The affable host of a popular radio show featuring live concerts of classical music recently replayed a few seconds of a recital. Laughing, he pointed out that a baby in the audience wailed soulfully during a quiet passage, making an unintentional duet with the flute.
He noted that, if parents want their children to develop a deep love of classical music, it’s crucial to bring them to live concerts. At the same time, he acknowledged that kids are kids and often make noise, which can be disruptive and annoying.
And then I almost drove off the road, because he asked the listening audience, “What do you think? Drop me a line.”
Heavens protect this poor man, who had no idea what a minefield he was wading into. On the topic of children in public, the public is generally divided into three contingents:
1. People who think children are foul and extraneous and should be hidden if they must exist at all;
2. People who think their own children are precocious marvels and the world should be grateful that darling Wyatt has chosen their restaurant table upon which to poop; and
3. Normal human beings, including parents who do their best to make their kids behave, with mixed results, and non-parents who do their best to tolerate the normal behavior of normal kids.
The third class generally gets shouted down.
My own take, as a mother of ten and a lover of classical music? Kids should come to concerts when they are old enough, and have the right temperament, to sit still and be quiet. Not “kid quiet,” with whispering and rustling, but actual quiet, so that the concert-goers can focus on the music, and the performers aren’t distracted. (And the same goes for adults! If you can’t stop coughing, chatting, or rustling papers, go away!) If a normally quiet kid starts to raise a ruckus, he ought to be taken out immediately—not in anger, but just so the concert isn’t spoiled for the rest of the audience. They have bought their tickets and are entitled to hear the music undisturbed.
I do take my little kids to family-style and outdoor concerts, where no one expects concert hall silence. But in general, the desire of one family to instill a love of music does not trump the desire of the rest of the audience to hear the music without interruption.
You may be surprised, then, to hear that I have a very different approach when it comes to kids at Mass. Here is what I have said about the topic in the past:
The Mass is not a private time. It’s a time to worship God with other people. We feel that kids belong at Mass, both for their benefit and for the benefit of the congregation. We gradually increase our expectations of our kids until they eventually participate as fully in the Mass as any adult.
Some readers were enraged at the idea that the Mass is not private time. They said that they have very little time to spend with God, and it is infuriating to have that one precious hour interrupted by screaming brats.
Screaming brats are no good; agreed (and my link has seventeen ideas for how to manage kids at Mass). But the Mass is, by definition, a communal prayer. In the Catechism, it says:
“Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the Church which is ‘the sacrament of unity,’ namely, the holy people united and organized under the authority of the bishops. Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church. They manifest it, and have effects upon it. But they touch individual members of the Church in different ways, depending on their orders, their role in the liturgical services, and their actual participation in them.” For this reason, “rites which are meant to be celebrated in common, with the faithful present and actively participating, should as far as possible be celebrated in that way rather than by an individual and quasi-privately.”
All parents are responsible for helping their kids learn to behave as well as they can, or for taking them out if their behavior is out of control.
But some kid noise at Mass is unavoidable, and should be welcome in any parish that wishes to survive. Many parents are trying harder than it appears to outsiders. Many kids have invisible disabilities, and many parents have invisible crosses.
The Church is not a museum, a silent retreat, or an old folks’ home.
And it is not a concert. It is not a performance. If we cannot attend Mass unless there is complete silence, then it may be an understandable struggle, but it may also be that something is lacking in our understanding of why we are there.
We are there to praise and worship God, to be spiritually nourished, and to unite our lives with the life of Christ as He offers Himself up to the Father. We are not there because we bought our ticket and are entitled to a certain experience.
No one knows better than parents how frustrating it is when a child makes it hard to concentrate and to pray. And there truly are some clueless, entitled parents who think their child’s noisy, disruptive whims are more important to indulge than the rest of the congregation’s sanity.
But most parents want to hear and focus on the Mass just as much as non-parents do. If a grumpy Mass-goer thinks it interferes with his one special hour with God when a child sings out, “MAMA, I SEE JESUS!” then imagine how much it interferes with that mother’s relationship with God when a priest stops the Mass and tells her, in no uncertain terms, that she and her child are not welcome.
When parents are told to leave the Church building, they often leave the Church for good. No, that doesn’t mean the rest of us are well rid of irreverent riff raff with shallow faith. It means souls may be lost. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Most little kids make noise. Unless they are naturally calm, or terrified and abused into submission, or absent, most little kids make noise. Sometimes it’s cute, but sometimes it’s just annoying—for the priest, for the rest of the congregation, and for the parents (only the kids generally don’t care!).
What to do? Maybe offer it up, kind of like, oh, I don’t know, Jesus offering up His body on the cross. Priests should offer up the interruption, the congregation should offer up the irritation, and parents should offer up the nasty looks and snarls they so often receive, deserved or not.
Think on this: If we’re not going to offer up sufferings while we’re literally, physically present at the re-creation of the sacrifice at Calvary, then when the heck are we going to do it? A relationship with God that only survives in silence is a fragile relationship indeed.
If parents want their children to develop a deep love of Christ, it’s crucial to bring them to Him—and it’s crucial for the rest of us to tolerate any incidental wailing that goes on, much as Christ tolerates us and our noise.