The National Catholic Review
Do not despise these little ones

Usually the daily noon Mass on campus is attended by the familiar dozen or so faculty and staff and students and neighbors; but today, to my amazement, there are 4-year-old twin boys in front of me, complete with parents, the father immensely tall and the mother adamantly not.

The noon Mass is legendary for starting on the button and never going more than 25 minutes because afternoon classes start at 12:30 p.m. and you want to give students a chance to make their flip-flopped sprint across campus. For the first five minutes the twins sit quietly and respectfully and perhaps even reverently, each in his seat between mom and dad. This does not last. At 12:07 p.m. I see the first flurry of fists and elbows as they jockey and joust. At 12:11 p.m. one of them, incredibly, pulls a bunch of grapes from his pocket and begins to eat some and to lose the rest on the floor. At 12:13 p.m. there are easily a dozen grapes and both boys under the chairs. At 12:15 p.m. the mom, clearly a veteran of these sorts of things, pulls two cookies from her pockets for the boys. At 12:20 p.m. the dad finally bends down from his great height and tersely reads his sons the riot act, a moment I have been waiting for with high fraternal glee, for I have been in his shoes. I have been at Mass in this very chapel with my small twin sons, who have dropped Cheerios from the balcony onto the bald spots of congregants below and stuck their arms into the baptistry just to see what it would feel like (it’s cold and wet, one son said, indignantly) and made barnyard noises at exactly the wrong moments and ran all around the chapel shaking sticky hands with startled, bemused congregants at the Sign of Peace.

After Mass I say to the celebrant with a smile that it is not every day we are graced by rambunctious ruffians who scatter grapes and crumbs on the floor and giggle and yawn and shimmy and snicker and lose their shoes and drop hymnals on the floor with a terrific bang and pay no attention whatsoever to the Gospel readings and the homily and the miracle of the Eucharist but rather gaze raptly at the life-size cedar crucifix and try to blow out a candle on the altar as their parents carry them up for a blessing and say Hi! to the grinning priest as he lays his hand upon their innocent brows and spend the last five minutes of Mass sitting in the same single seat trying to shove the other guy off but only using your butt and not your hands; and the priest, unforgettably, says this to me:

I love having little kids at Mass. I love it when they are bored and pay no attention and squirm. I love it when they get distracted by a moth and spend five minutes following the moth’s precarious voyage among the lights. It’s all good. They are being soaked in the Mass. They hear the words and feel the reverence and maybe they even sense the food of the experience, you know? Sometimes people complain and make veiled remarks about behavior and discipline and decorum and the rapid dissolution of morals today and stuff like that but I have no patience for it. For one thing they were little kids at Mass once, and for another if there are no little kids at Mass, pretty soon there won’t be any Masses. You have to let kids be kids.

I love having little kids at Mass. If you are distracted by a little kid being a little kid you are not focused on what’s holy. Little kids are holy. Let it be. My only rule is no extended fistfights. Other than that I don’t care about grapes and yawning. I think the cadence and the rhythm and the custom and the peace of the Mass soak into kids without them knowing it. That’s why a lot of the students here come back to Mass, I think—it sparks some emotional memory in them, and once they are back at Mass then they pay attention in new ways and find new food in it. It’s all good. The more the merrier. I don’t mind dogs when I celebrate Mass, either. For one thing they are generally better behaved than little kids, but for another I figure the Mass soaks into them too, and how could that be bad? You know what I mean?

I say I do know very well what he means and we shake hands and he heads to the sacristy to disrobe and I head back to work. But about halfway back to my office I feel awfully sad that I do not have grapes and cookies in my jacket pockets. I don’t even have remains of ancient Cheerios anymore, and there were years there when my pockets were so filled with brittle crumbs that birds followed me in rotation, sparrows in the morning and crows in the afternoon. For a minute I want to shuffle back to the chapel and catch that tiny mom and ask her for a cookie, just because, but then I realize that she will think I am a nut and I remember that I had my run as the dad of little kids squirming at Mass. It was a sweet glorious unforgettable run, too, and now it’s someone else’s turn, and how good and holy that is, that there are still little kids under the seats, paying no attention whatsoever.

