The holiday season is upon us, and Catholic parents everywhere are gearing up for special, longer Masses.
I have two degrees in theology, have written multiple books on catechesis, and have worked as a catechist in several different parishes. Guess what? My children haven’t read my credentials, and don’t particularly care. So I, like you, have spent countless hours in cry rooms and church vestibules with a noisy child. I’ve done the “walk of shame” down our parish aisles, a shrieking toddler in tow. I’ve bounced a baby in the back of the church, trying to convince her to nap. And yes, I’ve experienced the occasional loud whisper, uttered at the quiestest moments of Mass, “Mommy, is Mass done YET?!”
A sweet friend at our parish is mother to the world’s cutest toddler. This little girl is the parish darling, but her parents are less than amused by her antics. Recently, as her dad was trying to coax her out from beneath the tabernacle after Mass (the markings of a future saint, for sure), he asked, “Do you have ANY advice?!”
I assured him that my daughters were less than angelic at that age, and that she would definitely outgrow this stage by the time she was three or four years old. But, that’s little consolation to a parent in the midst of the 2-3 year window of toddler Mass insanity.
If this is your family, here are a few things that you can do in the meantime.
Set reasonable expectations
Toddlers are not designed to be confined in a pew for an hour. You are not a failure if you have to take a child out of Mass! Figure out how long it usually takes for your child to begin to melt down, and try to leave the pew before that point. For example, I knew my oldest daughter could make it through the Gospel without melting down. So, I would give her a pre-Mass pep talk (“You only have to stay in the pew until the homily! You can do it!”), and when the Gospel was finished being read, I would take her to the vestibule and let her run around. I would still watch Mass through the glass doors, and listen through the speakers, and participate while she let her wiggles out. If she “behaved” in the pew until the homily, she could leave, and I would praise her, and let her wiggle around for the remainder of Mass. At other stages, we aimed for after Communion, or after the First Reading. Eventually, they’re able to stay in the pew for the whole Mass, but in the meantime, reasonable expectations keep everyone happier.
Teach one or two simple things
One of our priorities is to help our little ones to love Jesus in the Eucharist. From the time they are babies, we teach them to do one simple thing – to blow a kiss to the tabernacle after Mass. It is such a simple thing, but it reinforces a belief in the Real Presence, and it launches a relationship with Jesus. Other simple things to teach – how to make the Sign of the Cross, how to genuflect, how to bless yourself with holy water. We also pray with them after Communion, asking God to give them the gift of spiritual Communion. One of my daughters has her own unique way to do that. After Communion, I ask her, “Where is your little Jesus?” She immediately snuggles my chest, giving her love to her “little Jesus,” present in me after Communion
Use whatever works
In my seven years of parenting, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of new Catholic books and toys that have been made in that time! (I have even written a few of my own.) If a bag full of books or toys keeps your child happy…use it! We also have a family policy that you can bring one stuffed animal or doll to Mass, until your Sacramental preparation year.
Make love your prayer
Your number one goal as a parent is not to teach your child to behave perfectly at Mass. Your number one goal is to point them to heaven. Mass is the closest we can get to heaven on Earth. At Mass, we are surrounded by all of the saints and angels. We are united to Christ, and all of his mystical body.
Of course you should teach your children this doctrine…but your average one or two year old won’t understand it, yet. While they’re growing in understanding, they will find it more believable if you are teaching in love. Mass is a good time to snuggle your kids. What other time of week are you all confined together, in a small space, for an hour? So cuddle your baby or toddler. Pull that preschooler on your lap, and put your arm around your big kid, or squeeze her hand. Yes, correct bad behavior when it happens, but also smile indulgently when good behavior happens. Your love is the first lesson your child learns about God’s love. So go out of your way to love them a little extra during Mass.
This too shall pass
Above all, remember that this is a fleeting stage of childhood, and keep persisting in bringing those little stinkers to Mass. There will come a day when you can once again kneel quietly in your pew and pray at Mass. In the meantime, remember the words of Christ, and rest assured that in welcoming these little ones, you are actually welcoming him…and that prayer is very pleasing to him, indeed.