Happy Children in Church

I learned far more than language when, to polish my Spanish, I attended several Masses celebrated in Spanish. I noticed an unusually high percentage of families. Normally I attend Mass in English, my native language.

Not only were adult Hispanic men present in large numbers, but they interacted with their families as leaders. It contrasted with the inaction of so many Anglo men and other ethnic groups.

When I was a preschooler, my father quietly and respectfully attended Mass with our family, but I don’t remember him ever directly helping me get through a worship service. My older brother, in his teens, began refusing to attend church at all.

I believe that the practices of Hispanic fathers at Mass teach their children that church is to be enjoyed, not attended because of obedience, routine or duty.

I observed what seems to be typical: a Hispanic family of about five members enter a pew. The children sit with the parents on either end. The youngest, perhaps two years old, is helped with removing his jacket. He is set on the pew, not expected to sit up or stand when the congregation stands. He may crawl a few feet up or down the pew. He makes no noise and doesn’t show unhappiness.

After a time, maybe 20 minutes, the little boy begins twisting and turning more. He’s still not making noise, but he moves faster and more frequently. He’s becoming restless. Someone in his family will hand him a small toy or keys, which keeps him happy a few minutes longer. Someone may pick him up, look him in the face, smile at him and maybe kiss him. The boy isn’t making noise or causing a disturbance, but soon it’s obvious that his restlessness has returned.

While the mother intently concentrates on the service and serves as an example to older children, Dad smoothly and quietly lifts the little boy and carries him to the back of the church. In the foyer of the church or just outside the door, he sets his son down and allows him to run circles around his father or to explore the area 10 feet or so from his father.

The boy makes no noise other than his little footsteps. He is not crying or even close to it. The father doesn’t look unhappy, and he’s not scolding his little boy. Everybody in the family seems to have anticipated that the boy would become restless. All seem to know the cure for his restlessness. Sometimes, especially in those few cases when no adult male is with the family, an older sister takes a toddler out for fresh air. It seems as if these families know ahead of time who will take the little one out and for how long. It’s all planned — no one acts surprised, annoyed or unhappy.

Others in the family sit quietly in the pew concentrating on the service until Dad or older sister returns with the boy, now calm and relaxed. Everyone in the family has taken some part in anticipating and alleviating the boredom of a youngster during an activity he can neither see nor understand. Eventually the little boy will need less and less time at the church door to run circles, and he will sit quietly enjoying the Mass with older siblings. When he grows up, he’ll repeat the actions with his own children.

What I see that’s different from non-Hispanic families is the reaction to the children’s boredom. I remember as a toddler being made to sit uncomfortably for long periods in church.

The Hispanic fathers I observed also distributed a quarter or a dollar bill to each child for the collection basket, a nice practice to teach responsibility and give children a sense of participating.

My parish has a nursery setup for youngsters during the English Masses. The few Hispanics at these Masses don’t take advantage of it, preferring to work together as families. We could all learn from them, and maybe keep more families together in church.

GENIE DICKERSON has been published previously in The Priest, Family Digest, Catechist’s Connection, Guideposts.