So how DO you make kids behave at Mass?

Kids! Mass! Is there any way we can all get along?

Some kid noise at Mass is unavoidable, and should be welcome in any parish that wishes to survive. Many parents are trying harder than it appears to outsiders. Many kids have invisible disabilities, and many parents have invisible crosses. God is not honored by an hour-long litany of mental kvetching every week. The Church is not a museum, a silent retreat, or an old folks’ home.

But it’s also not a playground, and all parents are responsible for helping their kids learn to behave as well as they can.

The Mass is not a private time. It’s a time to worship God with other people. We feel that kids belong at Mass, both for their benefit and for the benefit of the congregation.  We gradually increase our expectations of our kids until they eventually participate as fully in the Mass as any adult.

Other families may simply decide to split up on Sundays, leaving young kids at home until they are old enough to behave well. I like having the whole family together, but that’s a personal preference, not a moral issue. You are the expert in your particular family, and you get to decide what you are trying to achieve and what’s the best way to get there.

In the seventeen years we’ve been bringing kids to Mass, we’ve learned what turned out to be 17 things about how to get kids to behave themselves, beyond all the usual advice about bringing books, crayons, and quiet toys, pointing out the features of the Church, and sitting up front and whispering explanations.

1.Remember that you may be your family’s own worst critic. Of course there are awful people who say nasty things to parents who are trying their best; but there are also parents who imagine criticism when there is none. One Sunday, this wizened old lady kept turning around and staring every time my baby boy made the tiniest peep. She had the sourest, nastiest sneer on her face, and I got madder and madder. Finally at the Sign of Peace, she leaned over and, with the same hideous sneer, she spat out, “Your kids are so beautiful and well-behaved. God bless you!” Her face. Just. Looked like that. I keep this lady in mind, because it’s a lot easier to be calm and deal with kids reasonably if I don’t feel like everyone is judging us.

2.Even if people are being jerks, you don’t have to respond in kind. If someone scowls, respond with a big grin. If someone says something unfriendly, laugh and say something lighthearted like, “Oh, it’s okay, I have a note from the Pope, so we’re allowed to be here!” It’s easier to pull this off if you plan ahead and decide that this is what you’re going to do, rather than coming up with something on the spot. You’re not trying to crush them with your wit, you’re trying to remind them, “Hey, we’re all in this together.” You may or may not change their mind, but at least you won’t be making it worse.

3.We do allow some roaming, as long as it’s mostly in the pew. I know some people think that getting out of your spot is an ejectable offence, but we don’t. Our four-year-old goes from lap to lap, lies down on the pew, sits on the kneeler, etc., along with some sitting quietly and paying attention. I figure it’s only distracting if you sit right behind us, and easily distracted people can just choose not to sit right behind us.

4.Even if you’re not in the pew, you (the parent) are still at Mass, so try not to chit chat, zone out, or check your phone. If other parents are acting like they’re at a coffee shop, it’s okay to smile politely but make it clear with your body language that you’re trying to be present at Mass.  If you’re chasing a maniacal toddler, it may not be possible to follow along at all, in which case, “Jesus, I’m here because you want me here. Help, please!” is a worthy prayer.

Of course, if someone really needs to talk to you — and needy people do often turn up in the back of a church — it’s all right to have a quiet conversation. We don’t freeze people out because we’re trying to pray!

5.Have age-appropriate expectations. Don’t take a noisy two-year-old out because he’s being bad; take him out because he’s two and of course he’s being noisy. We don’t expect kids to be able to make it through the Mass until they’re at least four years old. This is the age we’ve found is reasonable for our kids. Your kids may be different. The point is, most younger kids aren’t capable of sitting quietly for an hour, no matter how many felted Mass kits in adorable backpacks you bring. You can probably terrorize them into behaving, but you’ll just be teaching them that Mass is that place where Mom and Dad are angry.

So it may be a drag, and exhausting, and demoralizing to spend all that time either out of the pew or going back and forth, but at least you shouldn’t feel like you or they are doing something wrong. Little kids are little kids. It won’t be this way forever. It won’t be this way forever. It won’t be this way forever.

6.Even if you can reasonably expect to have small children for a couple of decades, it does get easier. If you put a lot of effort into getting your older kids to act right, their behavior will help to clue in the younger kids, so you’re not really starting from zero like you were when you were new parents. Also, older kids can take younger kids to the bathroom, and I refuse to feel guilty about this. Offer it up, buttercup. Mama’s gonna hear the second reading for once.

7.Talk to kids about your expectations ahead of time — and this includes older kids.  Give them really specific instructions about what you are hoping to see and what you will not tolerate, and follow through with any bribes or threats.

8.Model good behavior, in and out of Mass. Show with your posture and the expression on your face that this is different from sitting on the bleachers at a ballgame. Something special is going on.

Avoid doing a snarky postmortem on the way home, crabbing over the music, the liturgy, the homily, the other people, as if you were at a restaurant and you’re working on your Yelp review. You were there to worship God, not be catered to.

