of Faith, and if you are lucky enough to have a large family, once you've set the pattern for the first one or two, it becomes perfectly natural for any others who come along to know what it means to be recollected in prayerful worship with their Maker.

    We have truly forgotten what it means to 'hand on', we are too scared to stop 'distracting ourselves to death', and we are too intent on (for want of a better word) the 'schoolification' of everything – religion can't be handed on in that dumbed down patronising sort of way. God is real, so is your life – handing on your faith is the only thing that matters.

    P.S. Oh yes and if the standard of mass is poor because of dumbed down 'priests and people' going through the motions, with hideous hymns and weak ritual, then you have a right to plead that it gets better. If you are rejected then you have at least tried to bear witness to the truth, and you have refused to become a stumbling block to others. If you have mass in the Extraordinary Form then your task is easy. If its the new form of mass, unless you are extremely lucky to have a prayerful priest and humble prayerful liturgy, then 'churching' your child is a lot harder.

  • Ratbag

    I remember when the children's liturgy was at my old parish (now closed) and some children were actually reluctant and upset to be separated from their families in order to march off into the room next to the sacristy because some families felt that their young ones HAD to go! I also remember thinking that, if I was that kid, I'd fight to stay in the pew, too!

    When they came out of the room before the offertory, it was disturbing that there was nothing they did by way of drawing or any activities, had anything to do with the gospel reading of the day!

    I've always wondered what was the point of the children's liturgy. Did those responsible not credit children with a bit of intelligence – or their parents, for that matter? There is a fear that the true beauty of the Holy Mass has been lost on a generation. That, to me, is needless spiritual poverty.

    Why are our Catholic schools not teaching the rudiments of the Mass? It's rather like taking someone to, say, a baseball match and they don't understand the rules! Back when I was a child, I was taught by my family, at school, a Passionist nun and reading good Catholic publications that did not treat me like an idiot. Of course, a child would not understand the Homily (I didn't, to be honest, so my mind drifted to the women wearing their mantillas, my little prayer books, church furnishings i.e. statues, stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross on the walls etc.)… then, once the Creed strikes up, I was back with the congregation.

    On the other hand, there are children who are not disciplined in the church. I was told off one Sunday morning because I was disturbed by the noise and disruption three young children were causing in the bench in front of me. When I told their grandmother about it – well! A woman who should know better!

    No, let the parents do discipline, the priests put their foot down and get rid of the children's liturgy! The Church needs the young – don't treat them like idiots!

  • Anthony

    Mac, the point of Mass is the Liturgy of The Eucharist, at the centre of which is the (what should be) reverential and deeply felt sacrifice that is its heart. Everything before (introductory rites, penitential rites, Gloria, Liturgy of the Word, homily, Profession of Faith, prayers of the faithful) is preparing for this. If one does not witness and experience these rites, then the cumulative spiritual significance of the rituals of the Eucharistic Prayer, Consecration and Holy Communion (all of which, in the Catholic faith, are more than merely performances of “Lord's Supper” re-enactments) is diminished. Sadly, it is at such a reduced level that many of today's parents themselves understand the Mass, so it is hardly surprising that they see no harm in the disruptions and disturbances that so-called “children's liturgy” brings to the religious experience of Mass for their children, let alone for the rest of the faithful. Unfortunately, the influence of our recent era's consumerist-norm of preoccupation with child-centered (self-) indulgence has not helped, further enabling misguided ignorance of the meaning of ritual to displace the reverential, communal, Christ-centered practice which nurtured the faithful for two thousand years. It is easier to be dismissive of good practice (and to abandon faith) when one is ignorant of what it is for.

