Thursday, May 15, 2008

This is not rocket science.

I may have ranted on this topic before, but a new post at Creative Minority Report got me off on a tangent, so I thought I would rant (again?) over here.

It's about kids in church. It seems that those of us whose children actually behave in church are in the distinct minority. I'm not saying this to brag. Okay, maybe a little. But I'm telling you, folks, it's not rocket science. We do expect our children to sit quietly for an entire hour. Oh, the humanity.

At first we wondered whether the boys could handle it. We did have some rough days where one of us had to take one or two of the children to the bathroom or the car to address the situation. But we really haven't had to deal with much of anything since Snookie was three years old, and even at age two he was very very good most of the time. These days, we actually leave the boys who are too young to receive communion sitting in the pew alone for a few moments while we go up to receive (the reason for that is our distaste for lay extraordinary minsters giving "blessings" to children - a post for another day, or maybe I've already been there, too), and they do just fine when left alone for no more than 30 seconds (obviously we sit as close to the front as possible so that we can keep an eye on them and the people who pass by them). As MommLlama once pointed out to me, if they can sit for two hours to watch a movie, they can sit for a one-hour mass. Granted, the movie is probably more interesting, but we know they are physically able to sit still, and we do sit in the front so that they can see what's going on.

How do we work this magic? Here's the big secret: If they do well, they get a donut. If they act up, we spank them. Profound, isn't it? The spanking only had to happen once or twice. I sure as heck was expected to behave in church as a kid, and we expect our kids to do the same. MommLlama remembers how her mother would carry the wooden spoon that served as a paddle at home in her purse. If she and her sister began to act up, mother would silently slip the handle out of the purse for them to see. My mom would quietly reach over and dig those (fake plastic) finger nails into your neck. We can't figure out why our parents now have such low standards for their grandchildren when they were so authoritative with us. Maybe our kids are cuter than we were.

I suppose everyone is just used to seeing kids standing in the pews and talking and crying and playing with books and games and bags of coco puffs. We've seen the look on people's faces as we sit in front of them. They dread it and sometimes even look for a new seat. I don't blame them, they've probably had many bad experiences. But after about 20 minutes they realize that our kids are actually not terrorists, and then after mass they can't help but praise their good behavior. This praise is received literally almost every week. Sometimes it's an older couple who tells us how terrible their own grandchildren are. Sometimes it's a mother of pre-teen or teenage kids who still haven't learned, and she wants to know what our secret is. We usually give credit to the Holy Spirit, or joke that we aren't above bribery. The truth is quite simple. The boys know their choices. One is tasty and sugary, the other is made of leather and worn around my waist.

Maybe they think we must have been really mean to scare the children into submission. You know what - I'm not too concerned about what they think. Because I'm not responsible for those strangers' eternal souls, but I will have to answer for my boys' upbringing.

And lest you are tempted to agree that we are too strict, I should say that sitting still in mass is only part of the church experience. We read the week's gospel reading at the dinner table the night before and explain what it means and how it applies. Pennies for the candy machine go to anyone who can answer a few simple questions about what they've heard. (Snookie's default answer is, "Jesus was with his disciples." He is expected to dig just a little deeper now...) These days, Bobcat likes to read the gospel passage himself before I read it to everyone - he is so proud of himself for being able to read scripture, and he receives a lot of praise for his efforts. We discuss the reading again a bit in the car on the way to church the next morning. We ask the boys to listen to the preacher, and there is yet another reward at home if they can tell us anything that he said. Overall, it's a challenging, but fun and rewarding experience. Just like anything else worth learning or doing. I suspect that many parents push their kids a lot harder on the sports field than we do at church.

So, I don't think our boys are growing to hate church or religion. They don't always like to wake up (who does), and most days they'd rather go and play. But they're learning to embrace it with a good attitude, and they are confident that they will do well. We were amazed how quickly they learned the responses to the mass. We used to have them sit during the parts where we kneeled. We didn't think they'd be able to kneel for that long, and would be mad that they couldn't see over the pew. But one day, Bobcat and Bubba asked to kneel with us, and the smiles on their faces were so wonderful. They wanted to learn and participate with us. So we decided to keep the bar at the level they had set. They had proven what they were capable of, so we held them to it the next time.