9.Do talk about the Mass outside of Mass. Let the kids know that you’re thinking about it, and that hour has plenty to do with your everyday life. Talk about what the readings meant to you, talk about your favorite hymns, and for goodness’ sake, if your kids did well, praise them for it.

10.Answer your kids’ questions about what’s going on. No teaching technique is more valuable than striking while the iron’s hot. They should whisper, but they should never be discouraged from asking questions! If it’s something that doesn’t have to do with Mass, you can answer one or two questions, and then say, “We’re praying to God now, so please ask me again after Mass.”

11.Master the toddler lap-sit immobilization grip. Kid sits on your lap, you wrap your left hand between his legs and your right hand around his torso under his armpit; then grip your left forearm with your right hand.  Comfortable, but squirm-proof. This doesn’t work for all kids! Some kids will just go even berserker if they’re held this close, in which case you’re just asking for more trouble. But some kids will realize, “Oh, I’m supposed to sit for a while. Hey, there’s a guy in robes up there! Cool, I guess I’ll stare at him for a while.”

12.Ignore innocent kid behavior that isn’t noisy, destructive, or deliberately irreverent. This includes a kid who is popping his fingers in and out and in and out of his ears to make the organ go “wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa,” the kid who is systematically mirroring the facial expressions of the saints on each stained glass window, the kid who is drawing or playing with his buttons, his tongue, his bootlaces, the little clippy thing on the back of the pew in front of him, the seam of the kneeler, etc. I’ve seen parents flip out over innocuous behavior just because it’s not picture-perfect reverence. This is recipe for making your kids dread Mass, or turning them into self-righteous, outwardly-focused mini pharisees. Boo.

13.Feed babies wherever you want. In the pew is where I usually do it (although I’m not a fan of top-down, whole-boob exposure. You don’t have to be a pervert to find that distracting. Yes, I realize this attitude makes me worse than Hitler). If you feel self-conscious, nothing beats the confessional for quiet and privacy. It’s like a magic trick: go behind this mysterious velvet curtain with a squalling maniac, and emerge fifteen minutes later with a docile sleeping beauty. At least you can escape feeling like and the baby are on stage for a while.

14.If you have a big family, you may find it easier to take up part of several pews, one in front of the other, rather than ranging out all along one pew. This way, parents can reach kids who need to be grabbed or tapped; and kids are less likely to feel invisible, and they’re more likely to follow along with the responses when they can hear their parents.

15.We avoid cry rooms, but they vary, and it’s a matter of preference. In my experience, they’re a little too comfortable, and if there’s soundproof glass, there can be an unnerving “hootenanny in the terrarium” effect. Better to make it your goal to stay in the pew as much as possible, and to make your second location (the cry room, the confessional, the foyer, the town limits, etc.) feel temporary, until you’re ready to go back in (even if that’s not until the final blessing).

16.If you parish is really impossible, it’s okay to look for a more kid-friendly one, but be honest about whether your kid could be doing better. If you’re getting the message that kids are completely unwelcome, it couldn’t hurt to write to your pastor (or to his bishop, if the pastor is the problem). That’s something that should never happen. But also scrutinize your own attitude. Are you treating your kid like a delicate genius who must never, ever be shushed or corrected, and the heck with everyone else in the building? That’s not right either.  Like so many things, it’s a matter of finding balance. Easiest thing in the world to say, hardest thing in the world to do.

17.The best advice I can give you: be patient. Be patient. Be patient. Be patient. Behaving at Mass is a whole-family effort, and it takes a long time to get where you want to be, with everyone cooperating as much as they are able. It’s taken us a full 18 years to get the point where, even if one or more kids does every rotten thing in the book, we can stay calm and confident and just deal with it, without strangling anyone or dying of embarrassment.

The one thing you must never consider is giving up going to Mass! Even the worst experience is better than that.

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2 thoughts on “So how DO you make kids behave at Mass?”

  1. A few more tricks we found worked:
    1) Sit up front. Counterintuitive but amazingly effective. Kids behave better when they can see what’s happening at the altar – instead of people’s backs.
    2) Bribery works. So do consequences, but bribes are less wordy – “No dessert?” – with instantaneous effects, even when mouthed silently. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
    3) Use kids’ Mass picture books. Not necessarily to read, but to silently point out which “scene” is happening, or to have child search for the correct picture (with the priest reading from a book here, or raising two hands on this one or raising the host on the other), or to point out items like candles, cruficixes, statues etc to match pictures in the book.
    4) Worse comes to worse, have one of those foldable compact mirrors handy. Nice quiet self-contained toy – my last resort after little one was done perusing the Mass book. The one with the collapsible brush is even better -unless you don’t want your hair brushed all throughout Mass every which way. 😉

  2. If both parents can be there, I have found that daily Mass is the best training for Mass going tots. Stay near the door and have your tag-team plan in place. The daily practice worked like a [what is the Catholic word for “charm”] for our five children!
    (PM me about our seventh 😉

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