Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where Do Our Children Stand?

I'm sorry to disappoint any readers who may just check in here to find out updates about our family by once again straying from that topic to express my opinion about something, but this is something that's been brewing for awhile.


Take one troubling trip to an extremely un-child-friendly parish this summer, put a visit to the Monastery of the Transfiguration (which is beyond child-friendly) on the heels of it, and then mix it up with just reading this article, and you get one opinionated seminary wife!


After the first aforementioned visit, I was in turmoil for days. I knew that being in that setting turned me into Mean Mommy, and that I didn't like that feeling. I was practically sitting on my children to try to make sure no one wiggled, whispered, or did anything else to draw attention to herself. Keep in mind that this reaction on my part was not just due to what I personally experienced at his parish, but what I was told by a young couple we sponsored years ago as they entered the Orthodox church about their experience at this parish. They had been literally followed around by parishioners demanding that they spank their child and being told that the priest had spoken out about the children making noise, even in the parish hall. When we had been there before, we were asked to stay away from the side of the church where the choir was because noises from children were too distracting for the choir. When my toddler escaped my grasp once, I received an angry e-mail from a parishioner about how distracting her behavior and my ensuing attempts to retrieve her were (bearing in mind that I was in the back of the church, and the parishioner was seated up front).


Being the people-pleaser that I've been for most of my life, I swallowed all of this. I internalized it. I expected perfection of my children and bought into the expectation that these people obviously had that I should and would be able to control my children's every move. When I came to seminary, though, I began to believe in a higher purpose for my children's attendance in church than silent submission. I still stressed out a lot about noise and movement, but my focus shifted to trying to use our church time as instructional time and engaging them in the worship.


So a return visit to this parish where I felt my children were so unwelcome threw me into turmoil. Who was right? What were parents supposed to do? I knew in my heart that Jesus obviously loved children when He was made flesh and dwelt among us. His disciples tried to shoo the children away, but Jesus welcomed them.


Then we visited the Monastery of the Transfiguration, an Orthodox convent of nuns. I witnessed how they brought my children up to the kliros with them and let them sing (when they could), and gave them paper to write on. They made sure I had a comfortable place to nurse the baby where I could still hear the service. They paid special attention to the kids outside of the service, as well. I had a chance to talk to one of the nuns for an extended period of time afterwards, and I began to describe to her the things that were troubling me. It was during this talk, as each of the parishioner reactions I mentioned was met by her disbelief and disapproval, that I realized something. How prideful of those people to assume that if every child in the nave were perfectly silent and still that they, the adults, would not be distracted! I don't know about you, but even when my children are not with me or are behaving perfectly, I'm still totally distracted by my own monkey mind.


Let me be clear that I am in no way advocating that children should be allowed to run free in church or make as much noise as they want to. I get as annoyed as anyone when another parent allows his or her child to come over and start talking to one of mine. It is still my number one parenting goal that my children learn silence and stillness, especially in church, because I want them to be able to be receptive to the voice of God. But I want this for them so that holy things inspire in them a sense of wonder, not a sense of dreading the Mommy-monster who will freak out and smack them around if they forget to be quiet. 


There are two issues that I believe are central to this topic of how children and their parents should be treated and what expectations we, as a church, should have of them. One is cosmic, the other is cultural. The cosmic one is simply a reminder that, "We wrestle not against flesh and blood..." (Ephesians 6:12). That's not to say that people who turn around and give parents dirty looks when their children make noise are somehow demonic. It just means that those people are falling prey to the temptation that ALL of us face to avoid living in the moment we're in, to avoid attending to our own hearts. I have more of a tendency to give in to this temptation when I read some spiritual book or scripture verse that really strikes me. The first thing I want to do is share it with someone. That sounds innocent enough, right? But what that does is distract me from meditating on those words, internalizing them, and living them. If I can just copy and paste those words right into my Facebook status, the burning they created within me dies down enough that eventually, I forget them.


