"Is Mass over yet?" A whiny two year old voice asks me this question on an almost weekly basis. Typically it arrives right after the homily, which in his defense, must be a trying time As he attempts to keep his little self mostly still. These days he's the winner for being removed from Mass the most.
And then there's my four year old. At this point it's mostly working on his attitude being correlated to his actions. Years of working with him each week has him mostly participating at this point, and a typical week has him kneeling and praying right alongside us.
A newborn was thrown into the mix this summer, which has been mostly interesting due to the fact that David and I have found ourselves not one on one, as we were before, but instead working defense in the pews. We no longer have one to stay with the mostly behaved child while the other parent removes misbehaving/overly loud child from the scenario. Now we most pick who is taking out one and leaving the other juggling two.
I know so many of you find yourself in this situation or one very similar. Perhaps you only have one child, but they have the energy of four. Or maybe you and your spouse are unable to attend the same mass time due to work schedules, and you are on your own. Maybe you feel like you just have lost control and you don't know where to go next. Everyone of us that has brought an energetic, excitable, open minded, little person into a Church knows the humility that comes along with it.
So, this brings us to the inevitable question: why even bring them to Church in the first place? The answer is exactly the description I gave you above. Because they are energetic, excitable, and open minded. The Mass is for every Christian, big or small. Just by coming and joining in, each person receives God's graces, and why would you deny that to children?
It is so important that even from their earliest of days, we bring our children and show them that they are an active part of the Church community. We not only drag our children into the pews weekly, but we encourage them to actively participate as much as they can. No, this doesn't mean our children sit perfectly still and pronounce each response at just the right volume. This just means we do the best we can to help them delve into the Mass with all their senses.
As parents, we, too, work hard to make Mass a more engaging time for our children. Here are a few ways we have found help do that:
Have reasonable expectations for each age. This is probably the most varying of these ideas. Only you as a parent can know what each of your children is capable of. Know what your child is ready for now, and start there.
For our 2 year old, Blaise, we expect him to say all the "Amens," the "Our Father," pass the Peace with those around us in a simple handshake, and remain in our portion of the pew. Absolute quietness is hard, but we remind him that there are parts of the Mass for listening, and parts where he can respond, too. He's not quite tall enough to kneel yet, so we have him just stand on the kneeler between us and fold his hands. He's capable of crossing his arms to create "Blessings Arms," to receive a blessing from our priest when mama and dad go forward to receive. And his most recent accomplishment: a one kneed action of genuflection when going in and out of the aisle.
Dominic, our four year old, can do all of the above, plus we except him to sit, kneel, and stand at appropriate times. He knows most of the responses and is to say them along. No talking is tolerated from him, and he is not supposed to agitate or tease his brothers in any way. I know that he can handle these things because I've seen what he's capable of at home. He is a very concentrated child and picks up quickly on the order and correct way of going about things.
Obviously each child is different, and that is for you to figure out where you want to draw the line and how your son or daughter can participate in the Mass.
Bring Mass bags and appropriate literature. Basically a Mass bag is a small bag with a few items that help to keep your mind focussed on what is happening around you with a more tactile approach, and this is pretty much what helps us keep our sanity with squirmy preschoolers.
Our mass bags include holy cards with a hole punched in the corner on a metal ring, a few picture book Bibles, a copy or two of different parts of Books of Saints , The Saving Name of God the Son (love, love the beautiful art by Renaissance painter Fra Angelico featured in this one!), and finally, Catholic Icing's Mass book, also featuring lovely art from the great Masters.
We had rosaries, which we no longer bring because they kept making loud noises as they hit the floor. And we avoid Saint finger puppets, figures, dolls, and the like because although at our house they are fantastic, at Mass they'd just become a character in a story, and no attention would be paid to what was happening around us.
Forego snacks. Make sure your young children are well fed before you leave for Church, and then don't bring snacks. They'll be in a better mood if they are full upon arrival, and it's best to start young with the "no food in church" rule. Obviously, nursing/bottlefed babies are an exception, but once your child is eating real food, there really is no reason why they cannot go one hour without food. Ages 2 and under, we bring a water bottle along for, and if they truly need it, we go to the back to drink.
Remind them (and ourselves) that it is not about us. We often remind our children that they aren't attending mass to make us, as their parents, happy. I am delighted that we attend as a family, but that isn't the true reason for why they are there. God wants them there. We get the great privilege to come and be in the presence of the Eucharist, and we treat it as such. It's a special time, which we set aside time for every week, wear fancier clothes than normal, and learn about our Faith and dwell in community with the Church here on earth to bring God honor and glory.
Practice at home. Use bedtime prayers as a time to learn the Our Father. Say the Apostles or Nicene creed after dinner once a week. Get your one year old crossing themselves after meal prayers (it's pretty much the cutest thing!). The possibilities are endless! When your child is familiar with the prayers, and they hear them in mass, they'll realize they can join right in because they already know what to say.
Have a game plan for when there is disruption. And it's not always going to be perfect. Chances are, you'll be lucky if 25% off the time, it goes off pretty well. Prepare though, so you're not in the pew with the screaming child and trying to figure out whose turn it is. Our baby is young enough right now (3 months) that I typically wear him in a wrap to mass. This means if he cries, obviously I would be the one to take him out. This also means that if the two year old starts shrieking because he wanted to stand when it's time to sit or vice versa, my husband usually takes him out. Figure out a plan that works for you!
And lastly, our children apologize when their behavior calls for it. After Mass, they go and say they're sorry. Not to me or their Dad because once again Mass isn't about us. Pretty much any Catholic Church has a statue of Jesus, where your child can go and say they're sorry for being ____ during the Holy Mass. Worst case, there's probably a statue of Mary, and your little one can apologize for grieving her heart as they disrespected her Son. We have found this to be a beautiful way for their behavior in Mass to be because they know we owe God all honor and is a small peek at what repentance looks like.
There you have it. With a little preparation, I have found that it isn't the worst thing in the world to bring three boys under the age of five into the pew every Sunday. Our children are far from perfect in their behavior, but in honesty, the many adults around them are rarely all perfectly focused and reverent. However, they are able to grasp the concepts of the Mass and participate at their level alongside the best of them. We have found that the whys in this part of our family life far outweigh the what ifs.
And sometimes, as a mama, I'm treated to those little voices saying things such as, "But we have to go to Mass then we can see Jesus!" Or watching my very shy two year old stand patiently for almost a minute with his tiny hand outstretched, just to offer the homeless man a row ahead the Peace of Christ.
And that folks, is why I make an effort to get even the smallest members of the Church into the pew every Sunday to wholly participate as best we are able in the Mass.
Some of my blogging friends also have great ideas regarding this, so make sure to go read what they have to say about kids and Mass:
Carrots for Michaelmas :: 27 Books for Your Mass Bag (And Tips for Dealing with Little Ones in Mass)
Surviving Our Blessings :: Surviving Mass with Little Ones: Our Top Ten Tips
Catholic All Year :: Age Appropriate Goals for Mass Behavior
Fountains of Home :: Survival Skills for Mass with Kids
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