Bringing small children to mass is always an adventure. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said "Suffer the little children to come to me." Some days, even the bribe of donuts after church fails to secure a toddler’s cooperation. As a veteran of these faith trials, I offer the following suggestions to make the weekly obligation more child friendly and faith filled.
Don’t Pretend you aren’t going to mass. This means the kids shouldn’t be loaded up with such items as iPods, game boys, multiple cars, blocks and barbies. Books can be a lifesaver, but even reading should be somewhat selective. Any child that can read, should follow along in the misselette. Any child that can’t read, might be diverted by a picture bible or Catholic oriented story. I’ve seen some parents pacify squirmy four year olds with a quiet reading of the gospel. Toddlers may need a toy or two to keep them busy. Such toys should be hard to lose, noiseless and ultimately, so toddler oriented that older children won’t be watching them play with envy in their hearts.
Feed them at home. Some parents walk into mass with a plan of throwing food at their children to maintain silence. Armed with bags from the local fast food establishment containing anything from lollipops to pancakes, they figure as long as the kids are quiet, it doesn’t matter if they’re eating. Bringing food for health reasons is one thing, but Mass is a communal experience and every sane child that sees another child chowing down on food in the cry room is thinking the same thing. "I want some."
Pretending they’re not kids. Expecting children to sit quietly, eyes front, silent and well behaved for an entire sixty minutes is not recognizing children are children. They will have moments of great reverence and in the next two seconds, have an elbow fight with their sibling over pew space. One will sing loudly to emphasize the fact that the other is not singing. Breaking the mass down into parts helps a child to cope with the length of the liturgy better. Opening song to Gospel is one part, homily to Offertory hymn is a second part, Offertory to Our Father, Kiss of Peace to Go in Peace.
Having a reward system. Dividing the liturgy into digestible parts helps a child to settle into the liturgy and anticipate what comes. Earning a star for each section of the mass warrants a trip to the park, a donut, or at the very least, public praise. The system should be clear such that if a child mentions to the priest they got "three stars for this mass," minimal explanations are necessary.
Pretending they’re not your kids. This technique doesn’t work well if you attend mass regularly at the parish. Besides, siblings will out you if you pretend you know nothing about the toddler that is screaming on the floor, and that just gets awkward.
Being present to your children at mass. Just as sitting with the kids at dinner helps with manners, being present to your children will help them be present to others at mass. After all, as the parents, we’re the first example. Dress nicely. Be on time. Sing the songs yourself, with feeling. Read along with emerging reader. Explain what is happening at the Liturgy of the Word and in the Eucharistic Prayer. Encourage the older children to join the choir, altar serve or act as readers. Invest them in being part of the mass just as assertively as one would basketball or academics, to instill in them the idea that this is sacred. This is who we are. This is what we believe.
Finally, when mass is ended, and we say "Thanks be to God," mean it not because you’ve survived another week of going to mass with a two-year old, but because you welcome the week ahead, having received food for the journey.
Copyright 2009 Sherry Antonetti