We've long suspected that many people who gave birth to their children just don't know when to draw the line between "baby who doesn't know better" and "boy or girl who should be able to sit still for a while". We got our boys at 2, 3, and 4, so we never knew them as babies. They were our babies, of course, but really they were little boys, not infants. We decided to see what they were capable of, and they kind of blew us away. Were our expectations always reasonable? I don't know. We tried to be sensitive, to admit our mistakes, to trust our spouse's instincts, to allow the boys some regression or acting out. But we always tried to discern the difference between truly "not old enough" to behave a certain way in a given situation, and simply "not trying very hard." We still do try to evaluate ourselves and consider how much school work they can handle in one day, how well they should behave for a sitter (kids gotta cut loose and enjoy "Grandma rules" now and then, but they also have to obey certain family rules no matter what, when, or where), how early they really need to go to bed, how long they need to nap, etc.

And we routinely see kids who must be nearing 10 years old and are still sleeping on a parent's lap or messing with the kneelers or whining about being hungry. And there is simply no reason for that.

Finally, I'll share a great story from a coworker of mine. He has two daughters, and one time when the eldest was horsing around in church, he made her go up to the pastor after the service and apologize to him for not listening. He says she was terrifed and ashamed and cried so much that he could barely understand her. But, she never did it again. Incidentally, this fall she will go off to college on a full scholarship (part academic and part athletic) because he could see what kind of quality she was capable of, and he expected her to live up to her potential.

I'll rant about children's Liturgy of the Word some other time...


La Familia said...

Our daughter does pretty good for the most part without any rewards to look forward to. Mass is not anything we dread taking her to. Like you, we've been introducing her to all of Sunday's readings spread throughout the week. She asks for her father to hold her when we stand, mainly because she can see what's going on. Now, I'm wondering if she'd have stellar behavior if we allowed her a doughnut afterwards.

Red Cardigan said...

Two things: first, some of us who gave birth *do* remember what kids are capable of! :) I think being able to discipline properly comes from example, and my parents gave us a good example of discipline to follow. Most kids can do fairly well between two and three, though there may still be "moments."

Second, on the "ten-year-old" fidgeting etc. at Mass--try to be forgiving, if possible. True story: I was always embarrassed for a couple I saw at Mass whose kids were easily six and eight years old, b/c the "8" y.o. would wiggle a bit, and the "6" y.o. would take off her shoes, whine, cry, etc. One day in the back of church I ran into their Mom, and we fell into conversation. Lo and behold, I found out the "8" y.o. was only 3 and a half, and the "6" y.o. not yet TWO! Those kids were huge!!! :)

So offer an understanding smile to a parent no matter how old the child seems--in these days of autism etc. you never know what they're dealing with, or why the child isn't behaving.

God bless!

Daddio said...

Good points, Red.

LF, it's not always a donut. Rarely do we stay after mass and go chit chat in the parish hall. But yummy breakfast after mass is a family tradition. Breakfast burritos or cinammon rolls or whatever. (We try to avoid commerce on Sundays, but occasionally we do cave in and stop for breakfast somewhere on the way home.) I'm not sure I'd even call it a "reward", it's just what we like to do. But we definitely do withold any special treats that may have been planned if there was poor behavior.

La Familia said...

Mmmmm...cinnamon rolls. They started donut socials after the 7:30 and Children's Mass, but I try to avoid the Children's Mass when I can. I get a little tired of the Charlie Horse puppet making an appearance there.

Daddio said...

Are you serious? There's a PUPPET at mass?... I would walk out.

nicole said...

Preach it! Although I will admit we allow a bag of cheerios until the age of 3, at which point all snacks are cut off. Sitting in the front has worked wonders for us. And praising the kids for their good behavior (in addition to rewards) has been very helpful too. They love to hear they did a good job.

matthew archbold said...

great post. as a father of five my kids are often told they're the best behaved kids in church.
They don't understand the bribery and threats which go into it.
We promise a trip to the local diner where they can get eggs and pancakes if they're good.
BUT i have to be willing to take it away if even one is not good. But I've only had to do that once or twice.

btw, the story about apologizing for being bad in church is priceless. great.
God bless.