But they will.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author, most recently, of the essay collection The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press).


Stuart Bintner | 12/31/2014 - 3:13pm

Let the kids come to Mass. I was too young to remember the first time that I went, but it was probably at a couple of months of age, and I am now 72. If we want the faith to be part of people's lives, they should think that going to church as part of life--much like breathing, although not involuntary.

Henry George | 12/1/2014 - 8:08pm

I am sorry.

But no one has a right to bring a child to Mass or any other public event and just sit there while their
child disrupts the Mass or pubic event.

If your child cannot behave then either take them to the crying room, or don't bring them to anything
but the "Children's Mass".

Sure Children are cute but that is no excuse for letting them disrupt the Mass.

Mary Martinez | 10/28/2014 - 3:42pm

I for the life of me will never understand why people use the comment section to argue with one another about comments posted. I'm sure the author of the article would rather read about what their readers think about their writing considering this is their forum. If people have an opinion about the opinion of others l suggest starting a blog. This is much more entertaining and effective than using the comments section for that purpose. We are supposed to be catholic brothers and sisters-not atheist who routinely go at each other's throats and delight in arguing their point into the ground, disrespecting anyone that disagrees and hunting down and humiliating anyone that dare speaks of God, faith, and religious beliefs. That is not an attitude we should adopt as believers. If you can't stay focused on topic, say something that speaks to the author's message-then read the article, take what you want from it and move on. Simple enough.

As for my.opinion of the piece: I can remember being an only child and being extremely bored at mass and not quite understanding why we had to be there for so long doing something that only made sense to adults. I knew who God is and who Jesus is but I couldn't connect it to the mass. When I was finally able to go to CCD it sort of started making sense but before then I was just sitting in a church looking around at everything with no point of reference. My mother was a stern disciplinarian in church so I know that I wasn't going to be allowed to "be a kid". I know that today it is getting harder to get and keep families in the pews. Priests understand this all too well and younger priests have probably decided that its better to turn a deaf ear to the chaos ensuing in the sanctuary during the liturgy. Priest know that parents today are overly sensitive and won't tolerate any criticism directed towards parents of misbehaving children so the only option left is to grin and bear it versus losing parishioners and their children to more indulgent non-catholic church. Back when I was young fellow parishioners would have read me the riot act if my mother had not and they would have had her blessing to do so and the priest trying to celebrate a holy reverent mass would have agreed wholeheartedly. But now in a generation who's parents think by virtue of being parents they should be accommodated, tolerated and their children should be the center of everyone's attention wherever they go, priests are held hostage in their sanctuaries weighing the lesser of two evils and deciding to put up with families who's parents have no respect for the holy mass and little respect for the celebrant thereof. In my case I never took my kids to mass until CCD. They would have been a distraction and would not have soaked up anything. They would have sat there like I did and been extremely bored and no doubt a distraction to the parishioners and the priest. My grown children do things differently and take their kids to mass but they use the cry rooms or stand in the back with them so they don't disturb anyone. However, all my children state that if their children ever get out of hand they will stop taking them to church and will wait until CCD to bring them back to church. I wish the catholic church had sunday school but I understand why that might not be appropriate. What is appropriate is either teaching young children how to behave around adults not just at church but everywhere else or not taking them to mass until they are older and able to self regulate their behaviors. One last thing, how many moms and dads were kind enough to clean up their kid's messes? Or were they just left for the alter society members to clean up? When the sanctuary becomes a substitute for your living room in every way, it stops being the house of god.

