Our family has always attended Mass together. Our infants and toddlers have always been in tow. Sometimes the Mass goes well, and other times it most definitely does not. I’ve been through periods of inspiration, of carefully prepared “Mass bags,” gospel coloring sheets, and remembering to thoroughly review Mass behavior expectations–and Mass does go much better when I’ve prepared my family well. But there have also been Masses that have ended in a puddle of tears (on my part anyway), when I’ve felt defeated as a parent and discouraged from even trying again.
But after 12 years of these types of Mass-going experiences, I’m beginning to see the fruits of our labors. My 12-year-old, who I used to think was more “holy terror” than “holy,” is now a reliable and conscientious altar server. My nine- and seven-year-old are generally quiet and still during Mass, even standing, sitting, and kneeling during the appropriate times. My energetic five-year-old manages to rein in his adrenaline for most of the hour, and my three-year-old…well…she’s getting there, too.
And while it’s been challenging, I think the years of nursing infants and taming toddlers through Mass have been worth it. My children are growing up with a deep sense that attending Mass is a given–it’s something we consistently do as a family. The security of the consistency of their parents’ presence speaks to them of the consistency of God’s presence. Even our youngest children can sense this kind of love and benefit from it.
In his book, Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood, Catholic psychologist Dr. Greg Popcak explains this point in a more biological sense:
“In the brain, I ‘create a file’ when I am allowed to experience things I cannot yet understand. This new experience creates a space in the brain that will later be filled with the ‘documents’ that tell me how I am to behave if the experience happens again, why I have had the experience, and finally what the experience means. Taking your infant and toddler to Mass consistently (or, for that matter, exposing your child to any situation consistently) creates a family ritual that establishes the neurological ‘file’ in your child’s brain. This file, opened long before understanding ever takes place, establishes the fact that this is something your family will be doing regularly and begins the process of priming your child’s brain to learn how to behave at Mass and, eventually, what it all means and why it is so important.”
While it is true that children are technically not obligated to attend Mass until the age of reason (around seven years), the sooner they can open a “Mass file” in their brains, the sooner they can build upon and develop it. This lays a firm foundation for future catechesis.
Baptized Catholics have a right to experience the fullness of their faith, and as Catholic parents, we have an obligation to be our children’s first and foremost faith educators. Our family doesn’t attend Mass together just so that we as parents can get something out of it. We attend as a family so snuggles at mother’s breast are forever intertwined with the scent of incense and the chiming of bells. We attend as a family so our toddler can imitate her parent’s familiar voice and whisper, “I love you Jesus” at the moment of consecration. We attend as a family so our five-year-old can proudly watch his big brother serving, and dream of one day doing the same. We attend as a family so the love of home translates into love of our heavenly home.
Most of all, we attend as a family so we can all be strengthened by the graces of the Eucharist–the graces of the Real Presence of Jesus raining down upon us from that sacrificial altar.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and I couldn’t imagine denying one of my children the opportunity to bathe in that Love for even one moment.
After all, isn’t the promise of that Love why we all keep trying? Isn’t that why we lift ourselves up from the discouragements of this earth and face the heavens time and time again? That is what I want my family to take away from the Mass. That it is Christ alone who satisfies–that it is His Presence that we truly seek, even at only a few months of age.
Here are some tips I’ve compiled for helping your child learn to behave and get more out of the Mass:
From Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak:
–Sit in the front so your child can see what is going on.
–If you have to leave the sanctuary with your child, hold him the entire time you are out. Emphasize that he will regain his freedom when he is able to return quietly to the sanctuary.
–For children younger than about four, bring some soft, quiet, preferably religious-themed toys and books.
–Get to Mass early so your family feels unharried and relaxed. When mom and dad are relaxed, children tend to be more relaxed and less unruly.
–Participate as fully as you can, even if you have to leave the sanctuary. Don’t just “give up”!
From “How To Take Young Children To Mass” by Stacey and Josh Noem, full article found here:
–Make sure children are well-fed right before Mass.
–Dress children in special “Sunday clothes” to set the day apart; encourage them to act as nicely as they look!
–Read the readings in the car on the way to church, or highlight certain phrases or gospel characters for them to listen for.
–Just before going into church, remind your children of how you expect them to behave.
–Don’t feel self-conscious about normal, “happy baby” sounds that come and go; if the noise is persistent, however, leave the sanctuary for awhile until your child is quieter.
–Praise your children for behaving well when Mass is over, or gently mention some areas where they could improve.
As I mentioned earlier in my article, our family has had good Sundays and bad Sundays. But I find that the “bad” Sundays are inevitably due to a lack of preparation on my part and failing to follow some of the above guidelines. Of course, we all have the occasional inexplicable challenging experience–this happens anywhere that we might take our children! I try to just chalk those moments up to a good lesson in humility and ask God for the strength and wisdom to try again. God will reward our efforts and transform us and our children into holiness during the process, if we allow Him.
Copyright 2016 Charisse Tierney
Photo by Pezibear via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain