It's easy to judge in this situation. Why doesn't the mother just make the little girl sit? Keep her from wandering out into the aisle, blocking with her body, and hold the child? Why doesn't the dad help, keeping her on his other side, hemmed in with her brothers? If nothing else, why don't they sit in the cry room? They should not get up during the homily.
But the cry room...well, its very small in our church. It's hard to see the priest or to hear. When I sat there with our younger kids, I felt cut off from my Man and my eldest and from the mass, and church is very much family time for me. As for blocking the child, holding her and preventing her from going into the aisle, I have a toddler, and I know this tactic mostly works. But it is exhausting, and the parents must work as a team to control, calm and distract their children. It makes mass a true commitment of one's will. The continual shepherding of young children can make it seem much longer, and there are even times when my Man or I had to leave our seats and take our toddler outside or into the narthex or even to the restroom for a nurse. (For my part I always preferred going outside. In the bushes, trees and grass - even the pebbles in the landscaping - I found more of God than in the stuffy cry room. I could pray, or if by grace the speakers were on, I could follow all that transpired in the sanctuary while walking back and forth with my young one in the fresh air.)
Those days are mostly behind us, but you should not doubt one little bit that for my husband and me the Sign of Peace has extra meaning, coming when it does during the liturgy. There has always been a tad bit of humor mirrored in our parental eyes as we bend in for a kiss and say, "Peace be with you" before bending over each of our kids. In our heads we add, We're almost there. There is also additional emphasis, a passionate addendum of God bless you and preserve you, in the words and the handshake from those around us who see our four children and their often rambunctious adventures in the pews and observe all our best efforts to corral them. These people may be slightly put out by our youngest two playing or arguing or staring at those behind them, by our girls dancing to the music or by our toddler's constant migration on the kneelers, but they also admire our perseverance in bringing four kids to church each Sunday. And they watch us react to and curtail our kids' behavior, and they see, I hope, that it has improved from week to week.
For the family I observed today, I wanted peace and a blessing. I don't know if they usually sit in the cry room or some other section of the church and were only trying to sit altogether in a new spot, but I wanted them to hang in there, not give up. When the dad and the boys got up after the mother had deserted her seat for the sixth or so time, I hoped sincerely that they were not abandoning mass. I was very happy to see them all come back in time to receive the Eucharist. May God bless you all, I thought.
In a conversation months ago about kids' behavior in church, my husband had a friend confide in him that he and his wife didn't go with their only child to church because they were afraid the boy didn't know how to behave, having never been to mass. My husband's point was simply that a child will never know how to behave in church if you don't take them and instruct them. It's work, but it's good for them and for you.
Our family has not always had the commitment to mass that we have at present, especially when our oldest two were babies. When we didn't attend mass, we told ourselves we would pray Our Father together and read scripture like my own family did on Saturdays in my childhood. But wouldn't you know, we got to doing frivolous things, like watching television, and forgot to read. I would often only realize our omission once our children were in bed, and I stood praying over them just outside their doors.
Slowly, we began to realize as our church life grew, that if we didn't go to mass, our Sundays felt long and pointless. My husband realized, despite my hopes, that he was not going to discuss the Bible or even read it with the same passion as my dad did for his family.
"I'm not your dad. We need to go to church," he said.
He is right. Occasionally, when the kids are sick, we stay home, read from the Bible and the kids read aloud from the Children's Bible. Then we discuss it, and I ask the children questions. I have my dad's passion for God's Word and all theology, but I also have a strong tendency to ramble, winding through various subjects, beating the devil out of each one, before finding my original point again. It's good to keep the sabbath, but for our family it's better kept in church.
That is why I hope for that family I observed today that they don't give up on attending mass together. Their little girl is precious and adorable, and eventually she won't try to escape from the pew with her dollie anymore though she may still want to. Her mama will soon find that she can sit by her husband and hold his hand while their children sit close, quietly if not perfectly still. Mass will become for them, I hope, what it is for me: a time to be peaceful as a family and centered in spirit despite the lack of peace in the world.