Want your parish to close? Set up a ‘crying room’

Christy Fitzpatrick holds her restless son, Matthew, in a room set off from the rest of the congregation at St. Mary Church in Williamstown, New Jersey (CNS photo/Craig Pittelli, The Monitor)

To many people disturbed by children making a noise during Mass, “crying rooms” must seem like an answer to prayer. The children can just go in there, and the problem is solved.

Things look rather different from a parent’s perspective, however. If your noisy child goes into a crying room, with other noisy children, then you have to go as well, and quite probably your other children with you. The problem of the disturbance hasn’t actually been solved: it has been alleviated for most members of the congregation, and made much worse for others. If you haven’t had the incomparable experience of screaming babies in a confined space, you should try some long-haul flights in the holiday season.

To put it bluntly, a parish which wants to segregate and torture those members of its congregation who have had the temerity to produce children doesn’t deserve another generation of members.

This makes it sound like a simple choice about who is going to suffer, but it is more complicated than that. As a parent myself, I would never take a noisy child into a crying room in church, for the simple reason that the child will predictably behave worse in there.

One reason for this is easy to understand: crying rooms are not places they want or need. Sometimes squeaking babies can be got to sleep in a pushchair in a quiet corner. Not infrequently babies and small children respond well to a breath of fresh air. On other occasions, they can be persuaded to play quietly in an open space at the back of church. Crying rooms don’t offer any of these possibilities. They tend to be confined and stuffy, and can also be crowded; they are almost by definition noisy. If a small child needs to be pacified, it’s absolutely the last place he needs to go.

Indeed, it would seem that crying rooms are not places for children to be persuaded to behave better: they are, instead, places where they can be allowed to behave badly. This is another problem with the idea. Children and their parents sometimes throw off all restraint once in there. Keeping one’s own children in check becomes infinitely harder if there are other children nearby playing up.

Taking children into an environment where it doesn’t matter if they misbehave, during Mass, is an extremely short-sighted strategy. Children have to be taught to behave in Mass, just as they have to be taught how to behave at the dinner table or in class at school. It is impossible to do that if they are not allowed to sit at a dinner table, or in a classroom, or in the regular congregation at Mass. It may seem as if a crying room is a close approximation to Mass, but if it is full of noisy children it won’t feel like it. Children need to experience the atmosphere at Mass in order to learn how to respond to it appropriately. If they are denied that experience, they will never learn to behave.

I do appreciate how painful other people’s badly behaved children can be at Mass. Contrary to what childless readers might think, parents are no less sensitive to this than other people; indeed they may be more sensitive. The problem is exacerbated by the presence in church of families who receive little or no catechesis about Mass at home or in school; who don’t have regular family prayers to get them used to the idea of keeping quiet, kneeling and praying; who don’t have good family discipline in general; and who go only infrequently to Mass.

These aren’t problems which can easily be resolved. Exiling such families to a crying room, however, is clearly going to make each of them worse: the children (and their parents) will find it harder to gain a proper knowledge of Mass; they will get less experience of quiet prayer; there will be less incentive for the parents to exercise appropriate discipline; and, above all, the feeling that they are not really welcome will not encourage a habit of regular Mass-going.

Whatever the intentions of their designers, crying rooms do not work for the benefit of children or their families, even if they provide temporary relief for the child-averse in the congregation.

Congregations dominated by older people can ponder the thought that, having quarantined small children and their parents in a decidedly unspiritual environment during the liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council called the source and the summit of the Christian life, they are less likely to see those children grow up and return with children of their own. Demolish the crying room, or prepare to demolish the whole church.

Joseph Shaw is chairman of the Latin Mass Society