I don’t usually step into the murky waters of religion on this blog. I do that for multiple reasons: to not alienate people from all backgrounds, to keep my personal life personal, and to focus on subjects that affect a wide range of people. I’m departing from that because I believe that this is an issue that a lot of people are struggling with.
Whatever religion you are, they all bear the same things in common: at some point you need to sit down, shut up, and listen. That does NOT work for my family!
When we first moved here, we visited around with our then-toddler Engineer. We found a good fit, and settled in. We did this switch-hit kind of thing where the Engineer needed monitoring and the Princess and Destroyer required parental presence in the nursery. Our Sunday was a complicated dance of parents switching off, checking in, and changing rooms. Then the Engineer got worse. He finally had a diagnosis, a reason for the behaviors the volunteer staff had trouble dealing with.
So we turned to the special needs program and got him enrolled in the buddy system. On paper it sounded perfect. In reality, miscommunication, untrained volunteers, and a chronically short-staffed system caused problems. Instead of the buddy that he needed, he got judgement and negativity.
Then the incident happened.
One Sunday they called me to his class. I arrived in time to see him fighting to get away from his teacher. I calmed him down, figured out part of the issue (a sensory trigger) and sent him back into class. The next day we saw the fingerprint bruises on his arm.
The incident exploded into a church-shaking ordeal. Without going into detail, the church did an investigation that basically said we were making the whole thing up. So we left.
Now we’re attending a mega church with a large special needs ministry. The Engineer loves his class: volunteers outnumber the kids and he gets the attention he so desperately craves. They expect very little traditional church behavior from him and he fits in quite well. It’s a good thing for him.
Not for the rest of the family.
The Princess hates her class. We take her to class and she instantly complains her tummy hurts (anxiety.) She’s not allowed to bring her care bear safety blanket.
The Destroyer refuses to go at all unless a parent is there. Protocol says we’re not allowed to stay in his classroom unless we’re volunteering. Which we can’t commit to because of the other 2 kids. It’s a no-win situation, but we were trying to work it out. I would drop him off at class and give him a hug, then sit outside in the hallway while he played. As long as I ignored him (generally by staring at my phone) he decided he was too bored to sit at the gate and watch me. Off he goes playing and having fun, but always checking to see if I was there.
And then last Sunday, the last straw. The other kids sat down to do their story and color a worksheet. The Destroyer couldn’t handle it and wandered off. Fine, right? Nope, not fine. His teacher followed him around the room, taking toys out of his hands and putting her foot on toys so that he couldn’t pick them up. When I checked to see why he was fussing, she told me that she couldn’t allow him to play while the other children did the story. He’s 2. Even a neurotypical 2 can’t understand that distinction.
To quit trying goes against everything I believe in. To give up admits failure. It’s a slap in the face to what church truly stands for. But, it’s not worth my children hating church. It’s not worth making their anxieties worse, causing them to fear church.
I’m not here to slam churches. I don’t hate the message or the people. I understand that my children aren’t average, that most people have no idea how to handle them. Volunteers shouldn’t be asked to deal with our special needs issues unless they’re trained and understand what’s going on.
Here’s the thing: special needs issues don’t magically appear at school age. It’s something they’re born with. Our kids would scream bloody murder if a stranger picked them up when they were tiny babies. They fought tooth and nail to make sure that we didn’t abandon them (leave them in nursery.) No one at any church understood why our kids acted like this. To them, it was our fault, our flaw, our parenting. Something we did caused our kids to act this way. No one understood that special needs comes in small packages too.
I don’t have any answers to this situation. I don’t have a solution. Anything I come up with involves a complete re-envisioning of what church looks like: a place where everyone is welcomed, people worship together, loud and messy kids are accepted, and no one is expected to sit still and quiet for crazy amounts of time.
All I know is that my family doesn’t fit in at church. My children aren’t welcome at church. And my family isn’t safe at church. That makes me sad.
So today, I’m writing this to you – you with the kid who won’t sit down and be quiet. You, with the child who clings to you and screams hysterically at the thought of you walking out the door. To you, who despairs of ever being able to relax and worship without worrying about your children. You are not alone.
There are lots of us out there: families with children who don’t fit the neat little box of church. Families who feel judged, lonely, and abandoned by the church. I don’t have the answers, but I do want you to know you are not alone. And it’s ok if you don’t go to church. It’s ok if you stay home.