The Arnall family’s Los Angeles parish has what is sometimes called a “cry room” — a small room where parents and their maybe unruly children can participate in the Mass … without disturbing the parishioners around them. And Susan Arnall made use of the room, as needed, when any of her seven children were young enough to be fussy in church.
In fact, when she used to go to daily Mass — this was back when she had four children — she used to go straight to the “cry chapel.” Unless, of course, she discovered it was not open.
One particular day, the cry chapel was locked, so Arnall and her children slipped into a pew at the back of the church. “I would sit with the kids and keep them occupied,” she said, “but it was a little bit of a juggle.
“I was trying to go to daily Mass, because it’s so helpful — and it should teach them that there’s a value, too.”
But that particular day, the 2-year-old tumbled off the pew and started to cry. Arnall whisked her out to comfort her and then returned to Mass.
After Mass ended, as Arnall was herding her kids out to the car, another daily communicant approached her. “She basically accused me of child abuse,” Arnall recalled, saying that the woman complained to Arnall about “all the drama.”
“She was very direct and rude to me,” said Arnall. “So I stopped going to daily Mass.”
“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said. But at the time, he was not in a church designed to amplify sound, whether an outraged squeal, a windup toy or the clatter of a book onto the floor.
Of course, the invitation still stands today. But the fact is, parents’ beloved offspring may disturb others during the Mass. And those parents may face glares, aggrieved sighs or the humiliation of an overzealous usher’s command to take a squirmy toddler outside.
An Imperfect Solution
In Zachary, Louisiana, the 18-month-old St. John the Baptist Catholic Church building was designed with not one, but two, cry rooms. Both are located in the same transept, with a hallway separating them; one has a restroom with a changing table, and the other does not. But most families of young children don’t head straight for these “training rooms” when they arrive at the church, says Nita Poole, assistant to the pastor.
“Many of [the small children] are sitting in the pews with their family. When they cry, [the family] processes to the room.
“Initially, Father would stop during Mass [if a child was causing a disturbance] and say, ‘We do have the cry rooms,’ but people were offended by that, and he backed off it,” Poole said.
When the new church flooded, and the cry rooms became temporarily unusable, the 11am Mass — which, Poole says, has the greatest number of infants and young children in attendance — became fairly noisy, convincing parents that maybe the special rooms weren’t such a bad idea. Once the rooms reopened, they became well used.
That isn’t to say that such rooms are a perfect solution. In fact, cry rooms — which became popular in the 1950s, after the baby boom — have become a sort of lightning rod.
For some parents, the very existence of a cry room is a life preserver. It allows them to go to church on Sunday, children in tow, and feel comfortable, no matter how the little ones behave.
For others, it is a sort of purgatory — a “penalty box” — where they must suffer until their children have grown up enough to permit them into the church proper.
Google “cry room,” and peruse a myriad passionate opinions.
“A parish that segregates people who had the temerity to produce children doesn’t deserve another generation of members,” reads one headline.
“My kids have never been the ‘quiet ones’ in church, and I felt good knowing I could go to Mass without bothering any of the other parishioners,” says one mother of three.
So which is it? A benefit or a backwater where parents and their young children are condemned?
The Role of the Laity
There’s another school of thought on the subject, which is that the cry room allows parents to spend Mass time chatting with each other while their children play (or fight) together virtually unsupervised, disconnected from the purpose of the Eucharistic celebration.
For Debbie Dyson, parish catechetical leader at Most Holy Redeemer in Old Bridge, New Jersey, that is precisely how the parish cry room appears. “Parents that have kids that can’t sit still in church, they want to be there. Quite honestly, [the children] run rampant, and parents don’t stop them.
“I don’t know what their purpose is, really, for going in there.”
“[Cry rooms] were good for me with young babies … but they weren’t the best thing,” said Arnall, pointing out that the celebration of the Mass is at the heart of the Catholic faith, and it’s vital for children to learn it. “It is a nice option to have — but it would be better if parents and little children felt welcome. And that’s got to come down to the laity.”
She recalls a Sunday Mass when she and her husband were wrangling with their brood and a nearby parishioner reached into her purse and pulled out a little Matchbox car, handing it to one of the Arnall boys who was having a particularly difficult day. It immediately turned his attitude around.
Recalled Arnall, “I still to this day remember her kindness.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from
Children at Mass
Not every church contains a cry room (and, in fact, some dioceses are actively discouraging new church construction from including one). So if Junior gets fussy, he is often removed to the vestibule or even just outside the church until he is calm and quiet enough to return.
Many parents suggest the use of quiet entertainment to help occupy very small children during Mass. Faith-based books — particularly if they are softbound, so they won’t clunk when they inevitably fall to the floor — or perhaps even a doll of a saint are great ideas. Beware of mechanical toys that could turn on unexpectedly.
While most parents’ instincts lead them to the rear of the church — so they can make an unobtrusive escape if necessary — sitting closer to the altar could be a great help in capturing children’s attention, since they can more easily see what’s happening and learn the parts of the liturgy.
Many parishes offer a “Children’s Liturgy of the Word” during certain Mass times. Children attending the Mass with their families process to another space as a group to hear simplified versions of the readings and learn a simplified message of the readings. They then return for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
“[The Mass] is the heart of our faith,” says Susan Arnall, mother of seven. “And [our children] need to learn it.”
— Elisabeth Deffner