This weekend, Kendra at Catholic All Year shared an upsetting exchange with a priest over whether children belonged in church, and asked for thoughts on cry rooms. (She wants them all filled with cement.) I dislike them, use them anyway, have seen good ones and bad ones, and think that the problem isn't really about cry rooms at all.
As she and many others have said, cry rooms tend to be loud and wild places where children can do whatever they want while the parents chat and totally ignore the fact that they are in Mass. I hate it. If we wanted Little Bear to learn how to behave in that sort of environment, we would take him to the McDonald's play place. It frustrates both him and me to be in a cry room like that: him because he sees other kids laughing and running and at one year old is incapable of understanding why I keep hushing him and restraining him on my lap, me because, well, it's wrong and disrespectful and distracting and just reinforces the prejudices of those members of the congregation who don't want kids in Mass. Closing the door keeps the noise level down, but I've never seen a cry room that was actually sound proof.
If cry rooms bother me so much, why do I wind up in one at least once almost every time we go to Mass? Because the idea of cry rooms is good; you is could even make the argument that it is necessary. A place for the parent of a crying baby or small child to take the young'un to calm them down and help them get back to a state where they can return to Mass with the rest of the congregation, instead of struggling to control a tantrum in the pew and bothering everyone else or just flat-out leaving. Having a place dedicated to this is a good thing, particularly when it's situated so they can still see and participate in the Mass. When Little Bear becomes fussy and simple quieting efforts don't work, I quickly move him to the cry room until I can get him quiet or until the next hymn, when he will be happy and distracted from whatever is bothering him by looking at everyone else singing.
Or, I try to. If the cry room is full of laughing, playing children and chatting adults, or all of the seats are taken because whole families with older children decided to sit there (why do people do that??? It's a cry room. Some people actually need to use it; your four elementary- and middle-school kids probably don't), I wind up out on the front steps or down in the basement, anywhere I can find a seat far enough away to keep my child's wailing from upsetting others.
The problem isn't cry rooms; it's the adults who abuse cry rooms. Sitting in the cry room should be a therapeutic measure, not a preventative one! And maybe I'm a terrible person, but I do not feel guilty for tapping a woman on the shoulder as she's chatting about milestones with another parent, pointing to her children shrieking and wrestling on the floor, and suggesting--in a whisper--that she do something about it. I would never, ever do that to a parent who was making even a token effort to control her kids, but for those who seem to have forgotten that they are at Mass or that they have offspring, a quiet reminder and offer of assistance (I'm sorry; your child just hit that girl. Can I do anything to help you?) can be an act of charity.
The pastor can be a very important part of how people see, and to some extent use, cry rooms. I've noted before that our pastor is just excellent on this front; he reminds the congregation at least once a year that the many young children in our parish are a blessing, that they belong in Mass, and that the cry rooms are only there as a place for parents to temporarily bring children until they are able to rejoin the congregation. Does everyone listen to him? Of course not. But it helps; it helps tremendously.
In a case where the pastor is less enthusiastic about children at Mass, or less vocal and refrains from curtailing negativity from congregants, it's hard to say exactly what the right response would be; going to a more family-friendly parish is an appealing option, but isn't always possible. Getting to know like-minded parents and making an effort to "take back" the cry rooms may work in some places. Maybe the parish religious education director would have ideas of ways to catechize parents on the importance of teaching their children from the very beginning about proper, reverent Mass behavior. Offering quiet, gentle reminders to other parents can also be surprisingly effective, and may not make people as huffy as you expect.
Dealing with the circuses that many of our cry rooms seem to devolve into is not fun, and can be terribly frustrating when you just want to pray and keep your own child(ren) in check, but take heart! The cry room can be a good thing if used properly, and the first step to turning a wild cry room into a proper one may be in your hands.