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.