By Bob Sullivan
In my last two columns, I’ve discussed situations in which we can become distracted by other people’s children at Mass. But what if that distracting kid is your own kid?
When we started our family, nobody sat us down and gave us advice on how to go to Mass as a family. Carmen grew up as a non-Catholic and had rarely gone to a Sunday worship service with her family. I, on the other hand, had grown up Catholic and had been to Mass about 1,500 times by the time our oldest daughter was born. Strangely, I was no better prepared for handling a child during Mass than was Carmen. We both learned as we went.
One of the beautiful things about parenting is, whatever the challenge, we tend to rise to the occasion (though it usually takes a failure or two before we get it right). I still vividly remember breaking into a sweat and scrambling to avert a total melt-down as one of our daughters did something unexpected during Mass. So here are some tips on going to Mass as a family and still getting something out of the Mass:
What you bring
Until your child is in kindergarten, it is okay wise to bring a few toys and maybe even a snack for your child, if snacks are allowed in your parish.
Toys should not be metal, hard plastic, or have sound effects. The toy is going to be dropped, thrown, and intentionally rammed into the pew and your head multiple times during Mass. Need I say more?
The snack should be minimal, non-messy, and contained in a way that prevents dumping the contents all over the floor.
If you bring books, try to make them faith-related books if at all possible.
Timing is everything. You don’t want to walk into the church, sit down, and immediately hand everything to your toddler. He’ll be fascinated for five minutes, but by the time the opening hymn is over, you will have an hour with a toddler who has grown weary of every weapon in your arsenal. That is a recipe for disaster.
I used to hide a few small toys in various pockets so I could pull a new one out when things started to get hairy. We used to hide the special snack as the last resort.
Use the offertory and Communion as opportunities to stretch their legs. In many churches, the children bring the family envelope or some money to the priest while the ushers are taking up the collection from the rest of the parishioners. This can get some of the wiggles out of the little ones.
Calm and comfortable hands can make the wee ones sleepy. A sleeping toddler is a wonderful thing for parents who would like to hear the homily or actually pray. Timing your Mass attendance to coincide with a little nap for Junior cannot be overestimated.
Divide and conquer
Not only should the parents trade the little one back and forth during Mass, but there is great benefit to keeping young children separated during Mass. If both parents are at Mass, you can have three children who are not sitting right next to each other.
Talk to them before Mass and let them know that they are not going to be trading places or switching seats during Mass, so they know what to expect.
Set rules and enforce them. As your toddlers get older, talk to them about how to behave at Mass. Explain the consequences for misbehavior and when your little one begins to overstep his or her boundaries, swiftly usher them out the front doors of the Church and re-explain things while the behavior is fresh in everyone’s mind. If the second stern discussion does not have the desired impact, make sure the consequences take place.
Sit near the front. It sounds counterintuitive, but your children will pay more attention to the Mass if they can actually see the altar.
There are no potty breaks during Mass. Once they are out of a diaper, have them go to the bathroom just before you leave the house, or as soon as you walk into the church. Ninety-nine percent of youngsters’ restroom breaks during Mass are actually due to restlessness, not body fluids.
I’ve probably been a little more of an enforcer than most parents, but I’d rather have kids who know what to expect than have kids who believe there are no expectations.
By being strategic about how you go to Mass as a young family, you will be able to build on the experience of the Mass as you mature into a family with older children. In the process, you can actually still get something out of the Mass as you go. Even if you are in a wrestling match from the opening hymn to the closing prayer, you are still receiving grace by going to Mass as a family, and you are the source of grace for everyone around you (whether they like it or not).