Kids change everything—and that is certainly true when it comes to religious observance. Having children can cause us to look at our faith in a whole new light. It can also trigger an epiphany about what we need and want from a house of worship.
Finding a religious community to satisfy the diverse needs of a family is not always easy, however. Betsy Laureano, a newcomer to Lake Merry, Florida, started out attending a Catholic church there with her husband Jason. But when their son Christian was born, they found that the parish attitude toward children was less than supportive. Children were to be seen and not heard—and that meant they were to be whisked to the "cry room" at the slightest peep. But when the Laureanos brought their infant into the soundproof room packed with wailing babies, they couldn't hear the service for the ruckus. "We didn't get much out of the experience," says Betsy. Her husband didn't see the point of going to church at all. They switched to a different parish with a weekly family mass. Though it's a longer drive, the Laureanos feel it's worth it. "Now, people smile at you even if your kid is squirming and jumping up and down," says Betsy.
Here, some guidelines for finding a house of worship that supports and strengthens the faith of all the members of your family:
Shop around. Attend services at a variety of locations so you can make comparisons. Take note of the number of families with kids. "What attracted me to our temple is that I saw lots of families and lots of kids," says Betsy Abramowitz of Short Hills, New Jersey, who has four children between the ages of 14 and 5. "Basically, there were lots of people who were in the same stage as we are."
Look for babysitting during services. Most congregations have some type of religious education program for children, such as Sunday school, Hebrew school, or CCD. These classes often meet for part of services, giving parents a chance to pray without the distractions of their children. But the most family-friendly congregations also facilitate babysitting help during services for infants and toddlers who are not yet eligible for Sunday school. Whether by coordinating parent volunteers and/or providing a comfortable space in the building, encouraging this brief time of peace for parents shows that the clergy understands how important it is for parents to have quiet time to recharge spiritually.
Teen programs are a big plus. At my church, Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Verona, N.J., teenagers look forward to their first year in high school, when they can join the youth group, which meets in the church basement every Monday evening. In a loosely supervised environment, the kids play games like volleyball and broomball, do various community service projects, and celebrate holidays and each other's birthdays--with a light helping of spirituality. Every summer they take a one-week trip to an impoverished area to build houses for poor families. The group is so popular that the membership includes teens who are not in the parish or of the faith. Though the parish's youth group was not on my radar screen when my husband and I joined as a childless married couple, I now appreciate what a perfect vehicle it is for guiding teens in faith as they navigate the unsteady waters of adolescence. It is also a wonderful way for them to blow off steam and socialize without the pressure to experiment with drugs, alcohol, or sex.