Surviving (and Maybe Even Loving) Mass with Children



Ah, church with kiddos...HOW DO YOU DO IT? I don't claim to have all the answers but it's a question I've seen and received often enough that I thought I'd write out what works for us. And by works I do not mean perfection or raising fearful robot children, heh. I mean that I can confidently say our kids do reasonably well at Mass. Some of these things came instinctively but many more are things we've learned over time through lots of trial and error, tears (probably mostly mine) and victories. These are hard-earned tips, guys. So this is not some lecture to guilt trip anyone. Our kids aren't perfect and neither are we and there are certainly other parts of our lives where we can be a hot mess.

We do have our hard days, of course, six kids and all. But for the most part, we are able to enter in to Mass and participate, which then makes Mass more fruitful and something to look forward to rather than dread. (And no, we didn't just happen to get six easy kids. >>inserts all the tears and laughter here<< We actually have all the temperaments represented amongst our them because God is funny like that.)

***ENTER THE PAINFULLY NECESSARY DISCLAIMER*** Please know I don't write this in the spirit of thinking I know all the things or what will definitely work for your particular family. My kids aren't your kids and your kids aren't my kids. Your family situation may be drastically different than mine. But this is what has worked for us and I share it in the spirit of it maybe helping someone else. And honestly, part of the reason for writing this is so that when people do ask me I can just point them here rather than typing it out all over again. But I give no guarantees and offer no money back ;)

1. There's no if about going to Mass.
Unless there is serious illness, we go. They know there's not even a question and it's just what we do and will always do on Sundays. All other activities including vacations are scheduled around Mass, not the other way around. The Sabbath is the reason we have a weekend anyway and Sunday is the new sabbath where we are divinely ordered to worship and rest. Making it a non-negotiable standard routine every week is step one to helping them understand the significance of Mass and how we are to approach it.

2. Expect wiggles. 
Know what is age appropriate behavior and let the wiggles and moderate pew pacing of toddlers and littler kids go. God created human beings to grow and develop and that includes the normal behavior of babies, toddlers, and little kids. There's a difference between misbehavior, distraction that needs addressing, and just normal squirming, peering around, itching, wiggling, baby talk, etc. As long as they're not being unreasonably distracting, it's good for people to see and welcome children at Mass and it's good for people to know what children ARE. One thing I've learned is that especially in the beginning of parenting I was hyper-aware of every movement and noise from my kids but other people were not (this is where I'm very thankful for high-backed pews and the traditional style of church architecture! They're much more family friendly than in-the-round churches!). I think sometimes parents can make the mistake of being overly diligent on managing behavior. Don't be that parent whose shushing and moving kids around ends up being more a distraction than the original behavior of the child!

3. No snacks and usually no toys/games/books
We experimented a handful of times with snacks and toys for the baby/toddler stage and decided it actually made things worse. They ended up louder and more distracting to other people! And they never ever seem to actually want to play with the toy or read the book you brought, do they? At least mine never did! Instead it turned into an instrument to bang against the pew (or throw!), loudly complain or chatter about, or they're dropping cheerios all over the floor. Obviously make sure kids are fed before Mass so they're not actually hungry and cranky. Once in a great while during a long liturgy like Easter Vigil or the like and little ones are getting antsy, I might bring a holy book for a toddler or young child or possibly pull out a pen and scrap paper for them to scribble on but that's not the weekly Sunday norm.

