Avoiding Mass Hysteria - Teaching Children to Behave in Church by Elizabeth Ficocelli

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ficocelli_elizabethMy husband and I are frequently approached after Mass by people who feel compelled to tell us how good our children were in church that day. How do we do it, they want to know – with four young boys no less?

“Some days are better than others,” I respond with a grin. Which is true. Some Sunday mornings are relatively uneventful, while others can be pretty darn trying. But, for the most part, our boys (ages ten, six, three and one-and-a-half) have learned appropriate church behavior without the use of snacks, sippy cups, crayons, books, routine trips to the potty and, usually, without much fuss.

Sound impossible? It’s not, really. As with any other parenting skill, it takes love, time, consistency and lots of patience. (A few prayers never hurt, either!) The following tips may help make your experience of taking little ones to church change from holy terror to just plain holy.

Before We Enter God’s House, We Prepare At Ours

Catholics are notorious for arriving at church just in time or, worse yet, slightly late. Few of us make the effort these days to prepare for what we are about to celebrate at Mass. When you have children, this preparation time is even more critical, yet all the more elusive. Our family’s church experience, therefore, begins long before we ever set foot inside the door.

We use time at home, perhaps over dinner or breakfast, to discuss proper church behavior. We review church etiquette: when to sit, stand or kneel. How to give the sign of peace. Why it is important to sing and pray with the church community. What the creed means. We discuss our family rules of conduct and why they may differ from those around us.

A fundamental rule in our family is absolutely no food or toys in church. This is the way it has always been, so our children expect nothing different. While we can control what we ourselves bring into the building, however, we have no say in what other families do. This is something most people seem not to think about when packing their picnic baskets-activity bags for church. While their intention is good (to keep their children quiet so they don’t bother others), the fact is that bringing food, toys and other items from home can be highly distracting to neighboring people, especially the young ones. In moments like these, we do our best to ignore the zipping and unzipping, the crinkling of candy wrappers and the dropping of toys and try to regain our children’s focus (and ours) on Mass instead.

If the idea of going to church without a survival kit is a little scary, think about it. The average Mass lasts 45 minutes. That is less than the running time of a typical children’s video. Forty-five minutes is not too long for a child to go without food or drink. (An infant, on the other hand, has legitimate needs and should be nursed, bottle-fed or given a pacifier as the need arises.)

Three-quarters-of-an-hour can also be survived without books or toys to occupy a child’s mind. Church itself should occupy his mind! I’ve been amazed and disappointed to hear toy cars whirring or hand-held electronic games beeping during the liturgy. Once I even saw a small boy walk into Mass with a full-sized basketball under his arm. What are we telling our children with this kind of permissive behavior? Certainly not that God deserves our undivided attention for less than one hour a week.

Think of the time and energy you can save by not having to pack those snacks and finding that favorite teddy bear before rushing out the door to make Mass. You can use this valuable time and energy on preparation instead.

As soon as our oldest son became a proficient reader, we had him begin reading the day’s scriptures during the drive to church. Currently, our 10- and 6-year-olds share this responsibility. Time permitting, we discuss what we’ve read and ask the children questions to test their understanding. The two younger ones have learned not to interrupt this time, but to listen quietly from their car seats. Since our 3-year-old chimes in from time to time, we know he’s grasping some of it. This scripture review is particularly beneficial for my husband and me, so we are not hearing the readings for the first time in Mass when the possibility for distraction exists

Before our family enters church, our 3-year-old, who is potty training, can have one more opportunity to use the facilities. The older ones have been encouraged to go at home. It is extremely rare for any of our children to leave Mass to use the bathroom. Unless it is a real emergency, we ask them to wait until Mass is over. Again, 45 minutes is not that long, and permitting children to go during this time can develop into an undesirable habit.

Let The Worship Begin

Another important rule our family has is one we borrowed from some friends who raised five wonderful children: until a child is 3 years old, he is a lap-sitter. His feet simply do not touch the ground. This rule prevents the child from climbing up and down or falling through the kneeler and banging his head against the pew, a maneuver usually accompanied by a blood-curdling scream. The child is held lovingly, but firmly, with no exceptions. If he puts up a struggle, he is promptly removed. We know from other situations that if we give in once, we’re in for a long battle.

Since this rule, like the others, is discussed at home ahead of time, our little ones come to accept it rather quickly. The toddler understands that with the advent of his third birthday, he will be entitled to his own seat in church. He has begun to look forward to it. But this privilege comes with some conditions. The child must sit, stand and kneel along with the congregation. If he begins to climb around or distract others, he becomes a lap-sitter for the remainder of Mass until the next time. This lesson is learned very quickly.