Archamandrite Meletios Weber, in his book Bread and Water, Wine and Oil says that nothing can distract us except what we choose to be distracted by. He gives the example of the person singing off-key in the choir near us, but whether it's that or someone's child who keeps babbling or the crooked icon in the center analogion, if we decide to accept that that's just the way it is going to be, it can no longer distract us.  This may sound strange if you have never thought of it that way before, but we are the ones who choose to be distracted. If you are used to a quiet office job or sitting in your house and hearing nothing louder than the ticking of your clocks, it may take a little more determination on your part to accept the "holy noise" (in the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemman) of little children. Trust me when I say, though, that that child's noise is louder to his or her own parents than it could ever be to anyone else.  Out of all of my Orthodox friends who have children, from the one whose children could be mistaken for statues during every liturgy to the ones who spend half their time in the narthex because their children tend to be so energetic, I don't know anyone who is pleased with the behavior of their children in church. There's always another level we are striving for, and we don't need the disapproval of anyone else to make us aware of that.


The other issue that I mentioned, the cultural one, was handled so beautifully in this blog post, "Motherhood Is a Calling (And Where Your Children Rank)". In it, Rachel Jancovic points out the value (or lack thereof) that our culture places on children and how contrary that is to a biblical understanding. I liked this article so much, not just because I agree with her, but because Rachel found the words to describe a cultural attitude I sometimes find myself slipping into, or at least not defending my beliefs against. It is deeply embedded in our culture that motherhood should be a choice. That no one need have children unless they actively choose to do so. But I think, as Rachel says, that motherhood "is not something to do if you can squeeze the time in. It is what God gave you time for." She points out that motherhood is about laying down your life (your desires, your dreams, your ambitions) for someone else (your child(ren)), and our culture is afraid of death. It's a great article, and I hope you'll read it, but for the purpose of this topic, the part about how children rank below going to college or traveling the world or having lots of leisure time is key. Unfortunately, even though this is not a godly way to look at children, I believe it is so pervasive in our culture that it has even infiltrated the way many Christians view children. They are seen as burdens instead of blessings. I recognize that I may have to defend my children when I go to the grocery store ("Boy you have your hands full! You're not going to have any more, are you?"), but I shouldn't have to do it when I go to church. What we need people in the church to do is turn around when a child is making noise and instead of shushing or rolling our eyes at the parent, take a step back and help the parent. Show them, whether they be life-long Orthodox or first-time visitor, that in our church, we value children. We support you as you take up your cross, laying down your hopes, your ability to make more money and have more things, your ability to have a perfectly clean house, and your ability to stand still and participate in an entire Divine Liturgy. We're with you in this and we're going to help you in any way that we can.

19 comments:

Trish said...

Well said. Thanks for sharing Audra!

MSchooping said...

Loved reading this and yes well said! :)

Jenna said...

Love this post. You have put many of my feelings into words. We have often gotten some of those stares. The other day, someone (trying to be friendly) said, "Wow! Your kids were actually good in church today." All in all, our church is really great and very friendly toward kids, so I'm not complaining. What I try to remember is that it's often those who are most bothered by small kiddos in church who also wish that there were more teenagers/young adults/young families that attended church more often. The thing is that if we make our kids welcome in church from birth, they are more likely to stay forever. And if we don't, we may turn them off from church and from worshiping God forever. For me, that keeps my priorities straight. Kids first, because I am responsible in part for their salvation. Again, not excusing crazy church behavior, and I certainly discipline my children when they misbehave in church. But they need to grow up loving church and loving God, and that is my first priority. Thanks for this post, Audra!

Samantha said...

I think what is so hard is discerning what is acceptable behavior for children at church. I know that I have "boundaries" for mine which are different than what other parents would find acceptable...I get so anxious about what I think others are thinking of me and my children at church...instead of focusing on worship and how to lovingly engage my children in the service, so that they may feel the presence of Christ and know Him. But He is merciful and I hope that they are absorbing much, even when it seems to crazy for that to be possible. Thanks for this post Audra!

Sarah said...

Thank you for this post! We had the same experience recently and it's good to hear from other moms that yes, our children are louder to us than anyone else, and confirmation that our distraction is OUR problem and would happen with or without a particular noise. And I like how you balanced that with the Rachel Jankovic article - great point about how wanting to have a "silent" church service so OUR prideful selves can be pharasaically undistracted, is really an anti-life policy. And that as mothers we can't listen to the peanut gallery.
Honestly, aside from the occasional Crotchety Lady, I think most people are perfectly fine with (and even enjoy) the stirrings during Mass that indicate children are present. It means we are full of life and growing the way God intended His church to grow - by being fruitful and multiplying.

Ps-Iosifson said...

