The Parent’s Guide to Sanity at Mass

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.

image: The Long Desired of the Nations by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr

By

Michele Chronister is a wife, and mother to two little girls. She is received her BA and MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame (’09 and ’11). She is the author of Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis, the co-author of Faith Beginnings – Family Nurturing from Birth Through Preschool, and editor of the book Rosaries Aren't Just for Teething. She has contributed articles to Catholic Digest, Catechetical Leader, and is a regular columnist for Ignitum Today. She is also the co-chair of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Intellectual and Development Disabilities. When her oldest was a baby, she realized that their family life had taken on a sort of monastic rhythm – eat, pray, play, sleep. Prompted by this, she started the blog My Domestic Monastery (www.mydomesticmonastery.com), where she shares inspiration for families wanting to grow in holiness.

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  • GrannyAtlanta

    I am a mother of three and grandmother of ten, so I’ve been around for a while. Recently I had two of my grandchildren living with me — from the time they were 2 & 3 until they recently moved on at the ages of 8 & 9.

    All of your suggestions are great, but I have one that has worked very well — when my own kids were young and now with my grandchildren. Often, particularly if there are more than two children, it’s difficult to keep them separate enough that they won’t be tempted to poke or tease one another. It just comes with the territory.

    Once the children are out of the toddler stage and can understand the reason why we are in Mass — around 4 or 5, depending on the child — I try to instill a sense of needing to honor God AND our neighbors around us by not distracting them. Most of them have had to pay attention in a school environment of some kind at that point.

    I will silently try to give them as many warning signs as possible if they begin to misbehave. (You know….the eyebrow raise, the throat clearing, etc.) If they haven’t turned a corner and been able to self-correct their behavior, I make a little announcement when Mass is over.

    It goes something like this: “I’m so sorry you guys weren’t able to be still during Mass. I know it’s tough for you. So, we’re going to keep practicing. The next Mass starts in a half-hour and we’re staying for that one, too. There are four more Masses today and I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it eventually.”

    Every single time I’ve done that, it was the last Mass that the child misbehaved at. They even taught subsequent siblings that they needed to be quiet, telling a sibling they’d have to go to more Masses on the same day. All I ever needed to do after that first double Mass is to lean over and softly whisper, “Do you want to stay for the next Mass?” Each one got it and quickly shook their head “NO!”

    Before some of you go off on me saying how “mean” this is……I hear you. Most parents are able to get their children to behave pretty well by the time they’re four or five, but some kids just like to push buttons — and Mass is their favorite time to do that. This technique is for them…..and I promise it will bring sanity to your Mass times.

    I’ve recommended this to dozens of parents over the years who I’ve seen struggle with their children — children old enough to know better. And, their first comment is always that it’s so hard to think of THEM (the adults) having to attend another Mass. I promise them that if they do this ONE time, it will be their last. Plan in advance which weekend you can spare the time to stay for two Masses. Don’t warn the children in advance — just do it. No yelling. No getting angry with them. You just gently explain that you’re really sorry and that practice is the key — and you’re ready to stay for as many Masses as is necessary for them to get the right amount of practice.

    You would not believe how many parents would seek me out months later to let me know how well the technique worked and how many friends they’ve recommended the technique to.

  • Grammar Girl

    I am with Granny, for most of the kids I know Mass is already a punishment. The parent can’t make it one, it is one already. But I have seen many of these children grow up to be altar boys and even priests. Having the kids stay for another Mass isn’t damaging when combined with other things.

  • Grammar Girl

    The most important point is, this only has to be done once.

  • Cathy Overmeyer

    I think Catholic parishes that have childcare for four and under are on the right track. They recognize that little children learn better singing and playing than sitting in pews where they can’t see and don’t understand what is happening. I teach kindergarten Sunday school at my parish and keep thinking about our need for a child care ministry.
    Parents miss mass and so do those around them when they stay with kids who are restless. Older kids should have some books to look at and should sit and stand when everyone else does. I spent 34 years working with kids and another thing to consider is that they need to learn how to sit and occupy themselves without constant parent involvement. It can be done, and needs to be practiced at home, when visiting, out to eat, etc. not just at mass. I see many parents talking with kids who are old enough to read lyrics and responses. For kids over 6, participation should be expected and parents need to model it.
    I do not agree with staying for a second mass, but with any kid over 5 I would agree with not doing any promised treat after mass, if behavior was poor. A treat for my son was being able to light votives(real fire!) or getting to go to the choir loft and look down. Not talking big bribes here 🙂

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