Where we sit at Mass often depends on the stage of our youngest child. Sometimes we find that sitting down in front gives our children a lot to see with fewer distractions. At other times, especially when we have a rather active one, the back of church makes for easier exits when necessary. Often, we find sitting near the choir or the organ is entertaining for little ears.

During the Mass, we try to hug or caress our children quietly. (This can be tricky at times, since there are two of us and four of them!) We address any undesirable behavior with a glance or a hand gesture, which our children understand completely because it was discussed during preparation time.

The older ones are encouraged to follow along in the missalette and find the upcoming song in the hymnal. We allow the younger ones to hold these same books unless they are being turned into chewing toys or hurling missiles. At that point, they are taken away.

My husband and I set the stage for how we feel worship should be. We sing joyfully, swaying to the music and bouncing slightly when holding little ones. We respond enthusiastically, carefully speaking the Creed or the Our Father into our child’s ear so he can hear every important word. We show reverence during the Consecration with a bow of our heads. In essence, we not only attend the Mass, we participate in it, through active worship, bringing up the gifts or serving as Eucharistic ministers. When they are of age, our boys will serve on the altar. All of this moves our family from spectator at Mass to active participant. This greatly reduces the likelihood of boredom.

When Behavior Problems In Church Brings You To Your Knees

Now, by this point, you may be thinking, “Lady, you just don’t know my kids!” If you’re under the assumption that we have four perfect little angels at Mass, let me assure you, that’s not at all the case. We have our fair share of fussy infants, whining toddlers and distracted grade school-age children. We’ve had to make plenty of quick exits down church aisles, and have paced endlessly back and forth across the back of the building to sooth someone to sleep. But despite these minor upsets, progress is always there. Children are fast learners. The key is consistency.

You have to be committed to taking a child out at the first moment he creates a disturbance. Do not let a child carry on and on. It’s not fair to the others around you. It also adds to the stress of both you and your child. Sometimes walking to the back of the church and remaining there is enough to settle a youngster. You have a little more freedom to rock and pace there as you see fit. Where possible, I may silently point to stained glass windows, stations of the cross or religious statues to pacify a tot.

If the child is not quieted in the back of the church, promptly exit. The focus here, however, must be to settle your child as quickly as possible in order to rejoin the worshipping community. This is not a time for the child to be given freedom to run around or to play. The child should be held lovingly but firmly until the tears are over. Once this is achieved, return to your seat. If another eruption occurs, repeat the process. Even if you have to do this exercise three or four times during the Mass, the behavior will not last for long – if you hold to your to guns and don’t give in. During this transitional time, sit toward the back of church so you distract fewer people and can reach the exit quickly.

The Cry Room: A Sadly Misunderstood Facility

The “cry room” seems to be a uniquely Catholic phenomenon. There is much controversy over this facility. Some people are sick and tired of Mass being interrupted by the emotional outbursts of small children. They’re more than happy to have these noisy culprits “under glass.” Others contend that children have a right to be in church and are insulted to use the cry room at all.

From what I’ve observed in various parishes, the cry room seems to be misunderstood and misused by many parishioners. Instead of serving as a temporary place to settle a child without distracting the congregation, it has become a playroom, a reading room and a convenient hang-out. I’ve seen some people treat this room as if they were at home, watching Mass on television. Many seem to forget that they are still attending Mass. If the adults are disconnected, their children are certainly isolated from what’s going on in church and are not being encouraged in any way to be a part of it.

To work most effectively, the cry room should only be used when absolutely necessary. It should be devoid of books, toys and food. Parents should hold their children at all times and return to Mass as soon as the child is quieted. People using this facility should be listening to and participating in the liturgy as if they were sitting in the pews. Be advised: excessive use of the cry room delays the process of teaching a child to behave at Mass.

When Mass Is Over, The Learning Doesn’t Have To Be

After Mass, we make it a point to compliment our children on good choices they made during church. If there was a problem with a child old enough to know better, we have him apologize to the people near us or to the priest for being distracting. This is done without a lot of fanfare to avoid humiliation but also to instill accountability.

On the drive home, we discuss what happened at Mass. How did God speak to us today? Did we learn something new? Was there something we didn’t understand? We talk about our own choices in church and how that may have affected those around us. Moreover, this is a good time to discuss things that distracted us during Mass and to reinforce why we have the rules we do.

Better Behavior And Beyond

One way or another, children must learn how to behave appropriately in a church environment. Our commitment to teaching this to our children from their infancy has enabled us to worship together as a family. We don’t have to “split shift” and go to separate Masses, leaving the little ones at home. We have elected not to send our children to children’s liturgy, since we are making the effort ourselves to explain things to them at their level. For us, it’s important to be together as a family and benefit from the graces we receive at Mass.

