A Note on Children in Church

When I first became Orthodox, there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on extending grace to children and including them in the Church at their own level. Certain factions always grumbled about this, though, and they usually seemed to be wealthier people who had contributed to the parish for a long time and wanted things to be “nice” for their worship experience in return. No bothersome children, please.

Now I feel as if the institutional church in general is currently swinging toward more strictness. Perhaps the recession has given those plutocrats within the church a louder and more important voice.

At any rate, I want to repeat something I said in the comments. Children, like other people, are what they are for actual reasons. Short-circuiting the process they need to go through to grow up, become full-fledged Christians, and not bother anyone anymore, is counter-productive in the long run.

Unfortunately, if your child happens to be one of the ones that doesn’t automatically act like you want them to in church, you probably feel a lot of pressure right now.

Here’s a story about that. Beginning a couple of years ago, notices began appearing in my parish’s bulletin and on the bulletin board asking people to control their children better in church and keep them quiet. I wrote a response and posted it on the bulletin board in return, asking for grace instead. The responses were immediately taken down and thrown away. Soon afterward, an usher manhandled my son when she didn’t like how he was behaving, dragging him out of the nave instead of taking him to his parents. He was terrified. She refused to apologize. The priest declined to discuss it with me. Since then I have attended very little. I felt that things were going in a bad direction.

A few months ago, I pulled into my church parking lot after Sunday Liturgy had already been under way for about an hour. I was sitting in my car, invisible to people walking around outside, and I saw a young mother emerge from the church building holding a sobbing, hot, red-faced two-year-old in her arms. The mother looked desperate and humiliated. She sat down on a bench and began trying to come up with ways to make the child “behave himself” – i.e. stop crying and be ready to act like an adult in church.

First she held him at arm’s length so he couldn’t get his arms around her. He screamed louder.

Secondly, she began poking him with a stick she picked up off the ground. The whole time she was furiously speaking to him in a low voice. He screamed louder.

Thirdly, she began slamming his little body on the concrete ground repeatedly, still talking furiously at him and trying to get him to stop. He screamed louder.

As all this happened, a quiet-faced Christ surrounded by blessed children gazed down on the scene from a massive icon in the church courtyard. She was actually doing this to her child 5 feet away from a giant icon of Christ blessing the children.

Meanwhile, inside the church building, a lot of thin, smooth-skinned, shiny-haired, well-dressed rich people were enjoying their well-deserved peaceful and quiet Liturgy hour.

18 thoughts on “A Note on Children in Church

  1. Hard to believe. You are in the wrong building (that is not church, it is a collection of special needs adults, whom God loves of course, but might Himself feel uncomfortable there)

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    • You’re the second person to tell me that this week. Maybe I should listen.

      Classic quip at the end there. 🙂 I’m glad to see you and the Lord getting on such comfortable terms.

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          • Family. “Our Father.” I wish I understood that, really understood. (I read your post about believing in prayer. That’s better than wishing. I’m going to read it again. And try to pray that way. Gratefully,)

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            • I know… to bring these things from theory to a feeling of immediate knowledge is difficult. I respect that you don’t pretend to be certain of what you don’t feel authentically for yourself, but you also have regard for the testimony of the church, which has certainty. It is a fine line to walk and shows a generous spirit, I think.

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  2. As any waiter or waitress will tell you, the fussiness and aggressiveness of late-middle aged women can be misery-making. In my experience, finding them hilarious is more helpful than resentment.

    My parish experienced a similar shift in attitude toward children over the last decade. It wasn’t about moneyed people gaining in influence, though. A large cohort of converts just entered their fifties and sixties and the men became meeker and the women crankier and more demanding.

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    • That’s an interesting insight, and it has the ring of truth. Our convert cohort is more around my age – late X-ers and early Millenials. The usher was one of those women you describe, but another usher at a previous church who did the same thing was an elderly gent who’d been Orthodox all his life. He wasn’t rich, but he and his wife donated a lot of services that the church wouldn’t have been able to afford so it came to the same thing. I’ve swallowed a lot of insults to myself, as I hope to be forgiven. I feel ambivalent about the wisdom of doing the same over mistreatment of my children. Even though it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, it felt traumatic to my kid. When I look at the fact that these people’s own offspring are leaving the church at the rate of about 50%, I feel pretty certain that their methods are not to be trusted.

