Attending Mass with young children can be a challenge for any parent whether it is your first child, or your fifteenth. Children will be children and to expect otherwise is setting yourself up for disappointment. For twenty years my husband and I have been attending Mass with young children. Some days I felt like the ushers should be handing out T-shirts saying, “I survived Mass today” because just making it through the liturgy was an exercise in patience and physical endurance. Most of the time Mass is enjoyable and the kids are very well behaved. This didn’t happen by accident. We made our share of mistakes, but the well-sought advice from parents who had walked in our shoes made the most difference. Here is a list of the actions that have worked well for us. With our youngest children ages 3, 4 and 6 I am happy to report that we rarely have to do much past steps 4 or 5 any more. (Of course, now that I posted this on my blog, I will probably be eating some humble pie really soon.
1. Set the Stage
As the kids are strapped in their carseats on the way to Mass, my husband shuts off the radio, gets everyone’s attention and makes the same statement EVERY week. “Okay, guys. I expect good kids in church. Good prayer hands. Stand on two feet. Sit quietly.” Then he goes through each child by name and gets their commitment, “Yes, Dad.” This is so much of a routine that the kids even know the stoplight and intersection to expect this conversation. Consistency is key.
- Be an Example
If you truly believe in the presence of Christ: body, soul, blood and divinity, then your actions will speak your beliefs loudly. Practice reverence and fold your hands like you were taught when making your First Holy Communion. Those little children will mimmick your actions and melt Jesus’ heart with their innocence and purity. Our church still rings the bells at the consecration. Take the time to whisper that Jesus is present on the altar, so the children can become aware of the incredible miracle taking place before them.
3. The Look
My kids know the “look” and correct themselves fairly quickly. The older they are, the more effective it is. I don’t have to explain this. Everyone knows a parent’s look.
- The Snap
For a child that is sitting in front of you or a few people away from you, a snap of your fingers followed by the look is a quick and unobtrusive way to let them know that their behavior needs to change. Like the “Look”, my kids understand the “snap” and correct fairly quickly.
5. The Redirect
Sometimes children just need physical redirection. A gentle squaring of their shoulders with your hands to face them towards the altar, or to keep their foot from kicking the pew or others are some examples of this.
6. The Squeeze/Pinch
This one may seem controversial to some, but I have used it will all of my kids and found it to be extremely effective. Beginning at one year old or when your child understands, “no” this tool can begin to be implemented. The point is not to hurt the child, or to cause physical pain; but to draw attention to correcting undesired behavior. When a child in his mother or father’s arms wants down, begins to wiggle/wrestle, or makes loud noises, the parent gently squeezes the child’s thigh and says,”no” with a firm voice. You have to use your judgement with this as each child is different and we are not trying to stop kids from being kids, but simply train them for proper behavior. Think Pavlov and don’t expect immediate results. The results come with consistency. As the child’s understanding increases, the squeeze becomes more firm. At ages 6 and above, it is a pinch to get their attention because if you have consistently practiced steps 1-5 for their lifetime, you should not have to get to number 6.
- The Take Out
Most people will take screaming kids out of Mass. Do the Take Out before it reaches that point if you are able. If the gentle squeeze did not correct the behavior, then warn your child that you will leave Mass. If you take them out, it should not be a reward. Sometimes I spank, most of the time I simply restate my expectations for their behavior. I go to a quiet corner or outside and get at eye level to speak with them. Before returning to Mass, they verbally commit to improved behavior. Ie: We are going to sit still and be quiet, right? Then, we have found that having the child lay his/her head on your shoulder when returning shows submission and is effective in making them feel loved and secure even after being corrected. They have lost their privilege to sit on their own and will spend the rest of Mass on a parental lap. Many naps have followed this scenario.
- Cry Room Criteria
If the Take Out did not get the desired results, it is probably time to go to the Cry Room. Some families start out here, but personally I think that is a mistake. Our cry room is very small as well, so it is unfair for entire families to take up this vital space. But, that is just my personal opinion. In any case, the cry room does not make for a play room! When we have to go to the cry room, my kids know it won’t be fun. They are not allowed off my lap and can not take any books or toys with them. All the crying and fit throwing in the world will not earn them freedom and this is clear from the moment we step foot out of the main church. In all honesty, my babies are the only ones who have ever cried in there. Mostly the kids sit in my lap in awe of the kids that are climbing and talking and playing and running wild. Once their behavior is corrected, the baby is nursed to sleep, or I feel confident enough– I return to our seats with our family. I have rarely spent the entire Mass in the cry room. It is an over-crowed place of distraction with lack of reverence and I dread every minute I have to be in there; but am thankful to have a place to go with an unruly child, a hungry infant, or a stinky diaper that needs immediate attention. Yes, that is the only changing station in the church facility.
For children age 4 or older, sometimes we just need a little more practice standing still, sitting still, or folding our hands. If we had a difficult time doing these things at Mass then we practice once we get home. A rule of thumb is one minute for each year of age. So a 5 year old can practice sitting quietly for 5 minutes. We set a timer while we are making lunch and explain what we are doing and why: always reinforcing the expectation that was announced to begin with. Consistency. Reinforcement. Gentleness. Patience. Any of these things done with anger will defeat your original purpose of teaching and training your children to understand and love the beauty of the Mass. Yes, I have done them in anger. No, they were not effective.
10. Daily Mass
This was my biggest boost when we attended regularly. Once my older kids learned proper behavior, the younger ones followed suit. Daily Mass first and foremost filled me and my children with graces. The days we attended daily Mass, things seemed to go more smoothly and set the right tone for the week. The regular church goers fussed over my kids and lavished them with praise and treats, which made attendance so much more rewarding. There is also a playground that I used for bribery purposes. I am not ashamed to admit this. Finally, the Mass is only 30 minutes long so it is not as demanding as the hour to hour-and-a-half long Sunday Masses. It is the perfect place to begin to learn the prayers and rhythm of the Mass. I speak of this in past tense because we haven’t attended since Ben was born due to my health issues. I look forward to getting this back into our daily routine. My college age daughter still attends daily Mass and my 16 year old goes whenever she can break away from helping me. I don’t want to deny that to my other children as I fully understand that the weight of a Mass cannot be measured in earthly terms.
I hope that these are helpful to other parents with young children. Hang in there as these young years don’t last forever (just twenty some years in our case). One day they will be out of diapers, out of the nursery, and out of your home; but, God willing, they will never leave the Mass that they were taught to love from their very first moments.