This is a post about going to Mass with young children.
Wait. Come back!
It won’t be too scary, I promise.
Going to Mass with young children can be challenging, to put it nicely. Before I lose you in the ensuing essay I’ll cut to the short version of this post first and share –
~ 7 Basic Strategies for Survival at Mass with Young Children ~
1. Come as prepared as you can. Try and plan ahead and allow time to give the little people some form of nutrition before heading out the door so they aren’t “starving” and whining all about it in the pew. That said, when we go, the four-year-old is usually finishing off his cereal en route and the baby is still in his jammies, bed head and all.
2. Distraction & Redirection. Bring items like books & toys that you can throw at your kids when they start losing focus – if they ever had it.
— I keep a tub in our car with “church books” the kids can pick to bring in with them. When we forget ours, our parish’s cry room has a basket of “lost and forgotten” kids’ books to borrow. Some of the Touch and Feel animal books have helped get us through some unstable times with the baby as well.
— For toys, we keep a bag in the diaper bag filled with special and appropriate toys for Mass time to help distract and ‘entertain’ the little ones who have no real interest in staying in the same place for any amount of time. Be careful what you put in here though. Stay away from anything that beeps, buzzes, lights up or makes any other sound. Keep the wind-up cars at home to avoid chasing runaway toys under the pews and up the altar.
– Notebook and crayons – Blank paper + colors = minutes of focused fun. It’s the simple things sometimes. You can even give the artwork to the priest as a peace offering after Mass.
3. Deflect & Ignore – I picked this idea up from this crazy lady with big hair who goes to daily mass every day, even in the summer, with her FIVE young offspring. When it comes to annoying behavior at Mass, if in doubt, pretend like you didn’t see it. Seriously, unless it’s hurting someone or damaging church property, or causing too big of a raucous – it can wait. I used to spend way too much time correcting my kids about things that in the end really don’t matter. They won’t go to hell if they don’t kneel and stand when everyone else is. Sometimes, the less attention you give them the less they try and irritate you. (However, that rule isn’t written in stone unfortunately.) My four-year-old likes to scowl at me when I tell him “no” about something. I either ignore him or scowl back. This usually makes him laugh and diffuses the ticking bomb inside him.
4. Location, location, location. There are really only two good options when picking your pew. Either sit as far away from other people as you can or march right up to the front so the kids can see what’s going on instead of starring at (and trying to poke) people’s backsides the whole time. When I’m flying solo, I like to sit in the last pew at the back so we’re not getting in anyone’s view or making anyone nauseous from all the up movement. This also provides quick and easy access to the exit in case of emergencies. (Like throw-up and ‘time-outs’.)
5. Walk out when needed. Sometimes you can only distract and redirect so much until it becomes impossible to keep a young and energetic child in one place. It’s ok if you have to get up and take a little walk in the back of the church. I know some moms who live for the cry room and others who loathe it. It just depends on what works for you and each child in each situation. Mass isn’t a competition to see who can keep their children in their pew the longest or who can look holiest.
6. Abandon your expectations. If you have certain ideas about how you think Mass with your littles should go, get rid of them. Check them at the doors and bless yourself with the holy water. Going to Mass with young children is NOT the same as going to Mass alone. It’s also NOT the same as when you were single and had no clue what children were really like. Accept this or Fail. Every Mass experience will be different. It’s important to note that your Mass experience with your children will also differ from that of another parent’s so don’t compare. As another good friend of mine with normal-sized hair said so well, each Mass experience is different; know that each time you go “this is the mass you’re supposed to have.”
7. Pray – You are at Mass. You go there to PRAY. The Mass is a PRAYER. So Pray! Even if your only prayer is – “Lord, save me from these children!!!” It acknowledges that you NEED Him and that’s a good start. If you’re blessed, He’ll hear that prayer and might even save you from yourself in the process.
[Now for the way longer more honest version Going to Mass with Young Children.]
Now that you have those basic strategies under your belt, I can honestly admit that going to Mass with young children, even with the best planning and intentions, is not always beautiful and sometimes the whole experience is about as far away from “perfect” as one can get.
