Children in Mass are gifts, not distractions

Aaron Lambert

In the last print issue, we published an article titled “How to survive Mass with a toddler” in hopes that it would be a source of encouragement for parents (like me) who struggle to teach their child to behave in Mass. Much to my surprise, the feedback I’ve received has been rather unexpected.

Read an earlier online version: “Narthex laps and cracker crumbs”

One reader said they were offended by my advice to parents to sit in the front with their kids. “Maybe you should expand the statement to include ‘never mind how distracting you are to others, disregard Christian consideration of others and how you are undermining the worship of others,’” they wrote. Another more politely suggested that parents take better advantage of cry rooms in churches, while a fellow parent wrote in and recounted how they remedied the issue by simply not bringing their small children to Mass.

Not to sound brash, but: Really?

I realize that these responses to an article meant to encourage young families in the thick of the most difficult and important task of their life – that is, parenthood – are not what the majority of my fellow Catholic brothers and sisters really think. But as a parent who is currently in the thick of it, I’d like to share what it’s really like to bring a toddler to Mass and challenge those who seem annoyed by children in the pews to remember the words of Jesus: “Let the children come to me” (Mt 19:14).

I think I can speak on behalf of any parent who’s had a child act up in Mass that it’s most stressful for us. I can also safely say that nobody is more distracted than the parents themselves. My wife and I couldn’t tell you what the priest said in the homily most weeks. Add to the equation a sneer or glare from someone nearby, and an already embarrassing situation begins to feel shameful. Here’s my question, though: Why should a parent ever feel ashamed for bringing their child to Mass? Furthermore, why do some fellow parishioners – fellow members of the body of Christ – think it’s OK to make parents feel that way?

If my daughter begins to truly misbehave in the middle of Mass – I’m talking a full-on meltdown or deliberately disobeying my wife and I – then one of us takes her to the back of the Church. However, to those who suggest we remove kids from the church completely or retreat to the cry room, I’ve got news for you: That’s exactly what they want. I don’t know a two-year-old who can sit still for more than 10 minutes at time (excluding marathon runs of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood), and kids are smart – they will do anything possible to get to a space where they can run free – including throwing things, screaming or hitting. But it would be counterproductive to reward that kind of behavior, which is precisely why kids should not be whisked away to the cry room anytime they misbehave.

As a convert to Catholicism, I’ve seen how other churches do it. Most other Christian churches, no matter the denomination, have Sunday school classes or programs that parents can leave their children at during the service. This is fine for those churches, but the celebration of the Mass is not the same as a regular church service. If, as the Catholic Church proclaims, the Mass, and the Eucharist in particular, is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324), then children especially have every right to be there in the church, partaking in the holy sacrifice, as much as everybody else. This is made even more apparent at Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew.

As a parent, I feel disheartened by some of these comments I’ve received. As a Catholic, I feel embarrassed. We are all part of the same body of Christ, attempting to reach the same paradise. We may all have different paths, but ultimately, Jesus was clear with his instructions to us as Christians: Love one another. I ask the naysayers: Is there love in making parents with small children feel unwelcome in Mass? Parishioners of any church should rejoice at the sights and sounds of children in Mass, because it means that the church is vibrant and alive. Please, Catholics: let’s do better. Be the village for struggling parents. We’re all in this together.

COMING UP: Narthex laps and cracker crumbs: Dads give tips for surviving Mass with a toddler

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Any parent with a toddler knows how ruthlessly exhausting – yet, infinitely rewarding – parenthood becomes when they get to that point. Speaking from my own experience, my daughter, now two years old, was a breeze when she was younger.

Eat, sleep, poop, repeat; that was her routine up until about a year of age. Then, she started to become more interactive, her wonderfully quirky personality shining through with each passing day. I’m in no way trying to diminish the fact that some parents have tough babies; God bless those of you who do.

However, I think most parents can agree that once that fateful day of crossing the threshold from infant to toddler comes, everything changes. Before, you could leave your child in a room and expect them to be within the same vicinity of where they were when you left. But once they take those first steps, tracking down your child becomes much like a cat chasing after a laser pointer. One minute they’re where you left them, the next they’re hanging from the ceiling fan, getting ready to swing across the living room like Tarzan (metaphorically speaking, of course…or not).

When you get married in the Catholic Church, the priest usually emphasizes, in some form or another, that one of the missions of marriage is to have lots of babies. What he doesn’t warn us about is the chaos that ensues from having lots of children. Joyful chaos, yes, but still chaos nonetheless.

Parishioners need to see young life in the parish and your children are more adorable than distracting to most.”