4. Wrap that baby.
One of the greatest joys for me after having a baby is bringing them to Mass for the first time. I love having them there and I love introducing them to the parish community who have been watching me get bigger and bigger (and more and more exhausted) each week. BUT taking a newborn to Mass can be incredibly stressful! My solution that has worked marvelously with the last three babies is to put them in a wrap every time we go to Mass. I use a Moby style wrap but use whatever works best for you. Because they can be a little cumbersome to put on, I usually put it on before leaving home and then when we arrive at church, pop the baby right from the carseat into the wrap in the parking lot. I make sure the baby was nursed at home (though I have nothing against nursing in Mass...it's just difficult for me in the very early weeks when they're still learning and I need to work to get a good latch). If the baby has gotten a good feeding at home or in the van, they usually fall asleep pretty quickly in the wrap and wearing them helps them stay that way through the whole Mass. Wearing them allows my arms to be free to help with the other kids and I just love snuggling them during Mass. I usually wear them consistently for Mass until they are about 4-5 months and getting too squirmy in it and not consistently sleeping through Mass. BONUS: when a baby is in a wrap or sling, the incidence of well-intentioned old ladies or curious children touching or kissing or trying to hold the baby is drastically reduced. A HUGE plus during cold and flu season when babies are especially vulnerable.

5. Pick pew 1, 2, or 3.
It's always worked best for us to sit up front. The children can see and hear better and there are way less distractions for all of us. (Dear ushers, I love you but STOP CHATTERING. Please?) We can quietly point out different parts of the Mass to the younger children and they can actually see what Father is doing versus staring at someone's behind...I mean, I would have a hard time paying attention if all I could see in front of me was a row of legs and bottoms! It's easy to understand why kids wouldn't be able to pay attention when they're further back. Yes, sitting up front does make the walk of shame* to the back a little more conspicuous but for us, I think it has also made it less common and that phase much shorter.

*I kid. No real shame but we all know the feeling when it feels like all. the. eyes. are on us, right?

6. Dress up.
Making the effort to dress up for Mass tells our children (and us!) that Something Important is happening and this is not just an ordinary place. As human beings we are body and soul and the clothing we choose is a reflection of what we believe and what message we want to say. We can start teaching our children this message (the Theology of the Body!) from the very beginning. Choosing special clothing and dressing in a way that our culture recognizes as worthy of a special event tells us and the people around us that we see value in ourselves, in what we are doing and in the people we are with. It tells us and God that we believe He is worthy of our Sunday best. It also has a very real effect on our mood and behavior! Research has shown that when students dress up for an exam, they do better. When we are dressed for "success," we often feel better about ourselves and our behavior reflects that. I think children react similarly. While this does require more effort, it DOESN'T have to be complicated. Each of our boys has a pair of church khakis, a couple button down shirts to choose from, a belt, church shoes, and a selection of ties they share that they have the option of wearing. (We require ties for high holy days like Christmas and Easter unless they're serving. They claim a tie is bothersome underneath the cassock.) They wear almost the same thing every week.

7. Give them beauty.
We live in the middle of five or six parishes we could go to, all roughly enough the same distance from us. One of the reasons we chose the parish we did was because it was traditionally styled and beautiful. The architecture and style makes it clear Who is the focus of our worship and where our eye and attention should be drawn. Kids respond to these things, too! Children recognize and deserve beauty, in the church building itself, in the liturgy, in the music. I think being in a church like this reinforces appropriate behavior for children and adults. The times that we attend a more modern church it's much harder for them (and me!) to focus. This is especially true for those churches styled "in-the-round." (There's no way anyone consulted any actual parents of young children when designing those!) Our parish is far from perfect but when we are there the artwork, architecture, design, and themes lift our eyes and minds to the One we are there to worship, children and adults alike. Even our babies are more captivated by the light sparkling from a beautiful stained glass window than a blank wall or something that could also have been used at the office building down the street. Obviously not everyone has a huge selection of parishes to go to but if and when possible, give your children beauty.

8. Take the distractors out.
Yes, if a child is being a big distraction to their siblings or others, we bring them in the back. Children of course belong in Mass but for me it's just common courtesy that if a child is at the point of becoming a distraction to others then we take them out to regroup and reset. We try to keep them in arms (although that hasn't always been possible when I'm pregnant) and we make going in the back pretty boring so that it's not an enticing place to be! Our parish doesn't have a cry room so going in the back involves standing or sitting in the foyer. I take the method of trying to still participate in the prayers so that the child knows my attention is still on the Mass even while pacing or sitting in the back. I try to return back to our family in the pew if and when possible and at a time in the Mass when the congregation is moving from sitting to standing so that we are less distracting.