Anna Cepeda | 10/28/2014 - 1:34pm

I don't get why any of us should judge the behavior of other people's kids at any mass. I personally never gave my kids snacks - whether in church or anywhere else. Far be it for me to decide that is not an effective device used by other parents. I think we are wrong to blame kids for their behavior or blame parents for the poor behavior of their kids. Congratulations to all parents for bringing their kids to mass. My son once started crying during a priest's homily. As I fumbled around for a pacifier (yes, he was an infant), unbeknownst to me the priest had stopped talking and was looking right at me. Once my son stopped crying I look up and the priest says out loud for everyone to hear "Can I continue"? Never returned to that church and have always felt very sorry for the people who go there. We found a church that purposely had no crying room, where the kids are invited to the altar at every mass, where crying is tolerated and ignored. The pews are filled with families. Some with kids with snacks, books, toys, even video games. I personally wanted my kids to learn to sit through mass without any such crutch, but I certainly don't think ill of the parents who allow it. Guess what? They are at mass every week! Eventually those kids grow up, put away their toys and snacks and still come every week! That is what tolerance and a welcoming parish is. Our priests find ways to include kids at every mass, and the pre-k and kindergartners are still sitting around the altar. Most importantly, the kids grow up and they are still at mass every week!

Mary Ann McKinny | 10/9/2014 - 10:31am

Parents who let their kids spread grapes and crumbs all over the floor of a church are being very disrespectful to God's house! Why do some parents think it's okay to allow their children to make messes?

I sigh when I read blogs like this. They give fuel and justification to parents for their kids to be monsters during Mass.

Pamela Rieth | 10/4/2014 - 9:35am

Thank you for the image of a toddler singing "Happy Birthday" and blowing out votive candles. I imagine the saint laughing as hard as I did! (This refers to the comment from Abigail.)

Abigail Woods-Ferreira | 10/4/2014 - 10:23pm

It was the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so I am sure he did :)

(I did re-light the candles, FWIW.)

Abigail Woods-Ferreira | 10/2/2014 - 9:37pm

Thank you for this reassurance. Having grown up in a "high church" Lutheran congregation, I've always felt a little lost about how to handle my toddler in church. My parents dropped me off in the nursery, and when I was old enough, I went to Sunday School. In the church I grew up in, no children attended the "adult" liturgy except on holidays until we were 11 year olds preparing for Confirmation, so I didn't grow up with any examples of how to handle children in church, and my two year old's behavior can feel mortifying to me.

I've found that it helps to try to bring the experience of liturgy and prayer down to her and attempt to create a "prayerful" experience that resonates with her developmental level. Forget even trying to sit in a pew. So we spend mass walking hand in hand in the back, looking at stained glass, statues, candles, singing and swaying when there is music, picking up pamphlets in the back of church with pictures of Jesus and Mary, practicing making the sign of the cross with holy water, etc. I think having directed motion - walking, pointing, touching, keeping things moving and interesting - is helpful for her. I'm trying to find my own prayerful experience of mass in moving with her, rather than resisting her. Toddlers are active but I think they are intensely contemplative in their activity. I'm trying to re-orient my own spirituality to share in and learn from her contemplativeness, while also directing it.

It is exhausting to keep her engaged for an hour, and it doesn't always work. Sometimes she decides to shout out, or take off running, or sit down and do the toddler butt-drag of resistance. Sometimes we have to take it outside so she doesn't become disruptive. Once she upended a holy water font, and another time she started singing "Happy Birthday" and blew out a few votive candles before I could catch her. But I think it has become a real bonding time for us and, hopefully, a bonding time for her with Jesus. She always gets excited when we put on her dress and mary janes every Sunday and says "Let's go see Jesus!" so I think something is working.

That said, I'm still kind of sad my daughters aren't going to have the experience of Sunday School :(. I loved Sunday School.

Kathy Vines | 10/2/2014 - 5:41pm

As a mother of 5 children, 4 of whom have ADHD and 2 of whom also have an autism spectrum disorder, I am grateful to hear this welcoming attitude. I know I was a squirmy, talkative young child and more than once had to be spoken to (or got that little pinch) in attempts to quiet me. On one occasion, an older parishioner made some comment to my parents about my behavior. My father never returned to church. I always make an attempt to help other parents or give them a welcoming look as they try to wrangle their little ones. My youngest are 7-year-old twins and we continue to work on improving their behavior as they prepare for First Holy Communion. It would be nice if everyone remembered that not all disabilities can be detected with the naked eye. If everyone would give others the benefit of the doubt, that people do the best they can, we would all get along so much better!

