Taking the Kids to Mass: Toddler Edition

When I wrote this post on keeping your marriage central with toddlers for Surprised by Marriage, the majority of the feedback was from parents asking about how to get their toddlers to behave in mass. I completely understand the concern. We are living in crazy times, and Catholic parents want to pass on the most important thing to their kids: the faith. Ground zero for that is the mass.

Growing up, I knew that reverence was the expected behavior. I understood this at the time as my physical disposition – kneeling with my hands folded and my eyes closed, listening attentively to the readings and homily – only later realizing those things were meant to foster an interior disposition that was far more important.

But here’s the deal: this wasn’t something I even thought about until I was preparing for my first communion, long past my toddler years.

When bringing our toddlers to mass, we parents can’t forget that they don’t know or understand how to behave in mass. It is something that we have to painstakingly teach, and both we and our kids will make mistakes along the way.

A Couple of Hurdles.

There are two big things that stand in the way of parents navigating toddlers in mass: 1) parents’ expectations, and 2) the snide comments and side-eyes from fellow church-goers.

For the first hurdle, make sure your expectations of your child are reasonable. Learn about where your child is developmentally, what’s going on in their brains, and how they process information and experiences. This will help you and your spouse craft an appropriate response to outbursts, not just in church, but everywhere.

For the second hurdle, the simplest solution is to grow a thick skin. Let these comments roll off your back. Know that God is smiling on you. He doesn’t mind that your kids weren’t born knowing how to worship Him or that you can’t pay attention in the process. You are giving Him glory by fulfilling your duty as parents.  

As for those who proffer the snide comments: listen up! Children have to be taught everything, and they are taught through example and repetition. Just like you, they get it wrong at times. When your peaceful prayer time is interrupted, offer it up for all the parents who out of love haven’t had a stress-free mass in years. Your uncharitable remarks serve only to teach these children that unless they behave, they aren’t worthy of being in the house of God. You’re telling their parents that their sacrifices are an inconvenience. You don’t see that they are building the future of our Church.

Setting Appropriate Expectations.

When our daughter hit the terrible twos, we were shocked at the change in our sweet cherub. Our initial response to her rather violent outbursts was therefore fueled by a desire to control her behavior and get her back to “normal”. This approach only escalated the tantrums.

After one particularly bad Sunday, my husband and I realized that what we were doing just wasn’t working. I grabbed Making the Terrible Twos Terrific by Dr. John Rosemond, a refreshingly sane child and family psychologist who my parents had turned to when I became a tyrant in my youth (to great effect, I might add). He essentially normalized two year old tantrums, saying that this is an inevitable part of development, maddening and bizarre though it may be. While two-year-olds don’t have the ability to regulate their emotions, they are teachable, though the learning curve can be steep.

Dr. Rosemond gives a simple solution to managing unmanageable behavior. Identify when and where bad behavior is likely to erupt. Establish appropriate responses and/or consequences for behaviors prior to these situations (giving yourself the flexibility to adjust as needed). Communicate your plan to your child using the 3 C’s: be clear, be concise and be consistent. When consequences don’t change the behavior, adopt a containment policy until the child is old enough to adopt different strategies. In this way, you respond calmly and decisively in the moment rather than emotionally and erratically.

Using this conceptual framework, here’s what we did for mass.

We told our two-year-old on our way to church that she needed to be a good girl, or else we would take her out to the car. At the first sign of bad behavior, we removed her to the car for 5 minutes (we made sure to park close to the door). She didn’t understand what we were saying at first, but it only took 4 times before she got it. Now, we simply remind her on our way to mass to be a good girl because that makes Mom and Dad – and Jesus – very happy. 

Let Go.

Even with this plan in place, we still have a very active mass. My daughter is constant motion. She climbs up and down the pews, she takes the books off and on the shelves, and even requires a snack during the readings or homily. 

I’m sure she is a distraction to the people around us, but I have learned to let go of worrying about that. She’ll learn to sit still eventually.

In the meantime, we’ve contained the tantrums and my daughter has started to participate more in mass. She loudly says “Amen”. She’ll bow her head. She loves the music. She’ll laugh and giggle at other children. She even blows Jesus a kiss on the altar, and eagerly watches the procession. 

The simple fact is this is how she worships God right now, and I know that her simple and rambunctious participation gives Him immense joy. At the end of the day, that is my job. Not to make my children perfect, but to teach them the desire to love God and seek perfection out of that love.