Taking your kids to Mass can sometimes feel like an endurance test. Maybe it’s a game of survival of the fittest? Usually it’s you, the parent, pitted against a wily, but intelligent toddler bent on maximum noise creation, or a baby who normally will sleep anytime human arms are offered except near a sanctuary, or a little kid who’s intent on pushing as many boundaries as possible. Each situation has driven me to wanting a fortifying shot of whiskey before Mass, but so far I’ve always kept my fast — by the grace of God!
I really only have experience with my own children and our own parish situation. So please take my following tips for whatever grain of salt you wish. We have always attended a very, very small parish which only offers one Mass per weekend which happens to be 5:00 pm Saturday evening. This plays a part as all Mass times play a part in babies and toddlers behaviour, but I think after 7 years we’re beginning to hit the sweet spot planning wise for this time. What I’ve learned from this Mass time is something that can carry over to any time you want to take your kids to Mass: preparation, attitude, and a little celebration.
We easily forget how affected our kids behaviour is by their nap-levels and by their food levels. If we want to set up our kids for the best chance for successful behaviour at Mass, (and take away all valid excuses for poor behaviour), we try to make sure everyone has napped adequately for the day and has had a good, sustaining snack to get them through that seemingly looonng hour of Mass. Typically every Saturday we maintain our mandatory quiet time/naps for all our kids. Once they’re up from naps we feed them yogurt, granola bars, or any other snack we have that may have extra protein and low sugars. The difference these steps make in how they behave during Mass cannot be underestimated! We always are harshly reminded on Saturdays when the kids have spent the early part of the afternoon at a birthday party arriving to Mass grumpy, sugar-hyped, and basically impossible.
These tips can be adjusted for a Sunday morning Mass of course, maybe feed them eggs for breakfast, get to Mass early or go to a later Mass after the baby’s morning nap, or if you can’t choose Mass figure out what helps them best prepare. It’s really surprised me in the past how a little work in preparation pays off for a less combative Mass!
Next up is attitude. I’m talking about your attitude. You should go to Mass happy to be bringing your children to Christ! You’ve brought them into the world, gotten them baptized, they are full-fledged members of the Church who deserve and need Christ at the Mass. Every Mass you bring them to exposes them to Christ’s presence and his love for them. You’re also giving them the experience needed to begin to understand the mysteries of the Mass, and baby steps towards participating in the Mass fully when they’re older. These are all great and important things — so be confident! Don’t act like you need to apologize to those around you for your child’s presence. You may be waiting for a meltdown or tantrum, but by projecting confidence you show your children that this is normal and something you enjoy and think is important, as well as giving a positive impression to those around you of families in Mass.
In your attitude you are also setting the tone for what you expect in your kids behaviour. You are right to expect that your kids can behave well in Mass. It is possible! We allow toddlers and babies to play on the floor in the pew, but they know they’re not allowed out of the pew. We have religious books on the saints, the Bible, and the catechism available to read, but the kids know we don’t allow toys or fighting. We let babies make happy noises because it’s natural, but toddlers who scream and throw tantrums are removed and not allowed to run around or have fun in the back of the Church.
Your prayerful attitude will hopefully rub off on kids as well. Once our kids know their prayers, beginning around 3 or 4 years old, we encourage them to say them during Mass. Gemma hasn’t received her First Holy Communion yet but says all the major prayers of the Mass including the Confiteor, Gloria, the Creed, Our Father etc. The younger boys say the sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mass, and try to sing songs, and pay attention to the bells at Consecration. These are great anchor points that can bring a child of any age attention to the Mass and what’s happening at the altar. Younger babies like to watch for the cross in the procession, count altar servers or candles, point to the different statues.
Another thing about attitude: don’t expect perfection — but don’t let that get you down! Just a couple weeks ago Max started saying “POOP” at a speaking tone of voice in the moments of silence after Father gave his homily. He wasn’t being intentionally bad, but got a talking to about why we don’t say that word in Church. It was a little disruptive. It was mildly embarrassing since I’m used to this kind of thing. I really, really try not to let these kinds of crazy, embarrassing things get me down. On the good days I choose to let it go and be happy he didn’t scream and need to get taken to the back, or wasn’t driving a sibling nuts. We all have tough days at Mass, some days are definitely better than others, but we’ve got to try and keep our attitudes positive generally because it really does have an impact on how we’re passing down our faith to our children.
A little bribery can go a long way to helping older toddlers and young kids make it through times of temptation to fight with their siblings over hymnals. We’ve found that making the bribery into a family event has turned things around. We always get a pizza and bring it home for dinner after Mass on Saturdays and it’s turned into the one night a week we eat out so it has become special and something to look forward to for the kids (and me, I’m not going to lie, I love not cooking on Saturday!). If you’re going to Sunday morning Mass donuts, brunch, pancakes at home, heading to the park after Mass; anything your kids will find special that becomes a whole family event is a great way to make celebrating the Lord’s day part of your family’s culture. It makes the day stand out from the rest of the week, builds memories of your own family’s traditions, and of course it only happens if everyone works together in trying their best to participate and act well during Mass.
Again, I’m no expert and I would say at least half of my Saturday nights have me reaching for a stiff drink after Mass with 5 kids — even though my husband is the best at corralling, cajoling, and wrangling them. I know we’re putting in the hard work now planting the seeds of faith in our kids. It requires a lot of sacrifice from us if we’re being honest, and hopefully the time we spend rocking our babies in the back of the Church, not seething when they drop the kneeler on our toes, and forgiving their loud voices during times of silent prayer earn us a little time off during purgatory.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Fountains of Home, the authors blog, and is reprinted here with kind permission.