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We love kids! Bring them!

Updated: Feb 18

"A hot topic in some Orthodox churches has to do with children. Some people think children should always behave with discipline and reverence, and be taken out of the church when they cross the line. Others think there is room for some movement and vocalizing, because the priority is to keep the kids immersed in worship from the start. Someone wrote to me asking about this, and whether I'm the author of the line, "God gave kids their wiggle." I replied: I don't think I came up with that phrase! It's a good one. And I often hear "If you don't hear crying, the church is dying."

In my church there used to be a mix of older church members who were very strict with the children, but as time passed the makeup of the congregation changed. The demographics shifted, as many of the older members retired, moved away, got assigned to a different position, and some of the oldest passed on. Meanwhile we were gaining many more converts, mostly young men and young families, some with many children. The atmosphere in worship is very different than it was back then.

Something I learned, that helped me, is that it wasn't that the older folks were unrealistically touchy about child noises. It was that they had a very high view of the church itself. Everything in the church is understood to be holy. One older man even objected to little children sitting on the rugs. You shouldn't put your bottom on a church rug! It's disrespectful!

And I chuckle about something I saw at another church. There was a boy who sat beside his mother, with his grandmother and great-grandmother behind him. That boy received a constant stream of whispers from all three: "Stand up straight, face the priest, make your cross, don't fidget, keep your toes pointed toward the altar..."

And yet--they did this because they esteemed the interior of the church itself to be so holy, that all things should be treated with awe.

That helps me to not think the older church members are just being fussy. It's how they grew up, just like that boy, learning a deep lesson that everything in the church as holy and worthy of awe.

But here we are, Americans. We are less formal than European cultures have been, historically. We put our emphasis instead on having our children in the midst of worship from the start. We want them to be absorbing Orthodoxy through their environment from their earliest days--to not be able to remember any time when they didn't experience prayer, hymns, incense, processions, everything Orthodox worship has to offer. In this process parents model the seriousness and attentiveness that they want their kids to learn. As a trade-off, we can put up with some of the natural noises of young children.

People do have different levels of tolerance for this, and the pastor will regularly get complaints about this or that parent who lets their kid go too far. So we all bump along together, and each child gradually acquires the attentiveness that the parents hoped to teach. Each child naturally reaches a point of quieting down--but new kids are always arriving, and stirring things up again.

I hope this way of looking at things is helpful to you. The older view was that demeanor inside the church must be strictly reverent, and there is a good argument for that. However, these young parents are putting their priority instead on keeping their kids saturated with Orthodox worship from the start, and they will accept some natural noisiness as the price to pay.

The thing to notice is that the future belongs to young families. In a very literal sense, young people with children are going to carry this congregation into the future. Time just does this. Hopefully those who find these childish sounds and behavior unacceptable can recognize that things are ultimately going to go the way that comes naturally to the young parents.

It is good for those young people to recognize what is motivating the older folks--that they're not just being fussy, but have a deeply-learned, earliest-days way of seeing that church interior as a very holy place. Their view is not inappropriate or extreme. But it's not the one that comes naturally to Americans, because for them the priority is to immerse their kids in worship. Time is going to deliver the church into the hands of young people, younger and younger, even, eventually, to those presently-noisy children". By Fredericka Matthews-Green

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