Monday, February 11, 2013

Let the Little Ones Come to Him: Teaching Kids to Behave in Church

This post is the first in a series about children and faith. While I write about the Catholic faith, as that is the religion of our home, many of the ideas can be applied to families of any faith background. Please feel free to pin, tweet, share and like this article, I ask that you keep all comments to me and others respectful. I love healthy, respectful dialogue and anything less than that will be deleted.

When Joseph and Camille were babies, I was determined to teach them how to behave in Mass. Going to church and participating the Mass are important to me, and I wanted to pass that onto my children. Plus, taking care of my spiritual needs is vital to my emotional well being and I think all parents should take the time to take care of their personal spiritual needs no matter how they worship. For some, that might be simply going out into nature. For me, it is the Mass and, most importantly, the Eucharist.

My children, however, ado not naturally come by the "be quiet and sit still" behavior that is often desired for Mass attendance.  More than once I have spent the entire Mas in the Narthex or a cry room, not really hearing anything and keeping my kids from destroying a hymnal. More than once, I have looked on with envy as a family with multiple children from high school to toddler sitting peacefully in the pew, everyone smiling, sitting still, and paying attention. I wondered how they did it. I wondered what drugs they were all on. (I'm kidding! Maybe...)

As the years have passed, I've found that there is no magic solution to make kids behave like the proverbial perfect angels. It seems that whatever worked for my older two doesn't work for my younger two, or I don't have the time to do that activity with them. I guess between all four of them, we've done everything!

1. daily mass- Daily Mass can be a great "training ground" for young children. It is shorter than Sunday Mass (about 20-30 minutes total!) and generally much less crowded. My older children couldn't participate and sit still for 60 minutes, but they could handle 10-15 . . . which is almost all of daily Mass. It was a great way to help them be successful at participating in Mass in an environment that was tailored to their attention span.

2. practicing at home- One of my friend's couldn't take her children to Sunday Mass. She found a Mass on EWTN and played it for her children at home. They learned all the responses, prayers and when to sit, stand and kneel but in the comfort of their own home. This does not "count" as part of an adult's Sunday Obligation but it does help children become familiar with the sites and sounds of the Mass.

3. switching off- One adult can go to Mass with the older children while the other stays home with the little ones. You could also have one adult take the more active child to Mass one on one so they don't have to worry about helping other children as the toddler runs down the aisle. You still might not hear much of Mass but it's easier to help a small child learn the ins and outs of church when you don't have their other siblings there "helping."

4. nursery/preschool CCD- We have used the nursery on and off, depending on the needs of our family, and the dynamics of the nursery. Currently, Cole is very active and I cannot focus on the Mass if he is with me. He likes to run and play "leave the cry room." He's happy in there and I can focus on Mass and leading my older children through it. Is he learning how to behave in Mass? Not directing, although I have a solution for that later!

At our current parish, we have a great option for the 3-5 year olds: preschool CCD. While the adults and older children are at Mass, the preschool age children learn about our faith in an age appropriate manner. They have class 3 Sunday's a month and the fourth Sunday they attend Mass with the grown-ups. This set-up allows them to learn about their faith (prayers, Sign of the Cross, Jesus, Bible Stories and saints) and participate in Mass. These classes are not mandatory and I know many parents who do not send their children to preschool CCD. However, it has worked well for 2 of our four children and we plan on enroll in Cole in the fall.

5. going when it is empty-  I recently stumbled on a great trick that helps both my busy little man and my "I go into sensory overload in church!" preschooler: going to the church when it is empty.

A few weeks ago, I dropped my oldest children off at CCD and had to wait around until they were finished. There wasn't enough time to go home or do errands so we walked over to the church to light candles. As soon as we walked in, the boys demeanor changed. They slowed their gait and lowered their excited voice.Quietly, I took the boys to the Holy Water font and showed them how to dip their hands in it and bless themselves. As we walked towards the statues of the saints, George pointed to the Stations of the Cross on the wall and asked me what was happening. I explained each station to him and then the boys helped me light a candle. They were so excited they wanted to go light MORE candles! I happily let them and they stopped in front of Mary to point out the flowers at her feet and the baby Jesus in her arms. Before we left the sanctuary, I pointed out the tabernacle and said, "Jesus is in there!"I happily let them and we spent a good 20 minutes in the dark, quiet church talking about the different statues, the items on the alter and blessing ourselves with Holy Water.

About this time it dawned on me that my boys were learning how to behave in church at their own pace and in a relaxed, happy manner. They loved taking as much time as they want to look at all the statues and paintings. When they genuflected before the tabernacle (and there is nothing cuter than a toddler trying to genuflect!), lit candles and peered into the Holy Water font, they were practicing for their future participation in Mass. For my little boys, this is the perfect set up to learn about their faith with me!

6. Cry room- Ah, the ever present cry room that invokes heated debates on parenting forums. It can either be a great teaching tool or a near occasion of sin for parents. For me, it's a bit of both. I love how the parents at my parish participate in the Mass while they are in the cry room and how it is reserved for small children. Kids are still being shown the Mass but their age appropriate manner (and voices!) can't bother anyone and they are free to move around. At the encouragment of our priest, the parents don't "make it their home" and only take their children to the cry room when they become rowdy.

However, it is not like this in every parish. In some parishes, the cry room is a free for all where the parents play on their phones, talk to each other and allow the kids to have full on fast food picnics. (Yep, true story!) As with anything, each family has to decide if the cry room is a great teaching tool for your family... or if it will give you more fodder for the Confessional.

7. Just take 'em-  I know this is the most obvious but for some families, the nursery, cry room or splitting masses with a spouse are not options. If want to have all your children with you in Mass, from the big kids who can sit still to the toddler who screams, "Poopyhead!" then you should. The nursery or cry room is an option, not a mandate. When you have the days when you don't hear a word of the homily and there are runs in your panty hose before the first reading, remember that this is a) a season in your life and b) there are graces from simply attending Mass. Your crying baby is the living, breathing future of the church and she has just as much right to be before Jesus as anyone.

This list isn't ment to be exhaustive and I am by no means a parenting expert on taking children to church (or anything else, for that matter). I'd love to hear from other parents about what did and didn't work for their family! Please leave a comment in the ComBox.
(Want more tips for dealing with children during Mass? Please check out my article on the Natural Parents Network, Tips for Managing Children During Worship Service.)


  1. My husband and I did not attend church when our kids were little. There several reasons for this but a big one was that my kids were very attached and I didn't feel comfortable leaving them in the nursery, nor did I want to "entertain" my kids thoughout the entire service. We started attending when my daughter was 2 and I can honestly say that the nursery and Sunday school classes are a blessing. Not only do my kids get to learn about god at their own level but I get an entire hour (Yes, an hour!) to sit next to my husband listen to the good news.

  2. These are great tips! We've had a lot of problems transitioning our kids to church. Persistence seems to be key!

  3. We sit in the first three rows so there are less distractions. We run their fingers over the words so they see what is said or sung. If we do books, it's church books only so they are at least thinking of Jesus when they are not paying attention. My husband and I try to have at least one of us between them, which helps. We make a big deal when they run to the end of the pew to shake the priest's hand during the recessional to encourage them. It's still challenging, but they are 4 and 2. I think persistence is the key. I like your point about receiving graces and that this is just a season. The people around us are used to us (I hope) and most of the time they just compliment that the kids are there. They are never as bad as we imagine and our priest is very forgiving. He said it doesn't bother him, he would rather have kids there. We will stick with it and pray for all parents who want their kids to grow up loving the Church. :)