I love my toddler. At two-and-a-half years old, Sweet Walburga (not her real name) has blessed our family in ways that we could have never expected. She has also driven me crazy in ways that I could have never expected. Surely, every parent agrees with that feeling.
Going to Mass with my family is the highlight of my week. It is also a part of my week that I secretly dread. Because my dear angel Sweet Walburga is very two-and-a-half. Nonetheless, the last 3 weeks that we went to Mass together, her behavior has been more than tolerable. Therefore, I feel qualified as an expert on toddlers and the Divine Mysteries, and confidently submit the following advice to other parents who are sick of fighting with their progeny during Mass.
There is nothing worse than the cry room. Seriously, it’s awful. Parents should get an indulgence if they assist the Holy Sacrifice from there. Do your best to avoid the cry room and prep your children for the pews.
Really, I don’t have any great advice. My toddler is just now learning the basics of being quiet, though she isn’t anywhere near the part of keeping still. The 4-month old, Baby Benedetto (also not his name), gets a pass.
Go to the earliest Mass possible, even though trying to make the 7:30 AM Mass on a Sunday is torture. Kids are almost always better in the first part of the morning. Also, until they are out of preschool age, get over the fact that your kids can munch teddy grahams and a sealed cup of milk in the pews. As long as it won’t make a mess, do it.
Don’t sit too far back at Mass. That’s most people’s first mistake: you think that you want to be by the back for a quick exit if the poop hits the fan. That is understandable, but if you’re too far back, then the children can’t see what’s happening at front and the whole thing is a really boring and quiet 60 (Novus Ordo Mass) to 90 (Traditional Latin Mass) minute torture. Sit as close to the front as you are comfortable, but sit on the aisle. Don’t give up the edge of the aisle except for old ladies in a full house. Even then, maybe (especially then?).
We tried a book or a toy or something. Disaster. It only leads to whining, throwing, and I no want that book, I want Curios George! (Sweet Walburga sounds Greek when she’s angry). Now she gets a bulletin in advance and a hymnal to leaf through. It keeps her busy and we’ve only lost two pages in 3 months.
Also, do your best to prep them for the parts of the Mass that are the most interesting. Walburga particularly loves the bells. I do my best to clue her in when they’re about to come. Then I try to prop her up during the consecration, whispering– “Father is about to lift up the little white circle. It’s called the ‘Eucharist’. Then the altar boy is going to ring the bell. Hear it? That’s daddy’s favorite part of the Mass. Father is going to do the same thing with his gold cup. Ready? Watch!” Little pieces like that help. She also goes up with me to communion (obvs doesn’t receive, but she’s there). That’s a nice break for her to move around.
When it’s time to get out of the pew, just go. Don’t apologize. Everyone understands and everyone is happy that you’re keeping your child busy. Sweet Walburga and I like to see the Stations of the Cross up close. Whispering, she points out Jesus, the angels, the soldiers, the women, etc. She particularly likes to kiss her hand and touch Jesus’ feet with her kissed fingers. I encourage that.
When all else fails, just go run it off in the narthex. We like to point out the picture of the pope, find all the holy cards with Mary on them, and count the bags lined up in the hallway for the food collection. Then after a few minutes, I ask if she’d like to go back to sit with mommy and Baby Benedetto. She always says yes, but I make her state what the conditions of the pew are: “I be quiet and watch Father at Mass”. It doesn’t always work and sometimes we’re back in the narthex. Seriously, sit on the outside of the pew. It is awkward the first time you get up at Mass in the middle of Mass. But it is only awkward for you. Everyone else is relieved and understanding.
Outside of Mass, I also think it’s good that we drive by the church pretty often. I used to point it out to her, but now she likes to see it first. “That’s our church!” she says. “Yes, Walburga! It sure is! What do we do in there?” She answers “We see Jesus, we pray, and be quiet!” That last part always cracks me up. She figured it out on her own. If you can, even stop in when there’s no Mass and let them see the Church when it is quiet. Kids respond to the reverence of solitude with the Blessed Sacrament. Even as a child, the Blessed Sacrament can draw them in if you give them the chance, prep them for it, and don’t overstay their ability to take it in.
Lastly: it is hard and it stinks. Yep. But it is our obligation as Christians and as parents to be at Mass and to bring the souls entrusted to our care. The worst thing you can do is to think that you’re going to start taking them when they’re older– learning how to worship Jesus at Mass starts now.
Hang in there! We’re all struggling together.