9. Hold the toddlers, use the close whisper.
It's been helpful for us to hold babies and toddlers in arms as long as possible. This isn't always possible of course but when they learn that they have the option of being on their own and wandering down (or under!) the pew, it's hard to reign that back in. And they seem calmer and it's easier to do the close whisper when they're in arms. This is when you get right up to their ear, close enough that it's not a distraction to others, and try to point out what is happening in the Mass or items in the Church (or maaaaybe sometimes in a moment of desperation it's been that we can't have donuts after if behavior doesn't change).

10. Daily or weekday Mass is helpful.
This hasn't always been possible for us in different seasons but the more practice the kids have with Mass, the more they know how to behave and the more they learn and can actively participate.

11. Time your Mass well.
For us an earlier morning Mass has always yielded better results than when we have to go to a later morning or afternoon liturgy. They're not overtired, they've eaten something small beforehand so they're not hangry, and they haven't "entered" into the day yet. BUT we like that our parish Mass isn't SO early that getting all of us ready and there on time isn't unreasonable and is doable (if sometimes crazy!).

12. Prepare them *every time* in the car.
Every Sunday on the way to the church we remind them yet again that we expect "Mass behavior" and that they're not to be a distraction to each other. We ask them to please help us enter into the Mass. For some kids we pinpoint specific behavior to do and/or avoid. It sometimes feels like we shouldn't need to tell them again but, especially for the smaller children, they are still learning and they need that repetition. When we're really on our game, we talk about the readings we're going to hear or if there is a special liturgy we are celebrating.

13. Love the Mass.
Children learn what they live, right? Kids from a hunting/football/music/Nascar/whatever home often develop that same appreciation and love. Likewise with our Faith and the Mass. When they see you entering in and loving Mass, they learn what the Mass is for. When there is no doubt that mom or dad are worshipping and love Jesus and truly enjoy being at Mass, that rubs off on them! Keep your attention on the Mass and our Lord as much as possible, tending to any of the kids' needs or behaviors but with attention still on or going right back to the Mass. They see that and they can (eventually) learn that when we are at Mass I am not the most important thing happening. I would encourage you that if you don't understand the Mass, learn more about why we do what we do. If you don't sing and pray the prayers with conviction and enthusiasm, start doing so. They might or might not follow suit, but you teach them more about Our Lord and the importance of the Mass more by how you live and pray it than by anything else.

14. Remember the enemy.
"It doesn't matter."
"We'll come back when the kids are older."
"It's too hard."
"Jesus doesn't care."
"But look how corrupt he/she/they are!"
"You're too sinful and messy." 
Ever hear those voices? If you're Catholic then you believe that there is a very real force called the devil working against our life of grace. This isn't the stuff of make believe, though one of his biggest victories is when we begin to believe that. He would love nothing more than to keep you and your children from Christ and the sacraments. You and your children are desperately loved by a Father who longs to bring us to Him and pour His love and life into us, especially through the sacraments. That reality puts a target right on your back. The devil HATES the Mass because it is the sign and representation of the Lord's victory over him and unites us pesky humans with his enemy. He would love for us to be so overly focused on the difficulty of bringing children to Mass that we forget the JOY and privilege of bringing our children to HIM. Remembering that there is a very real battle going on all around us (spoils: souls) can keep our perspective on just how important it is to engage and not give up and perhaps give us the extra fortitude to fight against the forces and voices that will work their way into our hearts if we let them

15. Keep going!
So you're in a season where things are REALLY hard? Go anyway. You can't do it "perfectly?" Go anyway. Your kids don't seem to be getting it? Go anyway. You feel like people are giving you the side eye and judging you? (FYI they might be but they probably aren't.) Go anyway. It's worth it. The grace from being there is worth it. Plus if you're in a season where it feels hard enough to keep you away from Mass, that probably means that you need the grace from it all the more.