Getting there is half the battle, the rest plays out in the pews. Making it through Mass once a week is hard enough. In the early years of motherhood, I wanted to go to daily Mass in the week but was afraid. How could I do it without my teammate husband?
For a long time, I didn’t. I liked going to daily Mass before marriage and motherhood so it was hard giving that up. But I just could.not.do it. Not without losing my soul or my children’s lives in the process. Every now and then I’d try it. I’d go in with great plans thinking the baby would sleep or nurse peacefully and the toddler would just play nicely and sit still and maybe even kneel and stand and sing along like the rest of us. I’d seen other moms do it. I mean what could be so hard about that?
[***** Record Breaking Sound ******]
What the HECK was I thinking?
Sometimes it went alright, but more times than I’d like to count, it ended in miserable failure and enough tears – from everyone - to match those of Alice in Wonderland’s.
Going to Mass with young children usually starts out alright. Kids are good at that. They make you think everything is going smoothly, boost your ego up a few notches only to seize it when you’re least expecting it and pound it into the ground, leaving you begging for their mercy.
The clever ones wait until everyone sits down for the first reading and the church is quiet. It starts with a whimper, which escalates into an audible cry and then, before you have a chance to get out fast, the baby is screaming her pretty little head off for the entire congregation to hear – and scowl at.
With quick maneuvering you stick a nipple (or bottle or pacifier or whatever else you can find that isn’t too toxic) into the baby’s mouth to quiet him for a little bit. Just as he’s calming down, the three-year-old seizes his chance for the spotlight, knowing full well that your hands are occupied and there will be little you can do to stop him. He’ll slowly start scooting away from you, thinking you don’t notice. You look over at him just in time to see him gleefully escape out the other end of the open pew. You want to yell out, but you both know you can’t. No amount of glaring reins him back in. So, you tuck the nursing blanket under your chin (if the baby’s still nursing) or use the baby’s body to cover up your postpartum ‘love rolls’ and stand up to chase down the fugitive. Finally, you catch him by his pants leg, drag him back into the pew and whisper various threats into this sweet ear while giving him a “tight hug”.
Suddenly, you remember you are at Mass and try to pay attention. You missed all the readings and have now arrived at the “Presentation of the Gifts”, otherwise known as “Intermission”. On cue, the three-year-old suddenly gets an alarmed look on his face and starts dancing and hopping around. You know what that means but foolishly ask him quietly, “Do you need to use the bathroom?” Naturally he responds in the negative. Even though you’d rather stay put, you know what will happen if you don’t get him to the bathroom stat.
So you grit your teeth, gather up the baby and take the three-year-old back to the bathroom despite his dramatic protest. You’d think he was being sent to the gallows. In the bathroom, he decides you were right. He does need to go potty. But not just #1. Yup. He’s going for the big bucks. You peek your head out the bathroom door and hear the words of Consecration, which means you’ve got about 5 minutes – if that – to get back in there or you’ll miss Communion.
Finally, the three-year-old completes his duty, you wipe him while trying not to drop the baby in the toilet, and wash hands quickly. Baby and three-year-old in tow, you walk/run back into the sanctuary as the last person in line receives Communion. You wave your hands to get the priest’s attention, “Wait! Wait for me!!!” you want to call out. But it’s too late. He’s turned around and is walking back to the altar to put everything away. It’s over.
Dejected, mortified, soaked in sweat, and full of intense burning-in-your-chest anger, you hold your head down and quietly head back to the pew. You look over at your older children, who you’d appointed to hold down the fort in your absence, and notice the indignant scowls engraved deeply into their faces and wonder what on earth happened to them and why is there a torn book page on the floor? Is that blood under your daughter’s nails? And why is the eldest child sitting over there by herself pretending she doesn’t know us? You shoot them all quick death stares and decide as long as they aren’t crying you don’t need to know about it for the moment. They’ll be sure to fill you in on all the vicious details the minute Mass has ended.
Everyone stands for the closing prayer and Mass ends. And before you can ask for help, suddenly all the kids have vanished, leaving a mess of toys, books, and spilt cheerios. You collapse onto the pew seat. Your eyes are burning. You want to cry. As the tears are about to spill over, an elderly woman shuffles over. You brace yourself for the worst.
“I just want to tell you…”
“You have the most well-behaved children and beautiful family.”
