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.
Take your cue from the clergy. The leader of the congregation sets the tone with the comments he or she makes on the pulpit and through his or her actions. At Our Lady of the Lake, our pastor, Father Mike Hanley, demonstrates his affection for children at every opportunity. He has initiated many family-friendly ministries, such as a Family Mass and a children's liturgy. But he also encourages families with his enthusiasm toward kids and his lighthearted attitude. When a baby cries during his sermon, he'll joke, "Come on, it's not that bad!" rather than banish them from the service. He speaks to the children in a special way at family masses and gets to know them personally. At Ash Wednesday services this year, he playfully rubbed ash on each of my three kids' noses after making the sign of the cross with it on their foreheads. Not surprisingly, my kids don't complain about attending services with Father Mike and pay attention to his captivating sermons because he speaks to them (and they don't want to miss the jokes.)
Look for programs for parents too. The most family-friendly houses of worship don't just offer religious education for children; they also offer seminars for parents. These programs strengthen the marital and parental bonds that are the bedrock of close families. Monica Goble of Okemos, Michigan frequently takes advantage of the courses offered by her church, a non-denominational Christian community, and finds them helpful in understanding her kids and enhancing her relationship with her husband Jim--as well as her understanding of the Bible. When the boys were in elementary school, she and Jim took a 10-week course called "Growing Kids God's Way" that provided many insights about respect and discipline that helped guide her parenting and which she still uses today. Now she and Jim are taking a church-sponsored course called "Love and Respect" for couples—for the second time. "I am so grateful for these programs. They have helped me better understand my husband, as well as my teenage boys," she says.
Follow the kids. It makes sense to attend service where the kids are happiest, since it's likely that the parents will be happier too. Adisa Banjoko, father of two boys, 8 and 5, attends various Muslim mosques in the San Jose area. But his kids have a clear preference for the Zaytuna Institute. While the services from mosque to mosque are basically the same, the socializing is more relaxed and friendly there. But Adisa suspects that the real attraction for his kids is the field next to the mosque, where the kids run around with other kids before and after services. "You want your children to have good memories and feelings about going with their family to worship," he says. "You don't want to hear the kids grumbling, 'Oh man, I have to sit all day.'"
Many of us just fall into the local congregation because it's convenient, or we know someone who attends, or because it's where we've always gone. But it's worth spending a little time and effort to find a congregation that meets your family's specific spiritual, and practical, needs. After all, you'd probably spend at least as much time planning a vacation or deciding what car to buy. And the end result of your quest will be a family strengthened and supported through shared worship and belief. That's a pretty good return on your investment.