"I scared church", "I no like it Jesus", "I no want it Mary". Those were the words that echoed around a packed Catholic church in South London last Sunday when I made a first, possibly misguided attempt at taking my two year old to Mass. It ended in tears - mine as well as hers - after my husband had to retrieve her plastic stethoscope from a very unimpressed little boy in the church crèche who was so appalled at the loss of his medical instrument that he lay prostrate on the ground shrieking 'whhhhhhhyyyy'? I asked myself the same thing as we stumbled out of the church to the sound of my Godless toddler declaring: 'I gone toilet mummy, I no want it more Jesus'. The whole experience has got me thinking: how do you introduce a young child to the idea of God? Should we be doing it at all? And why didn't I just let the little boy keep the stethoscope, like a good Christian should?
I was brought up Catholic. Not a strict, prayers-before-meals and Mass every Sunday Catholic, but one who went to a convent school and made my first Confession and Holy Communion. I was very close to my Irish Catholic grandparents who attended Mass separately every weekend: grandma was at the 6.30 pm Vigil slot on a Saturday, grandpa was all about the 11.30 am Sunday session. Although my grandma told terrible tales of what the nuns at her school in 1920s Dublin had done to children who misbehaved, (making kids who had wet the bed stand for hours on end with their soiled bed sheets over their heads for example), it hadn't dampened her faith. She would spend so long kneeling to pray during Mass that I would nervously nudge her to check she wasn't dead. My grandpa would deliberately sing all the hymns out of tune and had a complicated strategy on when to join the Eucharist queue: "wait for the old biddies to clear a path". He would also disdainfully conduct a murmured parallel mass in Latin while the priest did the honours in English. Catholicism was a sort of comforting, chaotic backdrop to my childhood.
Yes it was all a bit dysfunctional, but the beauty, the mystery, the music of Catholicism were all things I felt I wanted my little girl to have in her life. And then..... there's the school situation. There's no denying that some of the best schools in the country are Catholic, and many of them require 'proof of attendance' from your local priest. Before I became a mother myself, I was struck by the number of friends who had suddenly started attending church despite never having had any discernible religious leanings before. One of the Church wardens I spoke to after our disastrous Sunday visit told me that around school admission times there is suddenly a huge number of people "saying good morning" to the Parish Priest on a Sunday. I'm seriously embarrassed to be joining the throng of desperate middle class parents shoving themselves in front of a priest so that Poppy/Harry/Hector stands a chance of getting into that school which was in the Sunday Times Top Primary Schools list. And yet, here I am with a terrified two year old in need of baptism and a woefully poor attendance record.
But leaving aside the adult world of school places and catchment areas: churches are seriously weird places for young kids. What is this massive echoing, dark place with candles everywhere and statues which are either crying or bleeding (yes I know Catholics are especially big on misery)? Why are you meant to be quiet and what is this scary music that erupts unexpectedly? Because I'm a thoroughly modern parent, I immediately turned to the internet for answers. Google yielded some pretty depressing advice on how to introduce church/God to my Little One: 'Play Lets Go Church at home!' or look out for: 'indicators that the Holy Spirit may be at work in your child'. Then I got into a massive panic when I found a Guardian 'Problem solved' column featuring the headline: 'I don't want my wife to indoctrinate our two-year-old into religion'. Now my husband's writing to The Guardian about me? Could this get any more middle-class-guilt-complex-intense?
I keep wondering what happens in orthodox families where worship is so much more a part of everyday life. Do mosques and synagogues have a fear factor? I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never been inside either of those places of worship, perhaps that's a reflection on what's wrong with being brought up in a faith as I was. I'm going to keep trying with the whole church and toddler thing, despite some major guilt about whether or not I'm 'indoctrinating' her (how very Catholic). Maybe this time we'll sit a little closer to the exit and leave the stethoscope at home.