You choke back the tears and clear your throat.
“Thank you,” is about all you can muster as you watch your guardian angel glide away.
I realize this picture I’ve painted for you isn’t really going to convince anyone to go to Mass with their young children. And it won’t always be that bad. Some days it will be worse and some days, it might look more like this:
Although this only happens once every other millennia so enjoy it if this is how Mass goes with your family.
It would be easier to tell you that it’s ‘easy’. I could tell you that “you’re receiving graces and storing up treasures in heaven!” Yet, somehow, those happy-go-lucky phrases – however true – don’t hold you up in those moments when you feel like crawling under the pew and hiding there until Jesus returns and comes to find you.
The brutal and God-honest truth is that going to Mass with young children is sometimes ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS YOU’LL DO in a week or a day or a lifetime. It is quite literally an extreme spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional exercise. And sometimes – on the very, very, rare occasion when God takes pity on you – it can be a somewhat enjoyable, if not, beautiful experience.
And that’s how it is. It’s not meant for fun or entertainment or even relaxation.
Sometimes Mass is Calvary and sometimes it’s the Resurrection. The catch is that you don’t get to pick. You just have to try and accept it for what it is.
Now that all that bloodcurdling honesty is out in the open, this post is meant to encourage you to go to Mass with your young children.
I know it’s confusing. I’ll try and explain. Despite how incredibly challenging going to mass with young children can be, it really IS Worth It. Even if you don’t feel like it is. Even if you get “nothing out of it”. Even if the only thing you hear are the baby’s screams and your children’s squabbles and whines. Even if you spend the whole time changing the motherload of diapers on the floor of the bathroom. IT IS WORTH IT.
Jesus is there, not just spiritually. He is there – in the flesh – veiled in that simple piece of bread. Jesus sees you. (Don’t hide!) He sees you and He tells you not to be afraid. He tells you to climb down from your tree of expectations. He wants to dine with YOU in this “Last Supper” meal. Even if you don’t deserve it. He chose YOU. He’ll take you, he’ll take whatever you can give him. He’ll unite it with His cross. He’ll carry you and your burdens. And He’ll make it work.
The prayer of the Holy Mass is THE GREATEST prayer. When we go to Mass, we hear God’s word. We offer ourselves – the good and the ugly. We share in His Sacrifice. Then, we receive His Grace & undeserving Mercy. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. Even if you and your kids are not. It might not seem like your kids care or get anything out of it. They do. You just can’t see it…yet. One day, in this life or the next, you’ll see the great gift you gave them by dragging them to daily Mass time after time.
Over time I’ve done better about going to daily Mass with all our young kiddos. (Which is only two of the four during the school year but they both count as 10 kids all by themselves.) I have a few friends who have little kids like me but they still go so I knew it was possible. I’m eternally thankful for their example. (They deserve bonus Heaven points!) I started with one extra day a week, usually Fridays since it was all-school Mass days. Then I added in another, and another, and then this summer I decided to try and go every day to keep a sense of routine in the absence of school. And you know what? It stuck. It was hard and we don’t always make it every day. But it has gotten easier and I leave feeling peaceful and filled up on grace. The funny thing is that when we don’t make it, we all miss it. Part of that is because we are all creatures of habit and this has become part of our daily morning routine. We also like spending time with our “Mass buddies”. It’s a great way to get some adult interaction at least once in the day. I’m willing to bet the other reason I miss it when we don’t make it is because of “all those graces” that Christ mercifully pours out for us through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I can’t see a lever indicating how many I’ve received (although that would be cool!) but I can see and feel its effects.
So if you’re running on fumes and need a little extra Grace, try Mass. It sounds crazy. It might drive you crazy. In fact, I can guarantee you it will refine you. But after you get used to it, it will be worth it. I promise. The eternal benefits for you and your children outweigh the temporary and earthly hardship.
What tools and tips do you use at Mass with young children?
P.S. This is the LAST day to enter the Hand-made Toy Bag Give-Away! This bag would be perfect for a new toy bag for Mass! And ANYONE can enter. Even if you are a nearby friend or family member. Share a tool or tip you use at Mass with young children today in the comments below for another chance to enter.