Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On Teaching Kids to Behave in Mass and How I Used to Know it All...

I used to know so much more than I do now.  Even after Sadie was born and I had so many of my bright and shiny and carefully researched ideas about parenting smacked down, others apparently still remained.  The one that stands out at the moment would be our time at Mass.

We took Sadie every week and most week we went more than once a week to Mass at our local parish.  We sat up front once she was big enough to be aware of her surroundings.  We didn't do toys or snacks, although she could hold her Holy Baby nun doll, and a children's Bible or other religious book was allowed, and we talked about how we were going to Mass to see Jesus and it was time for her to be a big girl and be on her best behavior. She had special shoes just for Mass. She knew she was in our arms until she was three and then we began to let her sit next to us, if she could be good.

She had expectations for quiet time at home, when we did the family rosary and while we certainly had tough days (a few stand out in my memory even now) and we spent plenty of time in the narthex and standing outside, overall there was steady improvement as she emerged from the toddler years.  By the time she was three she had pretty much calmed down, by the time she was four I barely had to talk with her about misbehaving and now that she's five she's been able to sit through an entire Mass (and participate, sitting, standing and kneeling) by herself while I was at the back with the babies.

At one point I was patting myself on the back at what a good little Mass goer we'd raised.  After all, I'd read every book and article I could get my hands on about how to teach your child to behave at Mass and they'd worked. We'd followed the advice!  I was practically an expert!

I think you can see what's coming, right?  Pride comes right before you get smacked upside the head with a handful of cheerios or something like that?

You see, we've done the same things with our current three year old to wildly different results (heavy on the "wildly" in that sentence, because Mass with Mae is nothing if not wild).

Lately I've seen a lot of articles and even a Youtube video out there about how to get your children to behave at Mass, and after seeing the video, which basically said that if a kid isn't behaving and is still having consistent problems at the age of three the problem is the parents and not the kids, I was ready to write a post for myself and for those of you who's kids aren't quite ready at three to sit in perfect reverent silence and focus on the beauty of the Mass regardless on how you explain it or how hard you work at home.

The thing is, some kids are ready, developmentally to behave at Mass when they're three.  Some kids may even do it at a younger age.  I once saw a baby Patrick's age sitting on a booth chair next to her mother at a restaurant in perfect silence for the entire meal and I couldn't stop staring.  How do I get one of those, I thought, as I wrestled with my own child who was about the same age and who seemed perfectly incapable of stopping herself from grabbing things to throw them on the floor, and who often followed these antics with attempting a risky maneuver to try to escape from the high chair seat belt (by the way that would be my current big girl Mass goer).

Maybe you have a child who behaves perfectly at Mass at a certain age and that's great.  But for other children the developmental milestone of being quiet for an hour (or longer) just isn't there yet.  If they have special needs it might be even further off. And that doesn't mean that their parents doing anything wrong or that it's their fault.  It just means that the child isn't quite there yet and that they still have a while longer to spend time in the purgatory that is the narthex or wherever they take their crying little one when they act up.

And for those parents it can be humbling (especially, speaking from personal experience, if your three year old is the size of a five year old).

Because let me tell you, it was way easier explaining to a three year old Sadie how to act and following the rules outlined in everything I'd read than it is on any given Sunday to deal with my current little handful.  She just isn't quite there yet.  It isn't for lack of trying on her part or ours.  And I'm sure the day will come when she will be ready.  But the magic age of 36 months just didn't do it for her, just as it doesn't for plenty of other kids.

When I heard the guy on the youtube video explaining how it was a parent's fault if a three year old still acted up I chuckled to myself and wished he could borrow a sensory seeking child for a couple of Masses.

So if you're a mom or dad and your little one isn't quite ready to sit still for an hour and you've tried everything the experts advise and feel like your at wits end, know that you're not alone.  There's nothing wrong with what you've been doing.  It is not your fault.

Kids are different.  They reach developmental milestones at different points.  Some read earlier.  Some are ready to try their hand at math earlier. And some are ready to sit quietly for an hour when they're three, while others hit that milestone at a later date.

Hang in there and know that you're not alone (although I'm fairly certain you know that if there are many other parents at your parish).  I'll be with you at the back of the Church for a while longer yet, dreaming of the day when all of our little ones can sit quietly in a pew, but also not quite ready to give up these precious baby years of cuddly kisses and sweetly smelling baby cheeks... even if they sometimes entail quite a bit of pacing and rocking and hushing.


  1. Love this! My parents had, for the most part, very quiet well-behaved children for Mass, restaurants, and other situations like that. Fortunately as one of the kids I got the inside perspective and knew that there wasn't any magic trick... we were just like that. Our less than ideal kid side definitely existed, it just came out in different situations (we were the good in public but crazy in private kind).

    It's good to reiterate that children are just DIFFERENT. When I have kids I know that I might feel pressured by how things worked out in my family if I don't keep it in perspective and remember that we were just like that, and my parents had challenges in other areas. Who knows what my kids are going to be like... craziness manifests itself much differently in my husband's family, so I'm pretty sure we're in for some surprises. lol.

    God bless!

  2. Oh Cam... I am rolling on the floor laughing and nodding my head in agreement!! All I can say is that the older my children have become, the less I know. At this point (they are 14 and 16), the only thing I can say with any certainty is that they need to know they are loved no matter what, because is spite of a nightmarish last 2 years, my son and I are still close and he says I love you all the time.