monica carley | 10/2/2014 - 1:43pm

I appreciate the priest's comments and welcoming attitude. The main purpose of attending mass is Eucharist and all the Church should be welcome. Protestant churches emphasize preaching in their services and the newer evangelical mega-churches seem to focus on providing entertaining and uplifting services; these churches tend to be intolerant of babies and toddlers in the worship space. But the Catholic church is necessarily different. My husband and I do our best with our toddler and I respect Kime Martin's sentiments to a point. But she loses much credibility with her statement that "Yes, Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me'. However, I'm fairly certain he would have been upset with their parents if those children were misbehaving by hitting each other, rolling around on the floor, and making food messes in the temple." Really. As the Gospels tell us, Jesus lived under a brutal occupying empire, openly criticized hypocritical pharisees, and confronted money-changers who disgraced the temple, His Father's house. Far be it for me to presume the mind of the Son of God, but what we do know would suggest that the last thing Jesus would have cared one bit about was how innocent young children were behaving. I recommend she pay more attention to the mass and less to the people in the pews around her. A little Christian forbearance can go a long way.

Mary Ann McKinny | 10/9/2014 - 10:37am

There are several Bible verses regarding discipline and parenting. Jesus might not have cared about how innocent children were behaving, but if they were misbehaving and being disrespectful in the temple, I gather from those Bible verses that He might have had some words to say to their parents.

p.s. From her post, it sounds like she is blessed with a parish where parents actually, you know, parent their children. Thus, no reason for her be focusing on the pews around her.

Cassie Potter | 10/1/2014 - 6:58pm

I am sorry, Kime Martin, but you are the reason why people do not like bringing their children to Mass. You are the reason my husband and I dread Sundays. This article was not only well written, but needed to be said. Children have a right to go to Mass, and not all children can sit still, not all children are the same. The Catholic Church calls Catholic couples to have children, have families, and raise them in the faith. If the Catholic Church wants this of me, my husband and all other couples, then the Church will welcome and accept the families at Mass, crackers, crayons and all. I have four children in four years, my baby is 10 months and my oldest just turned 5. My 5 and 4 year olds are well behaved in Mass and I no longer have to provide snacks and toys, but my 2 year old colors and my baby eats puff snacks. This is how we make it through Mass with zero crying and no melt downs. God wants me and my children at Church, He does not think it is bad or disrespectful that my 2 year old is coloring. If the Church finds this disrespectful, then the Church is preaching a double standard by telling couples to have children and that birth control is immoral, but your family is not welcome at Mass if your children are loud or need a snack or want to color. Shame on you for saying that. And thank you Brian Doyle for this article that not only moved me to tears but also made me feel good about brining my children to Mass.

Mary Ann McKinny | 10/9/2014 - 10:44am

I don't think you are the kind of parent to which she was referring! None of things she mentioned as being rude or disrespectful are things you say you or your kids do.

It is fantastic that your 4 and 5 year olds behave! Children by that age should behave! The kids mentioned in this blog were 4. Too old to be eating snacks during Mass. Especially a Mass that only lasts 25 minutes.

Sarah Bryant | 10/1/2014 - 8:26pm

I didn't see anywhere that she said people are not welcome at Mass if their children or loud or need a snack or want to color.
There is a quite a difference between giving a baby puffs (I would hope one at a time so as not to make a mess) and allowing children to drop grapes and cookie crumbs all over the floor!
Likewise, a 2yo quietly coloring is much different from older children playing hand held video cames or running cars up and down the pew while making vrooming noises. All of which I have witnessed at Mass at one time or another.
She said what is disrespectful is children "misbehaving by hitting each other, rolling around on the floor, and making food messes". None of that is what you described your children doing.
You are doing good by having your 4 and 5 yo children well-behaved! Once children are that age they should be able to sit quietly and follow along. This article stated that the children were 4yo. Assuming these are children with no issues such as autism or the like, they are way too old for the kind of behavior the author witnessed.
We attend a more orthodox church too. Not where I witnessed the vrooming cars and video games. Our church has tons of big families! Almost all of them have incredibly well-behaved children. You can't tell me that all of those families just have well-behaved children by chance. Like us they have to have kids with different personalities, but they all manage to somehow get their children to sit quietly by the age of 3 or 4. Our priest has said in his homilies and in the bulletin that "food is a crutch" and that "noisy children are like New Years resolutions - they should be carried out". I don't know of anyone who was offended by those comments. All of our Masses are packed on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings and at least 1/3 full during the weekday Masses.
We bring religious books for our littles. No toys and no food. We hold our babies and toddlers to keep them out of trouble. If they make too much noise we take them out. I won't lie, there have been bad days when I've wanted the floor to open up and swallow me for something embarrassing one of my kids did! Thankfully those instances are few and far in between.

