Thursday, September 16, 2010

Toddlers and Church

It may sound silly but I consider the fact that our toddler is well-behaved in church to be one of our greatest accomplishments as parents. While I'm aware this may not always be the case, I vow to enjoy it now and pray that our son will always view attending mass in a positive light.

Great behavior did NOT happen overnight and it certainly wasn't the case when he was an infant. He was born on a Monday and we were in church that following Sunday. It was important to us to continue to attend regularly, even with a newborn. Like most babies, our son slept through mass the first few weeks. I remember glancing at my husband and mouthing, "Wow, this is perfect. It's so easy!" I ended up eating my words the following week after his ear -piercing screams shook the rafters and we bolted to the cry room. The problem with the cry room is that it's synonymous to detention. There's a reason certain kids are in the cry room just like there's a reason they're in detention. And you don't want your kids picking up the habits from kids in either location. So...what to do? We couldn't have our son crying and disturbing everyone who had come to mass to peacefully worship. It was our hope to instill in him a love of God and a desire to participate in mass with our parish community. We didn't want to leave him home with a babysitter while we attended church because how would he grow to WANT to be there if he was never there? And what is the "right" age for children to start attending mass anyway?

I brought all of these questions and more to several of my friends (both in person and online) who had been in a similar predicament. I discovered that there seemed to be two schools of thought:

A) Don't bring your children to mass until they are old enough to listen, obey, and respect. ( 25?) ;)

B) Tough it out through the tears and the tantrums and eventually things will settle down. (Ok...that could be a long road)

Not feeling satisfied with either of those options, we decided to experiment with different strategies each week until we found something that worked for us. We were in it for the long haul but secretly hoped it wouldn't be very long.

The good news is that we found a few tricks that worked then and continue to work now. Hopefully you can benefit from a few of these with your children or pass them along to other couples struggling with toddlers in church.

Yes, I love lists.

1) Pack a few different snacks in a spill-proof snack cup. Our son enjoys dry cereal, graham crackers, goldfish, pretzels, and Gerber Graduate puffs. While not the healthiest, these snacks are easy to eat and do not make a mess should he figure out how to spill a few through the flaps.

2) Pack a small, blank, inexpensive photo album and a few pages of stickers. Our son gets a kick out of peeling the stickers off and sticking them on different pages. If he changes his mind about a particular sticker's location, he can remove it from the album and place it somewhere else. This is why I recommend a photo album and not a piece of paper. It's a huge deal for our son to go to the dollar store and pick out his own stickers. :)

3) Pack a few "just for church" books that your child doesn't read any other time. This way they stay new and exciting.

4) Pack a few foam or soft rubber cars or trucks that won't make noise when your child inevitably drops them during the most quiet parts of the mass.

5) Plan to attend the mass that fits best with your child's schedule, even if it's not the one you would choose first. When we attended the 10:30 mass, our son would have a meltdown about a half an hour into it. When we switched to the 9:00 mass, his behavior sky-rocketed and a more peaceful experience was had by all.

6) Take advantage of the children's liturgy if your church offers one. Go with your child and encourage him/her to participate in the lesson. Our church offers what they call "King's Kids" once a month for children ages 4-8. Even though our son is 2, they let us bring him as long as one of us accompanies him. He may not understand the ins and outs of each lesson but it give him a break in routine and allows him to witness children raising their hands, answering questions, etc.

7) Sit in the first pew. No, really, I mean it. The first pew. Even if you arrive late, it'll be empty. Our son loves to watch what goes on and we've found that if he's forced to sit in the back for whatever reason (front pews are reserved for a baptism, for example), his behavior is much worse. Nothing like having to stare at the backs of peoples' heads (or butts, for him).

8) Talk about what will happen in church on the car ride there and what happened on the car ride home. Ask your toddler questions. See how much he/she understands. Our son has a children's picture Bible and we point out various aspect of the mass in the Bible as it is happening in front of him. He really likes to follow along.

9) Pack your child's comfort item and don't be embarassed by it. Our son still uses a pacifier at bedtime but we allow him to have it in church if needed. He also takes his special blanket. Nothing calms him down like the paci-blanket combo. It'll be shame when we have to wean him... ;)

10) Try to involve your child in the mass as much as possible. We let our son put the money in the collection basket and hand it to the person next to us. Let your church know you're available to bring up the gifts as a family. If you're a lector, cantor, or eucharistic minister, all the better. Your child will learn from your example and want to be involved like you. :)

Best of luck with your toddler on Sunday!


  1. I don't know what Chris and I will do when we have kids... our church only offers 2 services on Sunday morning: 7:30 and 9:00. I hope one of those fits our little bean's schedule! -A

  2. Hey Chanel, this is awesome - you guys kinda sound like the parents Matt and I hope to be when we have kids :-) Might refer some of my friends to this list of tips!