I have been sitting in mass with small children since I became Catholic in 1994. There were times when it was more difficult and times when it was less difficult, but it is always an exhausting experience. Rewarding at times, but still a workout.
Many times people have come up to me and told me that I am “just lucky” that my kids behave so well in mass. That is not true. I work really, really hard to teach them how to behave from the time they are babies. I admit that one of my children was amazingly good in mass, she was just a naturally compliant child with a long attention span. When people would try to compare their children to her, I would tell them that this is not what normal children do, and not to compare their child to her. A complaint child has their own set of problems, it’s just that sitting in mass is not one of them.
My husband is a cantor at our parish, and has been in the choir since I met him in high school. He generally sings two to four masses a Sunday. While one of our options is for him to accompany me and the kids to a mass when he is not singing, it has been easier on our schedule to attend a mass when he is singing and for me to sit with the kids. He can always come help me in an emergency.
Some families choose to split up the task and have one parent stay home with the little ones while the other one attends and then switch. I know some kids who were brought up in families who did that, and they turned out just fine. This is a good option, just not the one we chose in our family.
Some families attend a parish with a nursery and use it often. That is also a great option. Some families make use of a cry room and that works well for them. This article is not saying those things shouldn’t be done, it is just about how to deal with having small ones with you in mass.
Some of these suggestions are practical advice, and some are more motivational. With all parenting advice, take what works for you and toss the rest.
1. We are not teaching them to sit still and be quiet in mass, we are teaching them to worship God. If you don’t read anything else in this article, I hope you will remember this one. Sometimes it feels like mass is a behavioral training ground for our children – and it does help with that – but that is not really what it is all about. Mass is a soul training ground.
2. Don’t make more of a spectacle than the kids do. They will wiggle. They will drop things. They will whisper. They will find things to do that you never even imagined. There is a certain level of activity and noise that has to be acceptable for children to produce in mass. It’s like leaves rustling in the trees.
But parents, it is also easy for us to make a big deal out of small things to the point that we are drawing more attention to what is going on in our pew than the children would by their childishness. Before you respond to a behavior, ask yourself, Can this wait? Can I deal with this as a teaching moment after mass? Will my interfering draw a lot more attention than just letting it go?
3. Stop misbehavior at the step right before it happens. If you don’t want your child to crawl away under the pews, don’t let them sit on the floor. If you don’t want them to run down the aisle, don’t let them get to the edge of the pew. If you don’t want them to try to play with the kids behind them during mass, don’t allow it to happen before mass starts. You can explain that they can visit the child after mass. If you don’t want to have to leave to go to the bathroom during mass, get there early enough to take everyone to the bathroom before mass, and warn them that they will not have another chance until mass is over. (This, of course, does not apply to children who have a messy diaper in mass or to potty training toddlers, who need to be taken to the bathroom at every possible inopportune moment.)
This method doesn’t work for everything, but it helps to start thinking one step ahead. Once a child is around two, you can begin to explain what your expectations are for mass. They may not get it right away, but the reminder helps all of the family to focus. I find myself still telling my nine year old what I expect of him in mass. He just kind of “forgets” otherwise.
4. Sit up front, but have an escape route. I find that people in my family, myself included, can sit better in mass when they can see what is happening. Your ability to do this may depend somewhat on the layout of your parish. I am lucky that our has doors near the front of the church, and to either side. Even though I sit up front — usually in the third of fourth pew — I can have a child out the door while they are still drawing in a breath for that ear piercing shriek after they have bumped their heads. (It happens.)
We also always, always sit at the outside end of the pew. I don’t want to have to worry about plowing over people if we have a head injury or a major spit up to deal with. It just takes the pressure off.
5. If sitting up front stresses you out, sit in back. The kids will pick up on your stress and act it out. You might have to help them understand what is going on when they can’t see. Mass is mass, no matter what part of the church you are sitting in.
6. Keep the ones who are having the most trouble right next to you. Right now we sit in this order: four-year-old, me with two-year-old on my lap or on one side, nine-year-old, seven-year-old, then older kids. My nine-year-old has a harder time behaving in mass than the seven-year-old, so he has to be closer. This way I can easily reach out and touch his arm, which is usually enough to remind him of what he is supposed to be doing.