My GOA priest (with 6 kids) always said that children love Orthodox worship - in little doses. The sensory aspect of Orthodox worship is attractive to children. So, as a single father with a little child in the church, we'd alternate between standing/being held, then kissing icons, then standing, then lighting a candle, then standing, then kissing other icons, then standing, then pointing out the little boys with the priest during the entrance, then a break downstairs, then standing back in church, then smelling the incense going by, then standing, then getting in line for num-numms (communion and antidoron), then standing, etc. All mixed in with other breaks downstairs or outside, or breaks allowing him to draw or climb/crawl, hide under something, etc. I found it especially helpful over the years to have held him while singing the services - before he could crawl or walk. He got used to simply being in church without being entertained beyond the music, sights, smells, the vibration in my chest from singing, the director conducting us, etc.

I'm wondering how I'll do it with another one on the way since I wont' be able to be as hands-on with two as I was with one, but...

Ps-Iosifson said...

I think there's also something quite useful in this story of Henri Belloc. He was RC and not Orthodox, but I think it's important to give a little push-back to people overstepping their bounds.

"Belloc in the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster was a familiar sight, and the subject of many anecdotes. There was the story of his standing there during the Mass. It was his custom, learnt in France, to stand, even during the Canon. A fussy sexton approached. "Excuse me, sir, it is our custom here to kneel," he whispered. "Go to hell," said Belloc robustly. "I'm so sorry, sir. I didn't realise you were a Catholic.""

- From 'Forgotten Champion of The Catholic Thing' by A.N. Wilson, The Catholic Herald, 19 Septmeber 2008, an edited version of an essay that appeared in English Catholic Heroes, edited by John Jolliffe, Gracewing Publishing.

I've also liked the idea I heard some famous Orthodox priest or monk or bishop said: the sound of children in church is the sound of their exclamations of prayer. They can't pray the way adults do, so they exclaim, they cry, the run around, they grab, they look. They doing what they can with what wells up inside of them as they experience the services.

The important thing has always been to keep my son in the atmosphere, the element of Orthodox worship and prayer. There's a story of a Greek father who never said anything to his two sons about God. He simply took them to church and, most importantly, said his own evening prayers in his sons' room after they went to sleep. The sense of prayer was imbued into them as they slept, and if they woke up briefly they saw the personal religious commitment of their own father speaking louder than any words ever could have.

Audra said...

Wow, I never expected so many comments on this post!

Ps-losifson: One of the things that I think inspires some children to misbehave in church is that it's one place where their parents aren't doing anything else, so it seems like a prime opportunity to get some attention from them. I've begun recently to try to pour lots of positive attention into my kids at other times, to hopefully reduce their need to make up for lost time (or attention, I guess) during church. Sounds like you found a good way to give that positive attention during church. As you mentioned, though, it can be hard to do this for those of us with multiple children (and often only one parent to care for them during a service, my husband, for example is usually in the altar or choir). That's why we need others (like those, for example, who showed up at our babies' baptisms and pledged by their participation in the service to help raise them in the Lord) to help us out, whether that's by watching the well-behaved ones while we deal with the squirrely ones or by giving us a break from the latter!

Ps-Iosifson said...

I think many are wary about insinuating themselves into other childrens' lives (and discipline). Saying something to a child in church can result in nasty comments from parents who don't appreciate how you discipline or help, or who take it as a criticism of their own parenting. This would actually be the best way for clergy to pipe up about the issue of children in a parish. The priest can publicaly parents to ask for assistance and for volunteers to assist parents who need a little help to play one-on-one rather than zone defense - those who ask for help from the priest can get a helper assigned from godparents, grandparents whose grandkids are far away, from singles, young adults, others with kids of similar age.

When I have insinuated myself into a misbehaving situation it's usually to simply, lovingly and firmly reinforce whatever the parent has said but the child has ignored: "Why aren't you listening to your mother? Listen to your mother. Don't jump, don't hit...". That's actually a good lesson about the Theotokos and her relationship with her Son, too.

Anonymous said...

This past Holy week, I had many people tell me how blessed I was that my adult children were all in church (I have 7 total). I responded by pointing to my 2 year old and saying "It is because I brought them to church at this age." It is definitely a challenge sometimes with the little ones, but well worth it when as adults they embrace the faith and thank you for teaching them.

magda said...

At our first assignment, I figured out that the people most likely to complain about the noise are the ones who talk during the Gospel.