It’s never too late to try new strategies with your children for a better outcome at church. To be fair to those old enough to understand, you need to discuss ahead of time the new rules that are going to be in place, why they are going to be enforced and what the consequences are if these rules are not abided by. I can’t say it enough: be consistent!

For those who are single parents, I’ll be the first to admit that your job is harder. I’ve attended a number of Masses with my four boys when my husband was out of town. I take my two littlest ones to daily Mass routinely during the school year. There’s no question that with one adult, it’s harder — harder, but doable. It requires the same love and consistency and perhaps an extra dose of patience.

When people give us positive feedback about our children’s behavior at church, it is most rewarding and helps us to get through those moments that are somewhat less positive. Our goal for our children, however, goes beyond teaching them to behave appropriately at Mass. We want them to develop a joyful appreciation of it. We want them to be able – and eager – to listen for the unique message God may be giving them in word, song or prayer. And that cannot come from anything short of attendance and participation in Mass on a regular basis. We never cease to be amazed at what our children – even the little ones — grasp from their church experience. Their theology may be a little askew at times, but the spark of interest and enthusiasm is there.

Three weeks after a seminarian gave a homily at our parish, my ten-year-old off-handedly commented that something the young man said inspired him to think about the idea of becoming a priest one day. I’m not sure exactly which words of wisdom hit the mark, but I’m sure glad my son was at church and behaving appropriately to hear it.

Published in America, May 6, 2002, Reprinted with permission

Copyright 2009 Elizabeth Ficocelli

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16 Comments

  1. Thank you Elizabeth, I will give it a try. We have a wonderful African priest and our Masses are generally 1 1/2 hours. I do agree with your concepts and will give it a try. Our children, 4 and almost 2, usually have 45 minutes to an hour of good time in them and breakdown during the consecration. However, I will leave the distractions and home and forge forward. Thanks for your indepth article!

  2. I love that you were able to put in words what we have been practicing also. I only have two daughters, but I employed many of your same techniques to encourage their active participation. When my daughters were 3-5 years old, I did put them in “little children’s church” for Bible stories, but once they hit Kindergarten, they were (and are) expected to participate and behave. They love to sit in the front row so they can see. They’re not perfect…. but what you suggest definitely works. My 10 yr old just attended her first altar server training workshop!

  3. Our children are well-behaved at Mass although it has taken a lot of work. We employ many of your techniques, but I love all your suggestions. Our biggest problem has been the distracting toddler, but I am going to employ your lap rule and see if that will help us out. One thing that helps us it to attend daily Mass at least a couple times a week. These shorter stints have fewer distractions of other children with snacks and low-expectations. These are great opportunities for a child to gain grace and endurance for the self-control required to stay on-task. We also do revoke privileges for poor behavior (whispering, fidgeting, or disrespectful posture during Mass – doesn’t happen often.

    Kate

  4. I am always so happy to see parents bringing children to mass, especially the moms who have to do it alone (for whatever reason!). If it takes books and Cheerios, then so be it, just please keep bringing them! I do agree that the items should be quiet and preferable religious in nature (bible stories). I spend lots of time near the band/choir to keep my anxious son engaged, and if possible close the the altar as well! I want Church to feel like a warm, friendly place for my kids. Our Parish is welcoming and provides a nursery etc. for kids, but most important, our Priest tells everyone that children are important and valued at Church. Church has always been a place of comfort and refuge for me, and I hope it will be for my children as well.

  5. Beautifully written; thank-you! We have ten children and this is pretty much, point by point, how we’ve taught our children, as well. With good results. There are, indeed, good and bad days, but in the big picture, it’s been worth all the effort. We’ve been blessed by compliments, and encouraged to try to help young parents as we’ve been able. I’m pleased to report that our youngest continue to thrive and our oldest children (even our newly married oldest son) are still all altar servers, choir members, active parish members and proud practicing Catholics. It’s a great reward, but, we never believe our job is finished…

  6. This is so good. As a CRE, have parents come to me asking how I expect their children to be able to go to Mass and Sunday School. I always remind them that they have to do this at school 5 days a week and this is shorter than that. I also tell them about a friend who says her children learned to behave when she took them to the Easter Vigil – after making it through that Sunday Mass seems short!

  7. We do fine at Sunday Mass with both my husband and I to deal with the children but for daily mass my two year old becomes a monster. I’m so embarrassed by her behavior. I also have a 10 month old and she is perfect but I still have to hold her so I can’t hold my toddler (I’ve tried and she won’t leave the baby alone). When I take her to the back of church she flips out and takes her shoes off and throws them and I can’t get her to calm down enough to go back into church. She loses her “TV privilege” when she is naughty at Mass but that hasn’t adjusted her behavior. I’ve tried to have her say sorry to Jesus (which is what we have our 4 year old do and it works great for him) but the closest I’ve got is her screaming at the top of her lungs “SORRY!!!” I think people are really starting to wish I’d stop coming. What do I do???