And then there’s Mass. Call me naive, but when we first had our daughter, I remember looking at all the parents chasing their kids around the church and thinking to myself, “Poor saps. My kids will never behave like that in Mass.”

Oh, how foolish I was.

Getting through Mass with a toddler can be quite a challenge. My wife and I try and fend her off with a snack of some sort for the first half, leaving a mess of crumbs around our pew. And then, right around the Eucharistic Prayer, like clockwork, my daughter begins to squirm like one of those inflatable air dancers. It’s futile to try and fight her, so we end up walking laps around the narthex of our parish until we go up to receive communion…then back to the narthex we go, because there’s no way she’s going to let dad pray in peace, too.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my daughter more than words can convey, and I know that in spite of not being fully engaged in the Mass most weeks, grace abounds. Going to Mass as a family is a huge blessing, but let’s face it: Surviving Mass with a toddler is a skill that takes time to master. I leave it to dads who are far wiser than I to impart some tips for those parents who are struggling.

No more distractions

One common way parents deal with a busy toddler during Mass is with distractions. It’s a natural response: my kid won’t sit still, so I’ll let them stuff their face with a snack, read a book, play with a toy…the list goes on. However, for Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner Sean McDevitt, he believes keeping a toddler busy during Mass should not be the goal for parents.

“I think us parents need to resist the temptation to ‘keep our kid busy’ in the Mass. If we truly believe the Mass is what it is, then why would I want to draw my child away from that reality in any way,” McDevitt said. “We need to tap into the sense of wonder that’s innate in children.”

McDevitt shares some practical ways to keep toddlers engaged in the Mass. For starters, nix the distractions. If you bring something to distract your kid with, then they’ll inevitably get bored with it, and you’ll have to “up the ante and bring something way cooler.” Also, having distractions oftentimes leads to more distractions – “My boys would always chuck whatever we brought,” McDevitt recalled.

Let him who conquered the world conquer your child.”

If that seems counter-intuitive, just wait until you hear this tip: Sit in the front. This can be terrifying, especially for a parent whose child has more energy than a wind turbine, but the idea is to immerse your child in the Mass and engage their senses.

“Your toddler will have a front row seat to see everything, and there is so much going on sensory-wise with the Mass that your toddler will be mesmerized,” McDevitt said. “Another way to put this is there will be nothing between your child and our Lord. Let him who conquered the world conquer your child.”

Michael Lynch, a parishioner at St. Peter’s Parish in Greeley, concurs with this advice. He also said that if your toddler begins giving you a hard time, don’t be afraid to go to the back of the church, and resist the temptation to immediately retreat to the cry room (if your parish has one).

The Lamb’s Supper is a great resource to use to explain each part of the Mass to your children.

“I find that merely walking to the back of the church is enough a distraction to cease any misbehavior,” Lynch said. “Parishioners need to see young life in the parish and your children are more adorable than distracting to most.”

Lynch speaks into another important point: Though rare, most parents have heard that person say something rude under their breath after Mass about how the Church has become a playground, or something to that effect. Let it roll, Lynch said.

“Ignore the ones who make rude comments at the end and the enjoy the compliments from most.”

Playing Mass — more than just cute

Another way to help with general Mass behavior is to explain the Mass to your children as it’s happening. Adam Pippin and his family attend St. Mary of Littleton Parish, and one thing that really helped him was reading The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn. Not only did it give him the grounds to explain the Mass to his children more effectively, he learned a lot, too.

“Children have a vivid imagination and when we talk to them, they open their hearts and minds to the wonder and awe of the Mass,” Pippin said. “Consequently, the adults will gain more out of the Mass as they explain the awesomeness of the Eucharist, the readings, the priests, the tabernacle, the altar, etc.”

Going to daily Mass is also a great way to improve overall Mass behavior for your toddler. Another piece of practical advice is to talk about the Mass outside of Mass. It’s adorable when little kids play Mass at home, but aside from just being a good extracurricular activity, doing so actually instills a deeper sense of what the Mass is for children. It should come as no surprise that the Mass tends to make a profound impact on children, even if you think they’re not paying attention; after all, the Lord is made present at Mass, and kids are much better than adults at sensing his presence.

Mass Kits allow your child to play Mass at home. Aside from being one of the cutest things ever, enabling your kid to do so instills a deeper sense of what the Mass is.

Most importantly, take heart. Raising children is a difficult endeavor, but never forget that parents are the first teachers of their kids. Fight the urge to skip Mass because it’s tough. Don’t sit in the back anymore; move all the way to the front. Don’t allow the enemy to creep into the way you parent your kids. There truly is nothing more important.

“Anytime we think it would be better for us to withdraw or retreat from that which is good and holy, it’s probably not the Lord telling us that,” McDevitt said.