7. Make your corrections loving and praise them when they are doing well. A light touch on the arm works wonders if you have already reviewed your expectations. A whisper of “Psst.” and showing a child your folded hands can tell them what they need to be doing. Keep it light. Keep a gentle look on your face. Do not whisper-yell. They can tune that out as easily as a real yell. It also increases the commotion in your pew. On the other hand, give them a thumbs up when they are doing well, or a little hug and tell them you can see how hard they are trying to be good.
8. Breathe. It can get tense there in the
trenches pews. Don’t forget to take nice, long, deep breaths.
9. On the subject of toys, books, and other distractions. Every family seems to have their own policy for this. I think the first general rule should be that if you throw it on the floor and it makes a big racket, it needs to stay home. I try to have some simple religious books for them to look at. After never being able to find a missal they could follow without my constant interference, I wrote two myself, one for toddlers and one for preschoolers/elementary students. A couple of the older kids have a MagnifiKid to help them follow the mass.
I am a big fan of fidget toys. I think that they enable listening. I also allow my children to doodle on a small notepad for the same reason. I believe it opens their ears.
10. Little touches and whispers. When kneeling near a child, I will often hold them close and whisper simple prayers into their ear, or talk about some of the things in mass or the decoration of the church. With a child next to me or in my lap, I can trace the outlines and wrinkles on their hands. The effect of both of these is very calming and the hand massage is a special treat they look forward to.
11. It’s okay if they say, “I hate mass.” You are not failing miserably as a Catholic parent. You can’t make them like it. This is the time to spend some time (outside of mass) talking about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us, and that sometimes mass can be hard to sit through, but we do it because we love Him. Most especially point out that it will get easier for them. Let them know that they don’t have to like it, but that instead of saying “I hate mass,” they might say something like, “Mass is difficult” or “I don’t feel like going to mass.” You can probably even identify with those feelings yourself sometimes.
12. Get there early. I know. I know how hard it is just to get everyone out the door. Try it, though, and see if it works for you. My children tend to need some time to settle into a space, to sort of change hats. We arrive and go to the bathroom and get a drink, so someone always has a water fountain wet spot in my family. Then we meander slowly back to our seats.
We sit down and look around. The kids stand up and look around. They pick their spots (or I assign them) and arrange their worship aid, hymnal, or anything else they want at hand. Some parents think this just prolongs the time their child has to sit still, but I find the giving my kids a little elbow room to adjust enables them to sit still better.
13. If you have to take a child out, don’t make it a reward. There are still those times when the child just can’t make it through mass. Sometimes it is a fussy baby or toddler; sometimes it is a child who is just a little bit unglued that day or who had a little too much sugar in their breakfast. It happens.
Our policy has been that if we have to leave, the child has to sit on our lap, on the floor next to one of us, or stand by a wall. There is no running around or talking to other people. Their behavior expectations remain the same, we just won’t be bothering other people when they are having a hard time with it.
14. Don’t expect to get a lot out of mass. You get the Eucharist. Read the readings ahead of time so that you are familiar with them when you catch little snippets of them or of the homily. Make arrangements to go another time for a peaceful mass. I know I don’t do this often enough, and I can always tell when it has been too long – when my patience with my little ones has stretched to the breaking point. A teacher of small children can’t expect to do a whole lot of learning while she is in the process of teaching her class, so why expect yourself to do that?
I love the verse Isaiah 40:11 “He will feed His flock like a shepherd, He will gather the lambs in His arms, He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Take the pressure off of yourself to come away from mass “fed” by anything other than the miraculous grace of the Eucharist.
15. Yours is a Ministry of Presence. Your children see the importance you give to mass. Others see that you often struggle and you don’t give up. By your very presence in mass, you make a difference, one that is very important. Don’t ever forget that. On the days when I wish I could just go home and crawl under a table because my kids are being so embarrassing, I remember those little words, told to me by a friend years ago: Ministry of Presence.