Bring Your Toddler to Mass

I have never written a “tips” piece on this blog before. I didn’t think I had how-to sorts of tips to give. But the other day I tossed off a comment about being an expert on taking little kids to Mass, and then thought, well, yeah, I kind of am. To be clear: I’m not an expert on getting them to behave at Mass, just an expert on taking them, week in and week out, without despair or undue frustration. So, at the risk of sounding like I know way more than I do, I am sharing ten tips on how to get through Mass (or any church service, really) with your young children.

But first, before I get to the “how” of attending Mass with young children, you might be stumped by the “why?” Why take them at all?

Because your whole family belongs at Mass. Mass isn’t a privilege intended for the well-behaved, whether age two or forty. It is a privilege intended for every single member of the church family, including and especially the messy ones (again, whether age two or forty). Your children belong with you at church, and you should never be put in position of having to find child care for them so that you can attend.

There is no good way to do this. If you hire a sitter, you’re making someone else work on the Sabbath, making Sunday morning an occasion for dividing instead of unifying your family, and buying your way out of a problem that belongs to the community, not to you as an individual. If you keep them home with dad while mom takes the older kids to Mass, you are endangering the faith of your children. (Multiple studies indicate that it’s the father’s church attendance that, more than anything else, determines whether or not children will attend church as adults.) It’s important that your kids see mom and dad worshipping together. Leaving them with extended family is a much better option, but not a perfect one, especially if your older kids figure out that grandma or auntie’s house is more fun than Mass.

So bring them, and if they disrupt things, know that that’s not all on you. The Church wants you to be open to life, and when we’re open to life, toddlers happen, and toddlers are loud, messy, and disruptive. Bring all of your children, the messy ones and the well-mannered ones, and if you don’t feel welcome, either keep going anyway, knowing that Jesus welcomes you always; help your church to develop good children’s programs that get the little ones out of the sanctuary, at least for while; or find another parish with good children’s programs. Above all, don’t not go for three years because your kids are too little. Mass is for you, no matter what stage of life you are in. Don’t let anything or anyone take the Bread of Life from you.

Enough about why, here’s how:

1) Go every week and, if at all possible, always to the same Mass.

When I was training my dog, I learned that puppies don’t automatically generalize. Just because you’ve taught them to come when called at one park, they won’t necessarily do the same in a different context. Toddlers are the same way. Through sheer repetition, you can train them to contain themselves reasonably well during Mass at one time in one location, but they will not transfer that training to any other time or location. For our two-year-old, a different Mass time or place is a brand-new game with rules yet to be invented. Can I dance in the aisle here? Knock over an urn of holy water? Crawl under the pew and grab the shoe of the man in front of me? Let’s find out. (By the way, the answer to question number three is no, because he will reflexively kick you in the face. At least I hope it was a reflex.)

2) Come armed. Bring food and books.

Do not bring Cheerios or other little crunchy things. They get everywhere and you will spend your time at Mass picking them up. They will get ground into the floor and the pews and you’ll feel bad. For guilt-free snacks, I suggest pancakes. No crumbling, no scattering. In my family, pancakes are a once-a-week treat, so they’re yummy even without maple syrup. (I hope it goes without saying that you shouldn’t bring syrup to Mass.)

There is no need to bring religious books—who are we kidding with those? Your toddler is not going to get religion by looking at pastel illustrations of Noah’s Ark. Instead, bring lift the flap books with as many little flaps and sliding pieces as possible. Even better, make these books available only during Mass. Yes, you will have to spend some time naming things and whispering “How many? Where is the circle? Which is the red one?” and so on. That’s fine. God knows you can multitask.

(Obviously your older kids, say age five and up, don’t get to eat or read books other than the Bible or the missalette at Mass. They are more likely to accept this if instead of saying “you’re too old for that,” you explain that needing these things is a sign of immaturity and weakness.)