  8. Amanda – please persevere and hang in there. I know that this can be so very tough. My younger son was a true monster in mass, and I was frequently in Mass by myself before my husband joined the Church. Just try to take this in baby steps, one week at a time. I know it’s so hard right now, but if you’re patient over time things will get better. Also please don’t let those other parishioners get you down – your kids are the future of our Church, and they won’t ever learn to be in Mass unless you persevere and keep taking them. Is there a kindly “grandma” or older mom type who might be able to sit with you and help? I wish you were in my parish – I would definitely love to sit with you and help!
    Prayers and hugs – hang in there mom!

  9. I’m having a lot of trouble with my 23 month old son during mass and feel so discouraged. He is active and loud although we try to teach him to be quiet and calm during mass, nothing seems to help. Last Sunday the priest paused his homily and asked that we leave and although I respect his right to do so, it was SO very humiliating. I would never stop attending mass but at the same time I feel at such a loss and as I said, so discouraged. I have always loved going to mass but am beginning to dread it and feel like I will never get my son under control. Nothing I do seems to make a difference.
    How can I teach a very strong willed little boy to obey me? Like the previous commenter Amanda, I feel too that people would simply prefer we don’t attend and yet of course, that isn’t possible either so I feel at a total loss.
    Thanks for listening.

  10. I absolutely LOVED this post, even though I’m reading it 3 years after it was published! However, I am having a very hard time getting my 14-mo-old on board! She is EXTREMELY active and strong willed, and the second she gets to Mass, if we’re holding her and she wants down (she just learned how to walk), then she will throw a 45-minute tantrum. I’ve never seen a child hold out as long as she can! Do you have any advice for how to tame her spirit so that she can realize that Mass is a place to be held and not scream??? I absolutely dream of the day that she can at least make it through Mass without a 5-minute screaming fest. Thanks!

  11. I am excited about trying these things! Our challaenge is the number of little ppl we have. I have six kiddos ages 8,6, 3, two 2 year olds, and a 6 month old. There is not enough laps! It is getting better as the baby gets older and I am able to take on one of the others at the same time. I know in time it will get better, but it is really hard right now. Please say an extra prayer for us! Thanks!

  12. We, too, have a long mass–usually 80 to 90 minutes long. The daily mass is about 40 to 45 minutes long; I’ve dreamed of our parish putting in a cry room so that my children can be contained (both of my kids have been known to run up towards the Marian alter during mass–fortunately they have not made it, but it’s been close; we pray to Mary after mass, which is why they get excited about it during mass). They are now 2 years old and 3.5 years old. I think I’ll take the advice of talking about good mass behavior more often and what is expected. If we arrive too early, though, then the kids definitely need a break to walk around during the long, Sunday mass. My 3.5 year old girl is finally getting better about staying seated in mass, especially if we explain that if she stays in the pew all mass (except for communion), we can stay for rolls after mass. Setting a goal and a reward seems to help her quite a bit. Our 2 year old just does not understand how to stay still; I was really comforted when a mom of 6 and another mom of 3 told me that the age my son is at is when their kids were always the most active and least likely to stay in the pew (up until 18 months, he almost always was happy to stay in our arms during mass). It is a phase, I know now, which is comforting.

  13. Chiming in late, but Brenda S. – I agree!! Our mass runs well over an hour, so yep I bring books(bible stories), and water for my kids. It has nothing to do with “low” expectations but a sound knowledge of age appropriate behavior. And you know what? I also get compliments on my children’s behavior in church.
    As a parent I remind my children that “different families do things differently” so they realize that it’s not appropriate to make comments on what another family is doing in the pew over.

  14. Hello! My Aunt just shared this article with me and I really think it is wonderful advice! You mentioned just briefly the daunting task of being a single parent at Mass, but do you any suggestion as to how to handle it? My husband is in the USAF and works every other weekend and so I am left alone with one extremely active two year old and a three month old. I don’t believe in using food and toys to “help” with my child’s behavior, but when the younger one needs me, my eldest takes advantage of that and goes crazy. I usually have to leave Mass at some point because I am unable to control, but I’m also unable to control her wherever we go too because I’m usually still tending to the infant. How do I do it?!?! I’m at a complete loss right now. My eldest is really coming to think that you behave in Mass for at least the beginning and then she will do something to act up so that we can go to the narthex and run around. What to do, what to do?

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