We're at our second assignment, and it's hard for people to go from a priest who stops during the Liturgy to remind parents that We Have a Nursery. Ahem. to a priest with family. On the other hand, as we persevere, the parish is seeing a significant increase the attendance of families with young children.

I often quibble with "Your son was good in church today." He's always good, but sometimes he's also well-behaved.

I love your post! Please pray for me.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this and agree with it completely. I don't mind soft noises or talking from children, although I think most people appreciate it when children making an ear-splitting amount of noise are calmed outside.

Being a single, childless female, I am always more than happy to hold a baby for someone, or to help a toddler venerate an icon. However, I don't know how to reach out to mothers who might appreciate an extra hand. I would hate to make an offer that would be perceived as an insult.

Anonymous said...

I actually left the Roman Catholic faith in large part because of this. The Catholic faith teaches "pro-life". I believe that - I was and am open to life. I got so sick of the dirty looks, hateful comments, and obnoxious observations that I got when I brought my 6 [well behaved] children to church with me. I never faced worse nasty comments or unwanted ridicule for having "so many children" than what I faced in my own Parish. I finally decided that any religion that treated children that way was not the church for me. I joined another Church, where my children are welcomed and adored - and every sunday I have to respond to comments of how well behaved my children are, how sweet they are, how blessed I am... and there are always happy, cheerful members of the congregation standing by to help with the kids should I need it. By their fruits you will know them.

Audra said...

Magda - "I often quibble with "Your son was good in church today." He's always good, but sometimes he's also well-behaved." I love it! It can be hard to sound reasonable to my kids when I think they have been horrible in church and someone will come up to me in front of them and say, "Your kids were SO GOOD in church."

A couple people mentioned not wanting to offend anyone with offers for help. I think the key here is to try to discuss it before the need for help comes up. Just approach a parent at coffee hour and say, "Anytime you need help, I'm here." While we're on the topic, coffee hour help is appreciated, too. I love it when people offer to hold the baby so I can fix myself a plate!

Anonymous - I'm so sorry that you were treated poorly in your former parish. In the parish I mentioned in my post where the problems occurred, there were at least a couple of helpful, encouraging people (the kind who'd turn around and smile when the kids made noise and come up and say they enjoyed the children's "singing" during church). I was sure to tell them how important it was that their voices (those of the encouraging poeple) were heard as well.

Rebeca said...

I came over from the Orthodox Homeschoolers Group. I appreciated what you wrote here. I've been so impressed lately that we CAN NOT compare our kids with others, nor can we try to make them live up to some standard. My 8 year old is not capable of what some 3 year olds are capable of in liturgy; he is a unique child with special needs, and I've spent too many years trying to make him be someone he's not. Like you, this doesn't mean I will let him run wild, but God is opening my eyes and heart to see that he is unique and needs my help, not for me to try to control him. I just wrote about this on my blog as well. Thank you for sharing this. Blessings...

Anonymous said...

Think of your children in church as little teachers. What they can teach/offer grouchy parishioners is sometimes greater that information in hundreds of sermons. Some grouches are learning resistant and they will need extra time to absorb the lessons. :^)

Darlene said...

My children are grown but I wish that I'd had the opportunity to keep them with me during worship. The church(es) I attended (non-Orthodox) thought Children's Church was the better alternative. Looking back on that experience, the implicit message was that children are a distraction to adult worship and need to be some place else. Voila...Children's Church.

Now as an Orthodox Christian, I enjoy the presence of children during the Divine Liturgy. They are, after all, members of the Body of Christ.

Kramerjlos said...

My GOA priest (with 6 kids) always said that children love Orthodox worship - in little doses. The sensory aspect of Orthodox worship is attractive to children. So, as a single father with a little child in the church, we'd alternate between standing/being held, then kissing icons, then standing, then lighting a candle, then standing, then kissing other icons, then standing, then pointing out the little boys with the priest during the entrance, then a break downstairs, then standing back in church, then smelling the incense going by, then standing, then getting in line for num-numms (communion and antidoron), then standing, etc. All mixed in with other breaks downstairs or outside, or breaks allowing him to draw or climb/crawl, hide under something, etc. I found it especially helpful over the years to have held him while singing the services - before he could crawl or walk. He got used to simply being in church without being entertained beyond the music, sights, smells, the vibration in my chest from singing, the director conducting us, etc. I'm wondering how I'll do it with another one on the way since I wont' be able to be as hands-on with two as I was with one, but...

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