We sat in a pew in the main part of the church that Sunday because we were actually on time. Our baby twins were settled on our laps, and our then-four-year-old son was snuggled between us.

There was some wiggling, but the children were content. We had made it through the opening hymn, the confession and the first reading.

Just when we thought things were going pretty well, there was that moment, the moment when, during a quiet lull between Scripture readings, my son burst out at full volume, "You didn't bring me anything else to keep me occupied?

Taking our young children to Mass can be a real struggle, but it is still so important.  I know it's not developmentally appropriate to expect very young children to follow along with the entire Mass. Still, we persevere in attending together as a family.

We have always felt that our children gain something by being part of the gathered Body of Christ, even if they aren’t completely able to engage with everything that is happening. My hope is that the sound of the music, the rhythms of the prayer,s and the responses will wash over our children, imprint upon them, and become part of their sense of what church feels like.

They can kneel and stand and sit when we do, even if they are not entirely aware of what it all means yet. Being part of the Mass with us, even as they stare up at the stained glass windows or watch the candles flicker is slowly developing their liturgical awareness. Even taking part in small ways is developing their understanding of who God is and feeding their spiritual imaginations.

Besides, attending church together is part of our family’s faith practice. It’s one of the ways we say “thank you” to God for the gift of each other. It matters to us to be there together.

The ways in which our children participate in church are growing as they do. They always dip their fingers into the font on the way in and out of the sanctuary (though we have to lift them up so they can reach). My son is our oldest, and he is much more aware and involved than he was even a year ago. He is always excited to offer the sign of peace to others, especially his little sisters. He loves receiving a blessing when we go up for Eucharist. He sings along with the simple, prayerful song that is often sung after we return to our seats. He likes to be the one to put money into the collection basket. He sometimes asks to light a candle for someone after church, especially if our family has been praying for that person at home.

And yes, sometimes he throws himself down on the floor in protest during the prayers and won't get up, which usually leads to my husband’s and my hauling him up by his arms and holding his dead weight between us as we smilingly sing the Our Father. (Please, try not to stare. This could be your kid next week...or five minutes from now.)

Some weeks are harder than others, so we have developed some strategies to help things go smoothly. Given how active Sam is, we have found there's a real need for something that he can do, something on which he can focus during the homily and during the longer readings. So many words are spoken, and most of them pass over his head. Mass can feel incredibly long for such a small, squirmy, talkative boy.

With this in mind, I began searching for items for our Mass bag. It's a simple blue tote bag with handles like you might find at any craft store. It could be decorated easily with paints or markers (and maybe someday, I'll get Sam to help me do this). For now, we have been using an extra bag we had around the house.

Some things I kept in mind when putting our bag together:

  • We don't include snacks. I know other parents who successfully put snacks in the bag for their family, but with three small people, it's just too messy for us. Before we made this rule, many Cheerios rolled far away under multiple pews and were crushed by others' feet three rows ahead. We crawled around under the pews after church trying to clean them up...it was just too much to handle. Our children are old enough to make it through an hour at Mass without a snack to eat.
  • The items need to be somehow church-related. There is time every other minute of every other day to play with our regular toys. I want the things in this bag to be special, to only be used at church, and to help our children develop their spiritual imaginations.
  • The things in the bag have to encourage the children to be quiet. They need to be somewhat interactive, but if they make our volume go up even slightly, they're out.
  • I can't handle anything with tiny pieces that will be lost under the pews. We have too much going on already.
  • I don't want the items to distract the people around us.

So far, here is what we have in our bag. We don’t bring all of these items every week. Instead, we rotate them to keep things novel and interesting.

  • Baby board books for the twins, one "baby's first Bible" and one called Adam and Eve's New Day by Sandy Eisenburg Sasso (a family favorite because of the amazing artwork)
  • The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes by Kenneth Taylor
  • Crayons in an Altoid box (only four of the triangle-shaped ones, because they have a tendency to drop on the floor, and the round ones roll when dropped)
  • Bible story coloring book (we got ours at Dollar Tree, which had a surprisingly good selection)
  • Dry-erase wipe off board for writing or drawing
  • Lacing cards and string
  • Wooden children's rosary (more beloved by the sisters than by SuperSam at this point)
  • Children's Missal book with the order of Mass so Sam can follow along (so far, he likes to follow until the Scripture readings begin but often loses interest after that)
  • Prayer cards on a ring with pictures of Jesus, various Bible stories, saints and angels
  • Betty Lukens felt book of Bible stories – one of my favorite items, because it is interactive but quiet (except when Sam feeds Jonah to the whale and says "nom nom nom" in what he mistakenly believes is a quiet voice). Each page has a different familiar Bible story with felt pieces that can be placed on the page.
  • I also print the weekly Catholic Kids bulletin from CatholicMom and include that (and sometimes the Mass worksheets, since Sam is able to read them now on his own).

Do you have a church bag for your children? What's in it?

Copyright 2014 Abbey Dupuy