Mary Ann McKinny | 10/9/2014 - 10:56am

"noisy children are like New Years resolutions - they should be carried out"

That is awesome! I love that! Good for that priest having the courage to say that. Might I ask his age?

Kime Martin | 10/1/2014 - 6:06pm

Does anyone else not find it incredibly RUDE and DISRESPECTFUL that these children were allowed to drop grapes and cookie crumbs all over the floor/pew/etc?

Would these same parents go to a family, friend, or colleague's house and allow their children to drop food and crumbs and touch things with their sticky hands? Why is behavior like this allowed (and seemingly encouraged in this article) in GOD's house?!

Our children would never dream of snacking during Mass. Even as toddlers, they sit in the pews and quietly look around. Sixty years ago, not one single child would be allowed to eat or run around during Mass. People with their veiled comments are remembering that time. If children could sit still for a two-hour long Latin Mass sixty years ago, why can't (neurotypical) children sit still for a twenty-five minute Mass today?

Our parish is fairly traditional. It still offers the Latin Mass. It is full of large, young families. And, it is usually so quiet that one could hear a pin drop during Mass. Our parish congregation is certainly proof that children do not always misbehave at Mass.

What are these families doing different than the ones in the article? For starters, I do not know of one single family that allows food. There also is a lack of toys being brought for kids to play with. Children are allowed to get up for potty breaks, and some nap on their parents' laps or the pews. Toddlers are held by their parents so that they cannot run around. If they squirm too much or make too much noise so that it is potentially a distraction to other parishioners, they are taken out to be held in the back of church. They are not let down to play and run around. Parents do not tolerate talking or sibling fights, and they position themselves between their children to stop it before it can even start.

Articles like this seem to give parents the impression that it's okay for their children to be rude and disrespectful during Mass. IT IS NOT! Obviously, every child is entitled to a bad day, but if your child is constantly hitting siblings, making noise, running around, and leaving food messes during Mass, something is wrong with your parenting.

Yes, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me". However, I'm fairly certain he would have been upset with their parents if those children were misbehaving by hitting each other, rolling around on the floor, and making food messes in the temple.

Mary Ann McKinny | 10/9/2014 - 10:50am

Brava! Thank you for having the courage to say this.

I remember attending Mass as a child with my parents and nine siblings. We didn't make a peep. If we so much as squirmed all it took was "the look" from my mother to set us right. I doubt she was fully able to focus on Mass until we were grown because she was constantly watching over us to make sure we were behaving.

p.s. I think I would love your parish! It sounds like the parish I remember growing up.

amy born | 10/4/2014 - 10:45am

Unfortunately, we all need to be much more accepting of all. If these children & their behavior truly distract you, why not help or start a child care spot so the younger parents that truly need an hour of quiet reflective prayer would benefit. Talk about a win-win-win: Stressed out parents are encouraged to attend Mass, you are truly doing God's work & the children will be able to squirm & not distract others like yourself :)

Mary Ann McKinny | 10/9/2014 - 10:52am

I don't want to put words in her mouth (or would it be fingers?), but from her post, it sounds like she is blessed with a parish where the parents ensure their children behave or take them out. Thus, no distractions.

Sarah Bryant | 10/1/2014 - 8:31pm

I think the things the author witness is really disrespectful too.

I agree with much of what you said. I don't even like brushing a stray piece of lint from my skirt onto the floor at church!

