Some of my earliest church memories involve lounging in the chancel loft during the sermon.
I knew where the activity cards were, which markers worked best, and how to position myself out of my mom’s line of sight. My peers and I were coloring, giggling and whispering loudly.
I’m sure that didn’t please everyone. And at the same time, my peers and I owned that space and that time. Now, as an adult and myself a pastor, I realize that my experience as a young child in a place of worship is not common.
“Crying rooms” came into fashion during the height of the baby boom. It’s a room near the shrine with windows to view the worship and maybe even a loudspeaker to hear the worship. However, the worshiping group can no longer hear a dysregulated child.
These have changed a bit since the 1950s: newer churches offer a large hall with even larger windows. Some caregivers really appreciate this kind of space. Others would prefer the congregation to be more understanding. Others will never enter a place of worship for fear of judgment.
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Nativity scenes are often in churches. It’s not always the best option for the family. Baby might not want to be with anyone else; baby may still be too young. There are a whole host of reasons why a nursery might not be the best option that day.
It’s true that it takes a whole village to raise a child. What happens when the child is not in the center of the village? And what happens to the caregiver when the village has failed the whole family unit? The late theologian and author Phyllis Tickle reflected on the great sellout that religion holds every few hundred years. We expose things that we feel are well used and no longer serve us well, all in the hope that someone else will see its value. I challenge you to consider having a clearance sale in the hall of tears.
Jill Escher, president of the National Council on Severe Autism, says society is decades behind in catching up with the overwhelming challenges faced by families caring for children with severe disabilities or complex medical diagnoses. How can the village take a step back from the rearing process and provide caregiver and child-focused spaces and resources?
When it comes to sensory and processing struggles, worship is often not a child-friendly space. Even with coloring pages and small bags full of treats and stickers, the cult can have strange smells, loud instruments or flashing lights, large crowds of mostly strangers, and hard-to-learn patterns. and to follow. Sensory overload cannot be easily corrected, especially by a young child.
One of the greatest things a church community can do is to become more aware of the journey of caring parents of children with disabilities and medically complex children. Raising awareness will help these families feel seen. They will feel safe and accepted as they are. This will include recognizing that while a caregiver may leave worship with a dysregulated child, they may not want to. They may be afraid of offending others, or they have past experiences of shame and judgment. The best way to find out is to make connections with each family.
I spoke with a parent whose church created a special room for children who have sensory and processing difficulties. The sensory room was unexpected and not something on their radar at first, but now it’s a big part of the family’s Sunday routine. It’s not far from the sanctuary, allowing people using the chamber to feel close to their caregiver while being in a safe environment.
At first, their child spent all the time in the sensory room, but now he comes and goes from the space because he needs regulation. Sensory rooms like this are specifically for sensory regulation; these are not game rooms. A space like this takes dedication and advocacy from the congregation.
Another action a church community can take is to keep the focus on the needs of children and caregivers together. Whether it’s a traditional “weeping room” where families can feel connected in worship, a nursery option for families, or a sensory room, the focus should remain on the whole family. . These types of rooms allow carers to be present in the way they need to be – this can be childless (and knowing their child is being cared for). It could be by allowing their child to be themselves in worship without judgment. This can be by allowing families to come and go during worship, or not to attend worship regularly.
Keeping the focus on the needs of an entire family lessens the temptation to please the congregation. While it may not always be possible to meet the needs of every family in your congregation, it will meet many, many needs of current families and guests.
The sensory room is a tool. The nursery is a tool. The crying room is a tool. When the family is at the center, they are tools. When convenience is the aim or goal, these become obstacles. And when a family is seen and accepted as it is, it is now part of that family’s church experience and ultimately part of their experience of God. What’s ready to be thrown into the flea market?
Sami Pack-Toner is an ordained elder of The United Methodist Church. She is originally from Montana and recently became a residential chaplain at Intermountain. Sami and her husband Shane live in Marysville with their four pets. They like to ski and be outdoors as much as possible.