Surviving the Toddler Years at Mass

1. Remember Who has invited you to His table. Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The primary point of the Sunday Mass obligation is to provide grace for the weary souls in need of the healing and peace of our Savior. Therefore, even if you missed every word of the homily and Eucharistic prayer while you calmed your screaming baby or toddler, you will fulfill your obligation by receiving His precious Body. I can pray at home and read the Bible when the kids are asleep. Only at church can I receive Him bodily.

2. Be a united front. If at all possible, both parents should make it clear to the children that Mass is an obligation. The children will immediately sense, and possibly exploit, divided sympathies when one parent is not fully committed to Sunday Mass attendance. It is unfair to expect of a child what you cannot or will not expect of an adult.

3. Attend Mass as a family from the very beginning. It is immeasurably harder to train older children to behave in the Mass when they have never attended with you in the past. When you leave the kids with Grandma, or go alone, you send an implicit message that Mass is not for children. Jesus loves the little children! Let them come unto Him! Also, you will find that your older children will help you set the example for the younger ones, and thus, the early training will reap big dividends in the lives of your youngest children.


4. Choose a Mass, and stick with it. Children really crave routines, and it helps them to understand what is expected of them to go to the same place at the same time every week. Every church is a little different. Find the Mass and time that works the best for your children, even if you personally find it less appealing. You are not training yourself. You are training your children to attend Mass, and you need to stack the deck in their favor.

5. Prepare for Mass. Dressing in a rush, throwing a banana in the car seat with Junior and careening down the parkway will not put anyone in a calm mood for Mass. Avoid the newspaper until after Mass. Lay out the clothes the night before. Plan or prepare breakfast before the kids wake up, and make it a favorite (Sunday is a celebration, after all!) Parents might plan to fast until after Mass, and read the scriptures on the way to the church, so that you are prepared physically and mentally. As the children get older, your example will go a long way in helping them appreciate the importance of Sunday Mass.

6. Divide and Conquer. Do insist that those who are old enough to behave remain in the Mass and behave. One parent can sit in the Mass with your older, “Mass-qualified” crew while the other stays in the children's room with the baby/toddler. This is a great way to emphasize to preschoolers that they want to sit with the big kids.

7. Mass is not a Fashion Show for the Elect. There is nothing wrong with dressing our little angels in their Sunday best. They will be adored and admired no matter what they wear. Just make certain that your emphasis is not “how they look” (which has the unfortunate tendency to mentally spill over into “how they behave in front of all those people”), but what gift you and your child will give to Jesus. A nice appearance and reverent behavior are both gifts to Jesus. The latter is preferable to the former.

8. Mass is not a Showcase for Well-Behaved Children and/or Unkind Adults. Not one of us is worthy to be in the presence of our Lord, but He comes anyway. Most of the time, we are only imagining the responses of our fellow parishioners to the antics of our kids. I have only had one person tell me to get my kid out of the Mass, and her companion immediately leaned over and said, “Ignore her, honey — she's mentally ill!” Never allow someone to ruin your Mass in this way. Take your kid out if you must, and say a prayer to Our Lady for peace, peace, peace. Then forgive, and forget.

9. Be Realistic about Your Child's Developmental Age. Basically, most children are capable of reverent behavior for an hour as early as age three, but won't be consistent until the age of reason, about six or seven. Prior to this time, their emotions are closer to the surface as they learn to exercise their will over their passions. This is why a four year-old can seem like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, doing well one week and rotten the next. They have only a limited mastery. Bringing along Christian books and small quiet toys is never a bad idea for a toddler or a preschooler.

10. Remain Calm Yourself. The important thing to remember is that they will suck up whatever emotional reaction you give to their behavior. Don't forget — this is Jesus' party and He invited them too. If you are feeling wild inside at their misbehavior, they won't be able to overlook that. It soaks in, and makes them twice as hard to calm down. Give both of yourselves a time out, outside the church if necessary. Then, try again with a calm heart and a calmer child.

11. Don't Make the Mass Snack Time. The drive to Mass can be snack time if necessary, but most churches ask their parishioners not to let children eat in the Mass. It is a very bad precedent for small children to be allowed to snack at will in the church, even if it keeps them quiet. They can last for an hour, and they will learn that sacred time is different. (Obviously, very young babies are exempt from this rule.)

12. Don't be a Zealot. If your child was up all night crying, or got up too late to eat a decent meal, you may be setting yourself up for a tantrum if you drag him out of bed and off to Mass. Tag-team with your husband when your child is clearly not up to a visit to Jesus' house. If it is a relatively rare occurrence, the child is certain not to notice that he or she misses one Sunday. It might even be a welcome break for you!

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