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      • Both the parish I was received through and the one I am a member of have cry rooms where children can go and relieve excess energy. They are glass fronted with speakers so that the parent can still participate in the Liturgy and the child is still there too. You do not say if your parish has pews, but pews are part of the problem. Both of mine have them. Pews regiment the experience and create a box especially for children. That in turn leads to claustrophobia. Very “German”, even Calvinist. Orthodox worship is not supposed to be “German”. Ideally, there should be a lot of movement: metanias, prostrations, making the sign of the cross.

        I personally do not like seeing parent come in with mule train of toys, plop their kids down in a pew and proceed to ignore them. That gives them no reason to attend as they can.

        Good grief, my attending goes in and out all the time, I just don’t scream when I get bored, hungry, scared or hurt. I taught my son the responses as he was able to follow. When to say/sing Lord have mercy, amen. If he got disruptive I took him out until he calmed down and was able to attend again. I added the Lord’s Prayer all before he could read. That gave him a reason to be there and he was part of the service.

        The thing that got some of the folks was when my late wife would discreetly nurse my son when he was in that stage.

        On really good days the expostulations of the young seem to blend into the flow of the Divine Liturgy very well indeed. Other times, the parent just needs to attend to the child rather than the external Liturgy.

        Last Sunday, one young’un started crying in the midst of the sermon, our priest being a father and grandfather initially started speaking a little louder, the child matched his volume. So, my priest simply paused. gave the mother the time to settle the child down and then continued. I do not think she actually left with the child, but I cannot be sure.

        The abusive reactions you cite are the result of shame I think. A shame built on a misperception that God is somewhere else and requires a rigid order of behavior in order to reach him.

        My living wife loves children. If any start getting fussy around us, she will get their attention and wiggle her nose at them with great big smiles. Usually they calm right down.

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        • Thanks for this thoughtful response. I loved the anecdote about Merry. I can somehow seem to see her wiggling her nose at some little critter.

          I agree about pews. I loathe them. As a CFS sufferer, I deal with orthostatic intolerance. So I can either sit, which is sopoforic, or I can keep moving, like walking or even swaying. To stand rigidly still takes me to the edge of fainting. It is awful.

          In religion, everything bad starts with Germans, why is that? lol

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          • Well, I had a history professor say once that the German language was quite deficient on the matter of love. Even the German phrase for “I love you”, Ich Liebe dich, sounds like an insult or spitting out something that tastes really bad to non-German ears. The French on the other hand sounds beautiful.

            I read a book years ago by an Austria psychologist that said there is a deep culture of child abuse in the German peoples using Hitler as an example among others.

            Most of their saints have been missionary imports. They were also originally evangelized by Arians.

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            • Hm. I grew up in a heavily German-descended state (Wisconsin) andI can attest that of you preach an abusive morality to them their consciences will be completely ensnared.

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          • I cannot stand for any length of time any more so I need the seat. I have been in parishes that do not have pews so I sit on the side benches. I have observed however, that in such parishes, many people are reluctant to go out into the open space but gather in safety around the edges. It is interesting how intimidating space can be to folks raised on regimented schools, pews, etc. Children however do not seem to have the same problem and, at least on the days I was there, behave quite well even in the midst of their wanderings.

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        • Cry rooms can help. Although some ornery people use their existence as a reason to banish children who are making any little movement or noise.

          I got myself in big trouble at one parish on the last day I attended, before we moved away. A woman was telling a nostalgic story about the good old days, when she could sit her children in the front row next to “Matushka” and if the children so much as twitched, Matushka would flick them with her middle finger to make them be still. I was so incensed I said, “Like this?” And flicked the woman in the face. The scene was dreadful.

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          • BTW, the psychologist was Alice Miller and she was Swiss. Extensive work on the roots of violence in early childhood abuse: physical, sexual and psychological. Her view of abuse is very broad and would encompass many of the child rearing practices mentioned here as well as other more severe methods common in Germanic cultures which inculdes our own.

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  3. Oh, my! I am so disheartened to read this. In my parish we have so many young children, always some babies/toddlers, one of whom seems to be in a screaming stage. If there are people who give the parents a hard time, they are in the minority. Most of us middle aged and older are just trying to encourage the young families. Maybe people are so tolerant because we feel the specialness of having all these children among us, with pious parents obviously trying their best to raise them in the fullness of the faith.

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