16. A good dose of humility and a huge helping of grace
I'm well aware that the first Mass post hitting publish on this, I will probably receive a good dose of humility. That's how much I love you, reader ;) But really, the Mass is not about us, our children's behavior, or doing everything perfectly. It's about Him. The more we realize why we're there the more it becomes a non-negotiable and the more we can put into perspective a rough morning or a beautiful one. And the times that are hard serve only to remind us just how much we depend on grace for everything. Even the days of tantrumming toddlers, tears in the vestibule, and a kid screaming something mortifying during the Consecration can be used by Him for our good if we let them. If you're struggling with Mass, pray for the grace to keep going and for the Holy Spirit's help in directing any changes or simply allowing Him to work through where you are right now. He wants you there and He will provide the grace needed. The Holy Spirit leads us to freedom, freedom from over-worrying about our children's behavior, our experience, our perfect appearance...it's a freedom for worship, a freedom to be everything that He calls us to be and there is no better place on earth to become that, as imperfectly as we may come, than the Mass.

SO. I hope that's maybe a little helpful? I don't know! But at the very least I now have a place to point people when they ask. Lord, help us and our children all enter into and love You and the Mass more each and every day.

"But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 19:14

6 comments

  1. These are so great! I'm a decently seasoned mom... (I have a teen and 6 total kids, so. . .) but the reminder to love the Mass really hits home for me. Time for me to make sure I'm more visibly glad to be going.

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  2. We are going to attempt the Vigil for the first time as a family this year. I am a little nervous about it, but we are in such a good place on Sundays that I *think* we will be okay. With lots of prep beforehand of course. Thanks for sharing your tips! Our Pastor often says "Thank you parents for bringing your children!" at the end of each Mass and it makes all the difference, especially on the extra wiggly days.

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  3. Kathleen (Lomedico) OumaApril 1, 2019 at 10:37 PM

    Wow Mary! I cannot believe you just posted this. I love mass and went daily for MANY years and now I have children and dread going. I was thinking about this just yesterday. My husband works every other weekend so is not able to attend with us on those Sundays. My kids act up a lot more with just me. Also most sundays we are the only family there with younger than school age children. We do have a cry room but it is not really sound proof. Haha! It has a bunch of toys in it. I really want to sit with them in the front row but am not brave enough. Anyway, I feel supported just by reading this!

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  4. We do much of the same, except we do snacks! We regularly go to 8 am Mass and any kids under age 3 basically eat their breakfast at Mass (pouch of yogurt, bag of cereal). Once they are in preschool, they are expected to attend weekly Mass at school without any books/snacks, etc so we make that our family rule too. I love the comment above where the priest thanks parents for bringing children to Mass, wich they would all do that! If the church ain't crying, it's dying!

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  5. Nodding away, yep can relate and totally back all those suggestions and points xx
    And to young mums, when you see us mums with older kids and it *seems* our kids are behaving far better than yours, we're now experiencing the trickle down effect, older kids are rubbing off. But you better believe we've spent years up the back, pacing and even crying.
    So come sit near us and hopefully our older kids can trickle down to yours too xx

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  6. I love these ideas! What I've found is really helpful for us (we only have two kids right now-a 2 1/2 year old and a baby) is attending daily Mass as a family just once a week in addition to Sunday (though there was a season when we could make 2 daily Masses work, which was awesome) and taking the kids to Adoration. When we immerse our kids in the liturgy and get them in front of the Eucharist (and snatch that front row pew) repeatedly, I think it really helps them (at least the toddler) to be aware of what's going on and to behave accordingly. Though as I say this, I also recognize that I'm the lady whose toddler was running around pretending to be Spider-Man and shooting webs during Communion time at the Chrism Mass, so...I'm still very much figuring things out ;)

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