The Secret to Well-Behaved Toddlers at Mass...


After publicly admitting that we have never had major behavioral issues with our children at Mass, I've received multiple requests for the secret to our success. I decided to write my ideas down in this post, but I hope you all realize that my children will probably make me eat my words next week. It's not that I'm superstitious... it's just that I am intimately familiar with a unalterable rule of motherhood unoffically called the "Law of Humility." The nutshell definition:

Your bragging rights will never exceed your mortifications.

So, with the disclaimer that there is no magic answer to the challenges of parenting, I present my tips for raising well-behaved, church-attending littles...

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The Secret to Well-Behaved Toddlers (approximately 18 to 36 months) at Mass

1. Start From the Beginning

From the very first day that your post-partum body is able to attend Sunday Mass, bring that baby with you. Your parish is the center of your spiritual universe because Jesus is there, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Bring the baby. It's hard, I know, but your child belongs there in the lap of Jesus. Even if you are out of the church more than you are in it... just keep trying. We need to teach our children that church is home, not simply another errand.

2. Attend Mass as a Family

There are families out there who literally cannot do this for one reason or another. Most of us, however, can do it. I didn't say easily. It might be very challenging, but it is usually at least somehow possible. This might involve giving up our preference for quiet and focused Mass time. Or our preference for not having stressful pre-Mass preparation. Or our preference for one Mass time over another. Basically, it usually involves our preferences... and we can afford to give those up in order to achieve a greater long-term prize.

Having two adults to handle multiple children (or even one child) is a significant help. It is so freeing to be able to leave Mass with a fussy infant or toddler knowing that the others will be cared for. I have been the mother juggling multiple littles by myself at Mass... it can get extraordinarily messy. If you have two adults in the family, use them.

The additional benefit of this practice (outside of the practical division of duties) is that the children will grow up with a strong sense of the importance of Sunday Mass. We all go together every week even when it's hard... because it is THAT important.

3. Sit up Front

This seems counterintuitive at first glance. If I am struggling with fussy kids, why on earth would I march up to the front of the church to sit? Hello Father! Look at us! We are the bad family and we've come to make sure that no one can concentrate today. 

Look at it this way... If you desperately need to lose weight and must go to the gym to do it, you must put up with being a beginner for a while. That will mean a bit of fumbling and sticking out. Possibly some ugly looks from the tatted up guy waiting for the machine you're using. If we want our kids to behave at Mass and learn to be attentive, then we must attend Mass to do it. Good behavior rarely just happens. The kids must learn what is expected and fall in love. In order to do that, they need the time.

Let's look at what happens when we sit in the back of the church:
The shortest, most easily distracted people in the church (our children) get to look at the rear ends of a hundred other distracted people for about an hour. This is not ideal. March up front (reasonably close, anyway) and embrace the humiliations that will inevitably come for the sake of your children. Incidentally, this is much easier with two adults. See #2.

4. Don't Use the "Cry" Room

This is not a hard and fast rule but a general one. Often times, cry rooms are used to contain naughty toddlers who are not expected to behave. Since you are not one of those parents who allows your toddlers to be as naughty as they like as often as they like, you will not be a good fit. Leave the cry room for the nursing babies, new crawlers, and as-needed crowd. Remember, these tips are for 18 months and up. Nursing in the cry room may still be appropriate at times, but along with weaning comes a gradual maturing of behavior.

More Cry Room thoughts HERE.

5. Stay in Church 

 Kids are smart. They know from an early age how to get mom to take them out of places they do not wish to be. In order to avoid being completely mastered by these crafty little people during Mass, don't take the bait. Take them out of the pew if you need to in order to avoid disturbing others and then GET BACK IN THERE asap.

Obviously, littles will fuss and throw themselves about. Try this...

Stand on the side or in the back of the church. Look at statuary and stained glass. Bounce around. A lot.
Message sent: We are here for Mass and we are staying. Deal with it.

It goes without saying that leaving the church is sometimes necessary to avoid distracting others. No situation is black and white and sometimes, that's all we can do. I have gone for my share of outside walks around the church building. My point here is to Fight for It. It's only an hour. Let's teach them from the beginning that church is home.

6. Limit Busyness Outside the Home

This may seem like a stretch but I have reflected at length and determined that it matters a great deal. At least it does in my family. If little ones are accustomed to life being one giant busy car trip, they will find everything tedious. The grocery store = the doctor's office = preschool = Holy Mass. Where are we now? Who cares. 

Limit busyness. Stay home and read lots of books. And when you do go out, it will mean more to the little ones. They will have more of that wide eyed wonder that should naturally come at this stage in life. If that look starts to die in our toddlers, we're probably too busy.

We have done this well and we have done this poorly. My husband and I have definitely seen a direct relationship between overall behavior and our level of distracted busy. A simpler lifestyle will allow the kids (even the littlest ones) to appreciate the places and people who matter.

7. Get to Know Your Parish Family

So many families treat the Sunday obligation as an errand. They arrive just on time and leave asap. But if the parish family can become a beloved community, the children will want to be there.

