Of all the Sundays at Mass when my husband and have taken turns taking our 2-year-old or 1-year-old out to calm down, one Sunday not too long ago takes the cake.
I can hardly count the number of times I’ve wanted to skip going to Mass since becoming a parent. But it was never because of lack of desire. Rather, it was always the dread of having to handle my young children when inevitably they suddenly decided to “act up.” Then too, the disapproving and judgmental glances of some parishioners were always bothersome as well.
On this particular Sunday our two-year-old, like many two-year-olds, was extremely antsy and fidgeting. She was not necessarily noisy or disruptive, but my husband and I could still tell it was going to be “one of the Sundays.” We were right, for as soon as we took our eyes off our daughter and turned our focus for a split second to the Mass, she booked it out of the pew and raced up the aisle like they were handing out cookies! Worse still, this didn’t happen just once, but three times during Mass!
Now, to those of you who might ask, “Well why was she at the end of the pew instead of being securely wedged between her parents?” My answer to that is the end of the pew, on the aisle, is usually the best place for her because she can see what’s going on up at the altar. Past experience has taught us that she was disruptive precisely because she wanted to see what’s going on. Usually, we have great success with this. However, this particular Sunday it just wasn’t working out in our favor.
Having been up all night with my 1-year-old, and already exhausted from being two months pregnant, my patience was already running thin. Like most parents of small children know, this is when they like to test our patience the most. By the third time she bolted, my patience was gone. I ran after her up the aisle, swooped her up in my arms, and carried her off with visible frustration.
By the end of Mass, all I wanted to do was leave quickly and quietly. But God must have taken pity on me. Another mother, much older than I, walked up to me and said something to me that would change forever how I react to my children misbehaving during Mass.
“You can’t control how they act, but you can control how you react,” the mother of five children told me, with nothing but kindness and charity in her voice. She told me she went through what I was experiencing with each of her children, and it was difficult to not show frustration, much less anger, in having to deal with unruly children. “They see how you react and they respond in kind,” she continued. “It’s difficult to do, but act with understanding, because she doesn’t understand.”
You can’t control their actions, but you can control yours
I felt like Saint Paul being knocked off his horse. I had never thought about it that way. Here I was, a 27-year-old adult reacting not much better than my two-year-old when no one will listen to her or give her what she wants. I might not have laid down on the floor or stomped my feet, screaming over not getting listened to, but I reacted with my emotions – something that parents, including myself, are supposed to be teaching children not to do.
It’s easy to let frustrations get the better of us as parents. We often ask ourselves silly questions like, “Why can’t my child just listen to me?” The reality is they haven’t mastered that skill yet, which, by the way, many adults have yet to master as well. It’s certainly true that we can’t control their actions – not when they’re two, not when they’re 16, and certainly not when they’re 22 and beyond. We do everything we can as parents to guide them the right way, but we often forget how people – especially children – learn: through example. As parents, one of the greatest lessons we can teach our children is to control their emotions and act appropriately. Yet, how often do we as parents let our emotions get away from us in dealing with our children?
Correcting – over and over and over again
So how should we deal with our unruly children at Mass? Should we try and avoid all confrontations and possible instances of disturbance and misbehavior? The answer is absolutely not, because (1) they will never learn to control their behavior; and (2) you can never prevent with 100% certainty that your child will never act up. The answer is to correct firmly, but patiently, mercifully, and with forgiveness – over and over and over again.
This correction can come in many forms, even serving consequences to their actions in the form of appropriate punishment. Sometimes you may even have to step outside for your child (and you) to calm down. However, the correction should never include the phrase “at wit’s end,” for thank the Lord that He is never at His wit’s end when it comes to dealing with all of us.
How often should we be patient with our children, ourselves, and others? How often should we be forgiving and understanding? The answer lies in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew, a parable we’re all too familiar with, but often forget about when it comes to our children:
Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” [Matt 18:21-22]
Be patient and forgiving when it comes to your children, especially during those times when your patience is running low. Teach your children to act with patience, understanding, mercy, pity, and forgiveness even in the hardest of situations. They may be too young to understand, but they are watching. Eventually they might just start behaving in the same way.