Originally posted in 2009
Thoughts inspired by an article on the same subject i read a while ago. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time; but this piece inspired me to gather them into a coherent reflection.
Many comments on the post have said something to the effect that it’s all very well and fine if your kids are well behaved but what about that family with the kids who behave terribly? And many parents say they have opted to wait to bring their children to Mass until they are four or six or some other target age because until that point they can’t be expected to sit still and be quiet and anyway they don’t understand what is going on.
Yet I have been amazed in the past three years to discover how much my children are capable of participating in Mass, of spontaneously praying, and how much they really want to be in church and to go to Mass. Hardly a morning goes by that Bella doesn’t ask me if we’re going to Mass today.
I know every child is different and we may have just been blessed with very calm girls. (Actually, I know we have. So very blessed!) Still, I suspect many parents who have written off taking their children to Mass just don’t know what positive steps they can take to help their children engage with the Mass so that they aren’t bored and disruptive but find that Mass actually feeds their little souls. This isn’t a magic formula and not all my suggestions will work for every family. These are just some of the things we have done that I think might help other parents. And no, I don’t do all of these perfectly. I’m a work in progress and so are my children. We do have to take them out sometimes and some Sundays are better than others. Still, even on days when I feel run ragged by constantly redirecting my restless daughters, strangers will approach me and compliment their behavior so I feel like we’re at least on the right track.
(And to head off any objections about thoughtless parents who impose their misbehaving offspring on poor beleaguered worshipers, let me state that of course we take them out as soon as they cry or make loud disturbances.)
Things You Can Do At Home to Prepare for Mass
A few final thoughts:
1. I can’t stress this enough: repetition, repetition, repetition. Children will learn most of all by your being consistent and firm, as well as by following your lead. Parenting can sometimes make you feel like a broken record. How many times do I have to say it?!? It can be discouraging, easier sometimes to just give up, give in. But the earlier you begin and the more consistent you are, the more easily your children will learn not only how to behave at Mass; but, more importantly, will learn to love God and draw close to Him. I believe bringing small children to Mass is important mostly because I believe I am working to plant in them the seeds of a lifetime’s relationship with God, who has entrusted them to my care to bring them up for Him and to prepare them for eternal life in His kingdom.
2. This article on Sunday obligation from Envoy magazine by Eric Scheske has really helped me as a parent who is constantly being distracted at Mass by my little ones. Though the entire article is worth a read, this is the passage that I found especially useful in seeing Sunday Mass from a slightly different perspective:
I have a suggestion for people who attend Mass out of obligation even though they doubt they’ll get much from attending (such as a person with small children). It’s difficult to explain because it requires an approach that is largely at odds with conventional thinking. I call it an “existentialist” approach to Mass in order to contrast it with an “essentialist” approach. An essentialist approach would concentrate on our essence (i.e., our souls) and think about the spiritual benefits bestowed on our souls by the liturgy and Mass.This existentialist approach, on the other hand, does the opposite. It basically says, “I will go and take in what I can, but I won’t worry about it or think about what the Mass is doing for me. I will just be there, accepting what comes and not thinking about what could be coming if I could be more attentive.” The surroundings or circumstances don’t matter with this approach because the person is not at all concentrated on himself: He is simply looking outward and taking in what he can and not worrying if he can’t take it all in.This type of approach played a large part in St. Therese of Lisieux’s Little Way. St. Therese would have been a saint in any time or any setting because she simply existed without reference to her separate soul, becoming, in her words, a drop of water in the mighty ocean of divinity.[snip]A person with St. Therese’s mindset can pretty much accept anything that is thrown at him during the day or during the Mass. He does not grow irritated or overly distracted by any surroundings or circumstances, because he doesn’t think much about them. If his kids are unruly, he will attend to them, without thinking about the benefits of the Mass he’s missing, then return to the Mass, without thinking about the benefits he’s going to get. He just accepts his surroundings, allowing grace to work where it will, but with no thought of the grace.It may seem awfully simple or even commonsensical, but it’s an approach that I suspect eludes most young parents. I know it eluded me for the first few years of fatherhood as I sweated through the Mass, trying to get as much out of it as I could and despairing when I was distracted for prolonged periods. I have found it a highly beneficial approach to worship under trying circumstances.
Since reading this I have found that distractions don’t cause me as much anxiety and I am able to feel much more at peace at Mass even when my children are being fussy or restless. I am not so concerned about what I’m getting out of Mass but trusting in God, my wise Father who gave me these children, to give me what I need even as I give my children what I think they need to the best of my limited ability.
3. I hesitate to include this last thought because it is one of those hot button parenting topics. However, I do believe that one very important factor that does help our girls to be able to sit still, be calm, and pay attention is the fact that they don’t watch television at all. They aren’t constantly being stimulated in a passive sense by TV, accommodating their 10 second attention span. Thus they have developed the habit of entertaining themselves. Consequently, they don’t expect the Mass to entertain them or constantly need for me to entertain them.
I know every child is different, every family situation is different and some of the things that have worked for us might not work for you or your family. However, I encourage parents to try and see if they can’t engage their toddlers and small children more in the Mass before deciding to leave them at home or in the nursery because they won’t behave. Perhaps they just need to be helped to participate more.