Why Children's Liturgies Give Me the Willies

The practice of keeping young children in Mass teaches some important virtues, and just might pay off down the road.

Fritz von Uhde, “Suffer the Little Children”, 1885
Fritz von Uhde, “Suffer the Little Children”, 1885 (photo: Public Domain)

A recently witnessed Facebook exchange forced me to confront a deep, dark truth about myself: I hate—no, not hate; I loathe, despise, abhominate, and abhor children's liturgies.  The feeling was a little overblown, and prompted some self-examination.  What exactly was it that gave me such a visceral negative reaction to something that many parents embrace with waves of relief?

I think I know now.  None of these are arguments that your children’s liturgy that your children go to in your parish is anything but the bee’s knees.  They are simply my attempt to articulate to myself why the idea of any child of mine ever attending one makes me shudder like a lizard just ran up my leg when I was almost asleep (true story).

(1) The primary gut-level reason I think I feel a twinge of angst every time I see tots toddle out of Mass en masse is that kid-me would have loathed being sent out.  While it was true that I was occasionally bored at adult functions, the implication that I was not grownup enough to be part of the party would have been insulting to my four- or five-year-old self.  It was a privilege to be included in a way that made you “one of the grownups.”  I still vividly remember the time my parents took me to my first classical concert (that’s classical as in Beethoven, not classic as in the Beatles).  After the first hour or so there was an intermission, and they asked me if I had been bored.  “Only a little,” I said truthfully.  “It’s mostly pretty interesting.”  I think I was rewarded with M&M’s (though none had been promised).  I must have been about six at the time.  Now it may be that I was just quirky.  It may be that my children don’t turn out to be “born old” like George Bailey.  But before I assume that they’re eager to check out of the “boring” Liturgy of the Word, I’ll be checking in with them, just in case.

(2) My second reason for hesitating over children’s liturgies is that my memories of growing up in a large family suggest that good behavior is a learned, practiced endeavor, and always a work in progress.  As with acquiring any new skill or maintaining a newly acquired one, the key is practice.  And, as every frustrated pianist suffering the rigors of Hanon knows, the only way to practice is by stretching your muscles.  Behaviorally, that means that children will only learn to be more patient if their patience is sometimes put to the test.  In church or at a party or the park or the store—wherever the issue is (it’s usually everywhere, eh?), the only way to have children who behave while bored is by letting them sometimes be bored when boring, adult things are occurring.  Of course, as with practice of any sort, there will be failures.  You don’t start your basketball career throwing nothing but net all day.  And it is equally true that the practice-and-fail process is grueling for the adults who oversee the resulting temper tantrums.  In some ways, it’s easier to just let attention spans and intellects naturally grow and mature as children age.  To a certain extent, they will naturally grow and mature.  But it is possible to speed up the process—and the benefits for children, in terms of good habits and increased fortitude, are tremendous.  The five-year-old who learns not to interrupt is more likely, as a college freshman, to attend to a classmate’s argument; the eight-year-old who can do a lesson of homework unsupervised is less likely to give up when he finds the Aristotle assignment impenetrable.

As for the enforcement of “boredom practice,” I’m a firm believer in the adage “Catch them being good.”  If the two-year-old has been sitting quietly in the cart or pew for two minutes, he gets a “Good job being quiet!” and a big smile.  Praise, and sometimes a prize, go a long way.  (I do still remember those M&M’s, more than twenty years later.)

(3) The third reason I don’t care for children’s liturgies is less experiential and more theoretical.  Parents are the primary catechists of their children.  This doesn’t mean, to be sure, that parents need to communicate every bit of religious information themselves.  Many parents lack the time (and some lack the ability, and some feel they lack the ability) to be their children’s directors of religious ed.  Some children, for one reason or another, respond better to teachers who are not relatives.  And there are many good things that parishes offer as supplements to parents’ education of their children: parish schools with religion classes, CCD, preparation for particular sacraments, religiously themed summer camps … and yes, perhaps children’s liturgies as well.  But because the liturgy is a comparatively easy thing for parents to teach their children, I have a harder time reconciling myself to outside intervention in its case.  My father used occasionally to ask us to describe the gist of the readings and homily on the way home from church.  Pa Ingalls, if I recall my Little House books aright, did the same with Laura and Mary.  I’m fairly confident that this will be a family custom with my own children going forward. If the drive home is too short, perhaps a little Socratic dialogue over the Sunday dinner table will do.

(4) My final reason for feeling a little put-out by children’s liturgies is that they seem to imply an intellectualist approach to religion.  Now there is nothing wrong with being an intellectual who is religious, or even approaching religion in an intellectual way: the Catholic Church is, after all, the Church of Aquinas and John Newman and John Paul II, all three of them saints as well as ingenious theologians.  But there is something wrong with approaching worship primarily as an intellectual exercise.  To strive to understand the content of the Mass is good: learn the language, use a missal, understand the history, etc.  But to treat puzzling parts of Mass—or of religion generally—as things that need simplification in order to be digested is problematic, at least for adults.  And to send a message to children that it’s OK for them to get the pabulum form of the Mass strikes me as having the potential to create a bad habit, and an immature approach to religion later in life.  “It doesn’t speak to me, so I can ignore it” is not a good way to engage with anything that is complex.

And of course, allowing children to suffer a little (and, heaven knows, suffering with them) in the mysteriousness of the Mass is not just about the building up of good habits.  There’s also this thing called grace.  The Mass is a sacrament—yes, even for those too young to receive Communion—and there’s an advantage to a young soul in being there, beginning to end, even if it isn’t always perfectly comprehensible to a young mind.

Mind you, this is all coming from a place of inexperience as the overly academic mother of an energetic not-yet-one-year-old … who spends a lot of time in the vestibule.  Check back with me in ten years or so to see what I say then!