    I did everything "right" - read a billion books to them, homeschooled until middle school (truly couldn't continue at that time), took them to church, minimal TV, listened to classical and Christian music, etc. To say that my kids have turned out differently than expected.... what an understatement. My son - with two academic nerds as parents - abhors school and loves heavy metal music. I am still astounded that he could possibly be my child. I used to see such kids and smugly think how my child would never be like that, obviously those parents didn't XYZ and of course I would do everything right. Well, the Lord has shown me that I had some serious pride issues going on. My daughter doesn't like that music, but has certainly had enough issues of her own, that I could write volumes.

  3. Well put! My son (age 3) sits (mostly) nicely in mass, pays attention, and generally is well behaved. I knew somewhere around the age of 12mo that we were lucky.

    Baby #2 (who is 10mo) is going to be the night against the day! (literally...the kid is up about half the night...) It's good to read even now that you can do the same thing with 2 kids, and get different results.

  4. My first child was perfect at Mass at age 3 without any training. It was all downhill from there childwise! LOL It was a tie between #'s 3 and 4 for worst behavior although #3 had some developmental issues. At least by #4 I feel like I handled it well and it improved with time and medication. (she has ADHD) At 10 she's just fine but it took a long time. (probably by age 7 I could start to relax) (sorry that probably sounds depressing...) But the point is they all improve in time. Even with special needs; you can find your version of fine.
    PS. Do you have a link to the Youtube? Just interested.

  5. I have 2 Maes. My oldest never sits still or stops talking. My youngest is at the monkey see monkey do stage. Normally hes the calmer. My husband and I get take out or go to a fast food place because my husband gets so embarrassed. It's getting better but people are quick to criticize our choice to use child care. And HBs behavior. They just dont get it. But that's okay. I view HBs fierceness as a positive. He'll need that later when it comes to defending the faith.

    They also run. HB is better though. Knee not so much.

  6. I don't think I have ever met a 3-year old who can "sit still" during Mass... unless they're sleeping. :) Well-behaved is a relative term. When I say that my kids are well-behaved at Mass, I mean that they don't throw screaming fits, not that they don't squirm and give me plenty of opportunities to grow in humility. I mean well-behaved for a three year old, not an adult. And yes, the moment you feel an iota of motherly pride, the kids will inevitably be the cause of some deeply felt humiliations!

    Having said that, I have to admit that all my kids (in spite of their widely varying temperaments) are pretty good at Mass. The kid who looked for years like he was going to die from the torment of trying to sit still for 5 minutes is now serving Holy Mass with praying hands and reverent posture. But it took a lot of parental attention to get him there.

  7. We're having full blown screaming fits, but hopefully I'll be able to write about what's going on a bit more in coming months. It's definitely changed my outlooks on a few things.

    And I'll try to find the video I watched! It's not really bad, just the blame part at the beginning! Someone shared it on facebook a while ago, and I'll see if I can find it!

  8. Melody, I should totally add that I always love your "how to survive Mass posts." I especially loved the one a while back that I think was on Catholic Mom or some site like that. You're expectations do seem really realistic... The post this was about was a little different. It also talked about telling a child it was wrong to fold their fingers down to pray and stuff like that... for three year olds... Now I've got to find it!

  9. Here it is:

  10. This is a hard issue for me because I've encountered so much flack about it. My son is 14 and severely autistic and just getting out the door to mass is a major production. Being quiet through it hasn't happened yet, and we rarely make it through actually. I've had so many well meaning suggestions and some suggestions that are thinly veiled judgement on my parenting. For whatever reason, ( and the reasons are many and varied) it really IS hard for some kids and it really ISN'T a matter of parenting.

  11. This made me smile! Our first daughter was - for the MOST part - a very easy child, and fairly well behaved in Mass. Daughter #2 must, we thought, have been possessed, as she turned into a screaming mimi the instant we set foot in church - and this was from the time she was merely weeks old. She would immediately quiet down when we stepped outside with her.

    The really funny thing is... they each have a little boy who acts in Mass EXACTLY like his momma did!!! :)

  12. I am grateful for this post. My 3 yr old is unable to sit still and silent unless asleep and in a crowd such as Mass, this is not going to happen.

    It breaks my heart to go to Mass without the 3 yr old Little Tiger or the 18 month Little Crow, but the truth is, I am only one person, with a bad back, social anxieties and no help. Mine will not be held for more than a few seconds. Quiet is only after everyone goes to sleep.

    I feel so guilty when I go to Mass without them. But what can I do? I cannot hold them when they struggle due to my back, and even if my back could take it, I could never manage to hold two-- and if I tried there would be two screamers.

    You know how opera singers can project loudly to the very back of a large building without a mike? That is my Little Tiger. Both are mimics, neither is quiet unless asleep.

    They try to be good sometimes, but a lot of the time they have no desire to behave, so we keep working on it. Little Tiger wants to go to Mass, but last time I tried we didn't even make it to the entrance hymn.

    My older kids were never like this, but the two youngest are!

    It is a comfort to read how persistence does the trick eventually with the high octane kids.

  13. Awesome post!
    Thank you....:)



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