My Daughters are not Distracting

I am the one who braided her hair--but not during church.

I am the one who braided her hair–but not during church.

A friend of mine recently posed this question on Facebook: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? Considering this friend has never been a Jr. High girl nor parented a Jr. High girl, the question seemed sincere and did not bother me.

What did bother me, however, was the frequency with which one particular word kept popping up in the comments: distracting. (Well, the comments about people getting their butts whipped at home for not behaving properly in church also bothered me, but let’s focus this post on “distracting.”) Many people seem to think that girls braiding hair during church is distracting.

Studies1 have shown that we actually retain information better when our hands are occupied. The study I heard about involved doodling, but I imagine braiding hair would have the same effect. So I doubt that the hair braiding is distracting to the girls themselves.

Apparently, then, it is distracting to other people. People who just can’t possibly concentrate on the spirit of worship and the holy word of God when there are 12-year-old girls getting their hair braided in the vicinity. Because their parents never let them braid hair in church? Because of the injunction in I Timothy against braided hair? Because the sermon is so boring that they’re happy to think about anything else? Because it makes them think about how bad their own hair looks that day?

Who knows why some people find hair-braiding distracting. But the distraction seems to have more to do with the person being distracted than it does with the person who is allegedly being distracting.

I will not argue that hair-braiding is appropriate in all worship contexts. It would be in mine; it might not be in yours.

But as the mother of two daughters, I would ask that we avoid referring to girls as distracting. This is a label that society too often ascribes to girls and women as a way of shifting responsibility onto them. Women can’t breastfeed in public because it is distracting. Women can’t serve in the military because they well be a distraction for the men. Girls’ skirts can’t be too short because that would be distracting.

Again, I am not arguing that all of these actions are appropriate. (Public breastfeeding, yes. Women in the military—well, I wish no one would be in the military. My daughter wearing a skirt that barely covers her butt, not OK.) But when we say that a woman is distracting, we make her responsible for the mental state of the people around her. And this is not fair.

As a woman, it is not my responsibility to not distract you. It is your responsibility to focus on what it is you need to focus on.

The other problem with the term distracting is that it is belittling. It signifies that something is not significant, not worthy of the attention it is drawing to itself. That a girl is not worthy of the attention that she is drawing to herself.

Seldom (if ever?) do I hear boys or men referred to as distracting. Disrespectful, yes. Annoying, yes. Inappropriate, yes. But not distracting.

There is something about the term “distracting” that simultaneously strips away the power of the one who is the distraction, while also burdening that person with responsibility for the thoughts of the people around them.

So this is a long answer to a friend’s simple question: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? In my church context, I think it’s perfectly appropriate. You may find it inappropriate, or even disrespectful. But please don’t call it distracting.

1“What studies?” you ask. Studies. That I’m sure I heard about on NPR, because that’s basically all I listen to. Unless it was a TED Talk podcast. Just studies. I promise. Trust me.

8 thoughts on “My Daughters are not Distracting

  1. I don’t know… I think I disagree. And saying that someone is distracting them or is a distraction, isn’t labeling who they are. Yes, we should be focusing ourselves, but it is our responsibility to allow others the ease of focusing. Common courtesy to each other, no matter the age… We should be teaching our children that.

    • I agree that we should teach our children to show common courtesy. And I would say that means respecting the rules/guidelines/expectations of the given environment. My point is not really about braiding hair in church, but the way we use language to both blame and belittle girls and women.

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  3. I would have been distractED by the hair braiding. I would have enjoyed watching the girls find a joyful moment in caring for each other in this way. Sorry, but your sermon would have taken second place. Maybe I could have read it or listened to it later to get the full impact of what you had to say that morning. But I would have been well blessed to watch two young persons building their friendship, especially in the safe and loving environment of the church community. At the same time, I admit that I have sometimes been irritated that I am distracted by what others are doing during church, and I usually blame them for it… at least usually, until I think better of it. It’s how I was raised – I could not rustle my papers from Sunday school even the slightest during worship service, and couldn’t turn my head to see what the noise was behind me. I still carry some of this with me and wonder what is acceptable where and when. But I’ve been learning to be happy when people (of any age) want to be at church, and especially when they seem to enjoy interacting with each other. I sometimes tune out the sermon for a minute while watching children, and even adults, as they relate to each other. The sermon is important, and I do usually listen to it. But it is also beautiful and worshipful to watch the little expressions of love between two or more people as we sit and stand in that space of sanctuary together.

    • Yes. Sometimes the blessing is in the “distraction.” Good to know the Holy Spirit is not fully dependent on my sermons to speak to people on Sunday morning. 🙂

  4. I pay better attention when my hands are busy. For me the activity is usually knitting. When church members ask if it’s okay to knit during worship, I always say yes. I know they will hear everything better. I would extend the same grace to hair braiding (which I now want to do!) and doodling (which I have often done, as well as noting down key words).

    To the more important point, the use of the word “distracting,” I agree that it is often applied to women and girls, and usually in a way that is intended to indict feminine characteristics (too much skin, too little clothing, too attractive, I guess in this case too much hair!).

  5. I do get what you’re saying about women and girls (and young boys, too, but very seldom men) all too often being labelled “distracting” as a way of blaming them for the unwillingness of others (almost always grown-ups) to take responsibility for their lack of focus.

    That being said, there are some things that are distracting, and therefore disrespectful in a church environment (or other environment where focus, especially auditory focus, is necessary). Talking during the sermon, or rustling things, is disrespectful because it is distracting, especially for older folks who have difficulty hearing as it is. Cell phones, especially when driving, are distracting and dangerous.

    So distraction is real, and it can be a problem. Do twelve-year-olds braiding hair in church count as distraction? It depends. If the sermon is primarily auditory, probably not. If visual focus is needed, it can be distracting for some people, but whether that is a negative comment on the girls or on the one being distracted is up for debate. I’m with you on this one–if someone is distracted by two girls braiding each other’s hair in church, the problem isn’t with the girls.

    Like Jocelyn, I probably would have been somewhat distracted in an enjoyable way. And felt that in the end, church isn’t mainly about what the preacher has to say (and I say this as a preacher myself_), but about building community and loving and caring for one another. In other words, the girls a providing a sermon without words. I feel sorry for the person who complained — she seems to be missing the point altogether.

  6. I’m a young woman with Autism and as an Autistic person, I have to stim. Stimming is any repetitive movement or fidgeting or anything really that self-soothes and allows my brain and system to recalibrate itself. Sometimes that means uncontrollable rocking, hand fidgeting, doodling repetitive circles or folding and unfolding paper, sometimes even clapping. I know it’s very distracting but it isn’t something I’m physically able to NOT do. Braiding hair in church is something I’ve done before as a quiet activity to keep my brain and fingers busy. It’s quiet, unassuming and much less “Distracting” than say, clapping or flapping my hands. I don’t think I should be unable to go to church just because my stimming may be distracting to others. I think that as long as children are being quiet then keeping their hands busy shouldn’t be considered a crime. After all, an adult is far more capable of keeping themselves focused than a child is.

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