A few weeks ago, I found myself at a 5 pm Mass with the girls. We’d had a busy day out and they fidgeted back and forth on the pew. I gave the LOOK and rearranged their seating orders repeatedly in an attempt to separate each from the sister they couldn’t currently agree with. As Mass continued, my frustration mounted. I wondered what the young man behind us thought of our busy family and how many other people heard Pearl’s shrieks whenever her sisters did something she didn’t like.
Then, halfway through the Consecration, Jade held up the Sunday Missal to me. “Mommy,” she whispered, pointing to the picture, “that’s the blind man and Jesus who healed him!”
I glanced quickly at the page. The Gospel reading in the first half of Mass had been the very long passage about Jesus healing a blind man and the Pharisees’ objections to that. I hadn’t thought any of the girls were listening, least of all four-year-old Jade. Yet she’d managed to find the right page in the Missal, just by the picture and what she’d heard.
That simple gesture taught me not to underestimate what my children are getting out of Mass. Yes, some Sundays may seem like an exercise in futility (or at test of patience and concentration). As I’ve seen by homeschooling, children often learn while wiggling and squirming and seeming, to my adult perspective, unfocused and distracted.
In the past nine years of parenting, we’ve had ups and downs in going to Mass. There are phases when children are better able to sit through Mass, and phases when they shriek and wander and poke their sisters. There have been years when I’ve tried to convince my husband that we should take turns going to church without the kids. Thankfully, he’s never agreed to that and we’ve found ways to get to Mass as a family.
Here’s my advice on how to help young children appreciate Mass.
Habit can help young children appreciate Mass.
In our home, Sunday Mass in a non-negotiable. We are usually at the 10 am Mass in our local parish, but if something comes up that Sunday, then we will go to Mass later in the day (or even Saturday night). The girls know this. On Sunday morning, there may be a moment of grumbling when they realize they need to get ready for Mass, but it usually passes. They know we’re going, no matter what they say about it, and there’s no use complaining.
Find the right parish.
I’ll confess, we’ve church-hopped. More than once. When we first moved to Victoria, we started attending a nearby church. I soon realized we were the only family at Mass; the others in attendance were retirees or university students. When a child shrieked, everyone knew it was ours. I felt a greater amount of pressure to keep my children (then only two!) quiet and still.
Halfway through the year, I told my husband that wasn’t working. We switched to another church, also close but in the other direction. That church had Children’s Liturgy and several other families occupying the back rows. Our children took turns misbehaving during Mass and I no longer felt singled out. In fact, I felt solidarity with the other parents, because we were doing our best to show up in the pew each Sunday and raise holy families, even if our littles didn’t appreciate that (yet).
The priest at that parish was also very supportive of families. He was nearing retirement, but he had a good sense of humour. Often, at the end of a Mass when one or more of the children had been particularly vocal, he’d say, “Keep bringing the kids. I can yell louder than they can.” That didn’t change how our children behaved during Mass, but it made a big difference to me as a parent to show that the priest supported me (publicly).
Cry room vs. front row?
For us, cry rooms haven’t worked very well. I’ve found that our girls generally behave worse in cry rooms than in the pew. In many parishes we’ve attended, the cry room becomes the place the latecomers go, making it crowded (and not very conducive to nursing, if you have a baby). It also congregates all the children in a small space, so my girls spend more time eyeing the other kids’ and their toys, and spend less time paying attention to Mass.
Some friends of our swear by the front row. They march their entire family up to the first pew, and their children sit there like little saints. Being able to see what’s going on at the Altar can help young children appreciate Mass. The Altar is also often beautifully decorated, and many churches have stained glass windows or saint statues nearby, giving children plenty to look at and think about.
Being in the front hasn’t worked or us. We tend to occupy a pew somewhere in the back quarter of the church. I try to space the girls between my husband and I to keep them from distracting each other (which doesn’t always work so well now that we are outnumbered!). Being among the congregation, they know what’s going on by the responses everyone else is making. If we can see the front, I’ll point out what Father is doing, especially during the Consecration.
Getting involved can help young children appreciate Mass.
Last year, Sunshine heard Father announce that the choir was looking for new members. She looked up at my husband and said, “I can sing.” So they joined the choir together. Sunshine had just learned to read, and also knew how to read music from her violin lessons. She was the youngest member of the choir (and enjoyed the extra attention because of that!). Being in the choir also gave her a sense of purpose during Mass. She sat with the rest of the choir in the balcony and paid more attention to what was going on.
From my friends with sons, I’ve heard that being an altar server can similarly help. The boys (and girls, depending on your parish) go to regular practices to learn how to serve during Mass. They have to pay attention to know when their job is coming up. They are at the front of the church, where they can see everything. And they may be with friends or peers, who can inspire them to pay attention and serve well.
Getting involved in other ways helps as well. Our girls currently take catechism classes at our parish, so we are there during the week. We’ve also attended Mom’s Groups at various parishes. Once, we went to help with the church cleaning—even a toddler can wipe pews or straighten hymnals. The parish then becomes a place that is familiar and homey, rather than just an uncomfortable process to be endured on Sundays.
Saint stories inspire meaning to the Mass.
I’ve been a big fan of saints since before my conversion. I find that the stories of everyday men and women and children who have done great things for God really inspire me in my faith. We enjoy listening to the Holy Heroes’ Glory Stories in the van. Many of these stories deal with Mass and the Eucharist; the story of St. Maria Faustina talks about the importance of going to Sunday Mass, and the story of Bl. Imelda Lambertini illustrates one child’s thirst for Jesus in the Eucharist. Most of the saint stories talk about Mass, at some point or other, highlighting its’ centrality to our faith.
This year in history, we are studying the era from Jesus’ death to about 1000 AD. That’s a great era for saints! We’ve read stories about the martyrs who died rather than offer incense to false gods, and about the bishops and priests who defended the faith against heresy. I’ve been amazed at how much the girls get out of these stories, but stories are a great learning tool. Attaching a lesson to a story, or a specific, memorable person, helps the child hold onto and internalize that lesson.
Last week as we were walking back from dropping Sunshine off at dance class, Jade paused at the corner by the church. “Let’s say hi to Mary,” she said, turning her bike toward our parish. I called Lily back and we went the block out of our way to the church. The doors were, of course, locked at that time in the afternoon, and our church unfortunately doesn’t have a grotto outside. We simply knelt by the doors and said, “Hi Jesus. Pray for us, Mary.” Then we continued our walk. Yet again, it reminded me how much our children are learning. Living close to our church opened up an opportunity for that small gesture of faith.
So may I encourage you that, even when you don’t think your children are learning or paying attention during Mass, that they are soaking up more than you think. You can help young children appreciate Mass, and I hope that what I’ve shared helps your family find ways to do that.
What helps you help young children appreciate Mass?