  • Mac

    Anthony re your statement “Unfortunately, the influence of our recent era's consumerist-norm of preoccupation with child-centered (self-) indulgence has not helped, further enabling misguided ignorance of the meaning of ritual to displace the reverential, communal, Christ-centered practice which nurtured the faithful for two thousand years. It is easier to be dismissive of good practice (and to abandon faith) when one is ignorant of what it is for.”
    My question is does the “reverential. communal, Christ-centred practice” referred to above result in the faithful discipleship according to the criteria given to us by Jesus Christ i.e. loving service, compassion, forgivess, joy at being loved by God. When I meet or read about people who seem obsessed with the more trheatrical and traditional form of liturgy I sometimes wonder whether they do not at times replace Christian living with such forms of worship. What about Jesus' challenge “what I want is not sacrifice but mercy and forgiveness. The description of the Last Judgment is not about the orthodoxy of the forms of worship followed but about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner etc.
    Is it possible that some are ignorant of this priority?

  • Jaime

    Sorry for coming late to the party (this article is 18 months old now) but we recently moved to a diocese where the children’s liturgy seems to be at every parish. It’s always at the “main” Mass – middle of the morning, most convenient and most attended. We attend either the earlier or later Mass to avoid the disruption.

    We’re not insensitive to the needs of parents – we have six children of our own, from age 11 down to six months old! We don’t bring toys or books to Mass.  My wife usually holds the youngest baby, and I usually handle the next-youngest toddler.  The closest thing they get to a toy is occasionally exploring with the miraculous medal I wear around my neck.

    Ironically, I’ve noticed it isn’t the larger families that have trouble keeping their children reverent at Mass.  And certainly there are a lot of smaller families that do just as well.  Heck, *we* were a smaller family once! But in my experience, it’s not the “frazzled parents of four” struggling to quiet their unruly crew.  It’s the indifferent parents of one or two children who sit them in the pew with books and toys, then more or less ignore them for the next hour.

    I think children benefit from being in a larger family naturally – they have to learn to share and compromise with TV, video games, and toys. And there are often less of these things because there’s less disposable income.  But families of any size can make it clear that Mass is sacred, and there are consequences for misbehaving.  We have our bad days, but only once or twice a year do I have to actually take a child out of the sanctuary to avoid disruption.

    All this to say, in my experience almost all children are perfectly capable of participating fully in the Mass, and learning the significance of the various parts as they grow. I think anything less is condescending, and a great disservice to their spiritual life.

  • Louise

    I stumbled across this page, after a particularly challenging experience with my 3 year old son at Mass today, looking for some advice. I am shocked by some of the judgemental comments I have found instead. I am not a “yummy mummy” with a “laissez faire” attitude. My older children would tell you I am rather strict and traditional, and behave accordingly. Sadly this has no effect on my youngest, who attempts to climb and shout his way through Mass and has the mother of all tantrums when thwarted. After Mass today I was reduced to tears. I am blessed in that our Priest is a kind and understanding man who assures me that he does not deem disruption by young children to be a problem.

    Like many of the contributers to this page, was once blessed with fairly compliant children who behaved reasonably well during Mass. My goodness, didn’t I think I was a good parent. It shames me to remember how at times I would judge parents of misbehaving toddlers. God was then wise enough to bless me with a very different child, who challenges me daily and has made me rethink everything I thought I knew about raising children.

    As a mother I have 2 choices. Bring my little boy along and do my best, or stay away.

  • Lou_mortimer

    It saddens me that i am reading very negative comments about children’s liturgy and its place within worship. I am a mum of two young girls ages 3 and 6 and I am involved in providing liturgy. Has any of you been to a childrens liturgy within your church? In ours yes the children often have a time to talk, maybe do an activity but they also have time were they are quite and learn about God with reverance, at their level of understanding! They are able to talk about Jesus’ life and his teaches within their own peer groups and learn to follow Gods path. The catholic schools do not undertake the teachings like they used to within school when I was young, so where are our youngsters and our parishes futures going to really learn and understand the word of God if their is no liturgy. Also as a mum i am able to have my own time to listen properly to the Gospels and readings as well as listen to the Homily without interuption or concern that my children may be making too much noise or doing something they shouldnt be when they go to children’s liturgy. I know that they are having a time of great learning themselves in a way that subtly enhances and strengthens their faith and mine.