Kristina Adams | 10/1/2014 - 12:08pm

Thank you for the article. As a mom to 5 and 3 year old boys, and a 1 y/o girl, I can totally relate. One thing I have found is that you need to find the right church for your family. We moved about 2 years ago and started going to our new local church. After a year, it was not working out, we did not feel welcome at all. We switched back to our old church which is now half an hour away, and it has been a worthwhile experience. I lament that my kids won't see their local friends from school at church or RE, but the Salesian All are Welcome theme of our parish makes the small sacrifice worth it. I try to go through Mass in the pews and without food or toys as well, and I know they aren't taking in much. But they are taking in some of it. I can see it in those fleeting moments when one of my boys will kneel on the kneeler and put his hands together, even if it only lasts 3 seconds. But going to Mass with 3 small children is always a great sacrifice. As parents, we try so hard to make our children behave or at least not disturb the others around us, and no matter the effort, someone is usually disturbed. Our priest reminds the parishioners that our commitment to being pro-life extends beyond the 9 months in the womb, and includes the rambunctious phases of toddlerhood. As baptized Christians, it is my children's right and my responsibility to ensure they are at Mass, even when it's inconvenient to us and others, and difficult to "suffer" through.

Brian Garcia-Luense | 10/1/2014 - 1:28am

As a Church we baptize infants. Once baptized they have the right (and obligation) to participate in the liturgy as fully, consciously and actively as they are capable given their developmental level.

JIM DEVLIN | 9/30/2014 - 9:30pm

Great article! With nine children, we've been through the holy ringer and really appreciate the patience of those around us. As for Cry Rooms, no thanks. It's more like a Social Hall and we can never hear what's happening on the other side of the window. So we sit, stand, and kneel, lightly nudging the herd in the right direction. And by the grace of God, we've made it this far without wrassling matches.

PATRICIA HURD | 9/30/2014 - 2:45pm

I so remember those days....sometimes blissful and sometimes not! Now I sometimes get to attend Mass with my two grandsons, ages 2 and 5 months. Always such a joy!

Karen Waterman | 9/30/2014 - 12:37pm

Thank you for a lovely article. As a mother of five, I appreciate hearing your positive opinion. My two youngest, ages 6 and 7, are still rather squirmy at mass. Yet, I am still surprised at how much they get. It always pains me to hear my peers say they don't go to mass because of their children's behavior. If they don't go, how will they learn?

Robert Killoren | 9/30/2014 - 11:31am

What do people think about churches that have "cry rooms" in the back? Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the assembly?

Emily Anderson | 9/30/2014 - 3:06pm

Personally, I don't like cry rooms. I have described the experience as banishment or monkeys on display lol so I rarely sit in them. Plus, and I may ruffle some feathers here, I don't allow my children to have any toys food coloring books or regular books. I used to bring things with us but I always felt bad about the noise and the mess. Not to mention once I set the standard of no "extras" in Mass my younger children rose to the occasion. Cry rooms tend to have people with snacks and toys and it's hard enough to get my boys to sit quietly through mass without the added distraction of other kids who are eating and playing with their toys. As far as the whole assembly is concerned the majority of the people at my church love that we bring all of our children to mass. It gives them the opportunity to help us out a little by complimenting our children when they are well behaved or giving us a break by holding our 2 year old or the baby. I know there are some who would prefer we sat in the cry room and I just pray for them and my children before mass. I make sure to thank God for my obedient children before every Mass :) (you know kind of like hey God here are my expectations) and I just want to add I am not against toys or books in Mass it's just not something that works for my family.

Letisia Lopez | 9/30/2014 - 3:51pm

Totally agree with you Emily. Also our priest when we built our new church did not add a cry room because he wants children in church. He said they are the future of our faith.

Sharon Valente | 9/30/2014 - 11:13am

Ditto! It is very hard for my 12 1/2 year old (with autism) to sit still, especially on hard wooden pews. Often he will curl into my lap. We get many stares and severe looks because my son "looks" normal. But I get those hugs and the knowledge that they were heaven sent.

Mary Castano | 9/30/2014 - 10:46am

Love the article on the twins at Mass. I'm an old woman and I often wonder why parents can't make their kids behave and then I remember what my son was like. Thank you for bringing me back to reality.

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