3) Unless your child is really loud, as in loud enough to drown out the priest, or injured, do not take them out of the sanctuary. Otherwise, they quickly learn that making any noise is a quick ticket to freedom.

It’s ok if they make some noise. When they feel the need to vocalize, instead of leaving, I teach them to talk about Jesus. Everyone thinks that’s cute, even if it’s during the Gospel reading, the homily, or the Eucharistic Prayer. Teach them to say “I love you Jesus!” or “Hallelujah!” Even “preach it, Father!” is better than “I tooted!,” which is what my two-year-old called out during the homily last week.

4) If you do have to leave Mass, be as boring and unfeeling as possible.

Leaving Mass should feel like missing out. If you have to take them out, or if they run for the exit and get past the usher, then no talking, no eye contact, no affection whatsoever. The love is in there, with Jesus. If you become a zombie the moment you hit the narthex or the church garden, your child will not want to hang out there with you.

5) Shower affection on all of your children when they are well-behaved.

Mass is a time to get loved up, by God and by your parents. Cuddle. Never brush off the affections of your children, even if you are deep in prayer or trying to focus on the homily. Hold hands with them and your spouse. Kiss them. Make Mass an experience of Love Himself for your children.

6) Embrace the laughter.

Being serious, dour, and prim doesn’t make you more holy. We are a people of joy and Sunday Mass shouldn’t feel or sound like a funeral. Laughter is the yin to piety’s yang—it keeps us in balance spiritually. When we start imagining life with God as a gauzy, bloodless place of noble sentiments and easy virtue, laughter cuts through our BS and brings us back to our bodies. Wholesome family laughter is a spiritually gift. Give that gift to others. Give it to your older children by bringing their younger sibling to Mass.

7) When people give you the stink eye, smile back, forgive them, and pay them no mind.

Know that most everyone at Mass is delighted that you are there with your children, as they darned well should be. You and yours, rubbing snot on their hands before the passing of the peace and shoving each other, are the future of the Church, sitting in your proper place. You have brought your children to their Father’s house where they belong and He is glad they are there. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” If we adults are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we have to become more like them, not the reverse.

8) Don’t bribe them with the post-Mass donuts.

After Mass, donuts happen just for the asking, whether you deserve them or not, like grace. Otherwise my littlest would never get donuts. There is plenty of time for consequences; don’t make church a place of denial and disappointment.

9) No matter what, never judge other parents and their kids at church.

If your kids are well-behaved at Mass, do not take it as your doing. Don’t you dare start thinking you could do better than that poor lady two rows behind whose kid is acting possessed. My second child was always well behaved at Mass, even as a toddler. I took that as our doing, and then our third proved me very, very wrong. Graciously accept good behavior as a gift from God. Receive it thankfully and you might get that gift again. I realize that God is beyond human ways, but I have to think that if we go about grabbing the gifts God gives us and pretending we made them ourselves, God might just stop giving them. The moment you judge another parent, you’d better get ready for your children to humiliate and disappoint you, because it’s coming.

If you see a family that is struggling, smile at them. Make funny faces to entertain their children. We are in this together. We are raising the next generation of Catholics, and we will make the Church a welcoming, loving, joyful, even (gasp!) a fun place for them.

10) Get Little House on the Prairie and all other stories of the perfectly behaved children of yore out of your head.

Rid yourself of images of the Ingalls kids and their Puritan or Catholic forebears sitting bolt upright, all prim and starched, in cold pews for hours because Pa said so and they love Pa. These and all the images you have of childhood perfection are pure fiction. (If it helps, note that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose rewrote most of her mom’s work, which in its original form didn’t involve much in the way of stories.) If you expect perfection, you will be disappointed and frustrated. Keep your expectations in line with reality. Expect them to be there; to dress decently; to show respect to you, the priest, and each other; and to be children.

You’ve brought your family to Mass, where you are all in God’s holy presence giving Him the worship He is due. Extract your toddler from under the kneeler, pick up the half-eaten pancakes, and go get yourself a donut. You’ve done good.

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