I recall recently when my 2-year old spent the entire hour of Mass looking for "Mr. Foley". Every time he was up high in his daddy's arms, he scanned all the pews behind us searching for his friend. Kids love easily and early. I was not upset that my child's attention was not fixed on the sanctuary. I know the limitations of toddlerhood... and I appreciated that he was waiting patiently and eagerly for the joy of seeing a good friend in his parish home.

You don't have a very friendly parish? I understand. We've been there. But there are ways to build on the positives and then just continue to pray for a good parish home. Even if you can connect with one person or create one lovely tradition, such as visiting the statuary or bringing a snack to eat on the lawn, or just chatting for 5 minutes with Father, you can work to overcome the social negatives.

8. Spend Time

Come early. Stay late. Attend events and non-Sunday liturgies. This is family. This is home. Give the kids time to develop an affection and build physical, emotional, and spiritual memories.

9. Don't Bring Toys

Okay, you can sometimes bring a toy. But not usually. It's only an hour. The kids can do an hour without toys and so can you. Toys tend to give a sense that this is something to be endured and honestly, they are hugely distracting for other families in attendance. Try not to pack them and just work a little harder with distraction techniques. Perhaps leave a toy in the car as a reward for good behavior during the liturgy. This all sounds easy for me to say but it is not easy for me to do. But I have done it (generally in an exhausted and reluctant way) and it does work out eventually.

We do bring holy cards to Mass that my husband distributes to the non-readers after Communion. They anticipate this each time and eagerly take their little stack of laminated pictures, often wanting us to pray the prayers on the back with them. Sometimes they fight over who has which cards and bother the people around us who are trying to pray. Then they stuff the cards back in daddy's pocket for next time.

11. Don't Bring Food

Okay, you can sometimes bring food. There is a brief window for our family in between weaning and 2.5 years in which we do bring emergency food. This is usually the result of my failure to plan pre-Mass meals well.

 Do not give the bag of cheerios to junior to hold. He will spill it (I know this like I know the sun will rise tomorrow... there's that chance that it won't happen but...). Give one or three at a time. If the child is distracted by something else, don't offer the food. Food giving must end asap for the cleanliness of the church, the sanity of pew neighbors, and the child's church behavior formation.

12. Practice Consistent Discipline at Home

Maybe this one should be first. I don't know. Discipline should be practiced everywhere. But sometimes I sit in church and hear things coming from the mouths of neighboring children that startle me. Things that seem commonplace for some others but wouldn't be uttered even at home by our children without a firm reprimand. Seems like if your kids will say naughty things at home then they will say them at church.

It follows that if your kids throw tantrums at home, they will at church. If they bite their sibs at home, they will at church. If they call strangers in the mall "mud face", they probably will do that at church, too. When my kids are naughty at Mass, it is never with some strange or surprising behavior... but always something that I have seen before and has been permitted too often at home.

I am not a behavioral guru. And I am telling you, the writing of this post virtually guarantees me that one or more of my littles will have a melt down next weekend, probably during the most solemn moments of Mass. But the continued effort toward good general discipline is key.

13. Talk During Mass

 Make sure to occasionally talk to your kids during Mass about what is going on. A toddler cannot be expected to understand everything but adults often underestimate what these little brains are capable of grasping. When my youngest son was still under the age of two, he recognized his name being spoken during the Liturgy of the Word and became very attentive. If your child is fussing, quietly tell him about what Father is doing in the sanctuary. Tell them when it's almost time to for Communion. Show them proper postures and help them with a prayer of thanksgiving. (But please use your whisper voice.)

When a child learns to actively participate (either mentally or physically) in the Mass, their behavior begins to become more manageable. As adults, we struggle with the interior part as well. I have to be honest with you... having a restless toddler has done a great deal for my ability to focus during liturgy. In teaching my little ones, I am engaging my own mind with the moment and am reminded of the importance of the Eucharistic banquet.

14. Encourage Quiet Time at Home

If a child is accustomed to periods of silence and prayer at home, he or she will likely be more prepared to sit still for a little while at Mass. I have noticed that when we are over using our TV (videos only) the kids' attention spans start to shorten. They become too accustomed to being entertained. That makes Mass more difficult for little people for sure. This goes hand in hand with #6. Frenetic busyness of mind and body are simply not healthy for big and little people.

Now... I invite all of you to come to my parish and watch my kids fuss an fidget through Holy Mass. Watch me bounce my newborn around and leave the church, probably tripping over my bag on the way, when she cries during the homily. Watch the 2-year old pretend to shoot people with his finger gun and my 6-year old whine to me loudly about how hungry she is. Take a look at my stoic face and know that I'm probably struggling mightily on the inside... but sucking it up and fighting for the end goal. May God grant us all the grace to persevere!

More thoughts on bringing small children to Mass:

Bringing the Whole Family to Mass: Don't Forget Your Sense of Humor (A challenge to go to Mass as a family)

The Family of God is Messy (Response to reader comments on the above article)

A Story of Two Masses (On discovering the "Mass of our vocation")

We Went to Sunday Mass in Sweats (approaching Sunday Mass with humility)

Endurance, Grace, Openness to Life (An account of one of the more difficult masses of my motherhood)





Posted on August 13, 2013 and filed under "bringing children to mass", "family life".