The National Catholic Review
Elizabeth A. Ficocelli
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My 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 knowwith 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 trying. But for the most part, our boys (ages 10, 6, 3 and 11/2) 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 basket-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 have 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 have read and ask the children questions to test their understanding. The two younger ones have learned not to interrupt, but to listen quietly from their car seats. Since our 3-year-old chimes in now and then, I know he is 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 the church, our 3-year-old, who is potty-trained, 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 are 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 being spectators at Mass to active participants. This greatly reduces the likelihood of boredom.

When Behavior Problems Bring You to Your Knees

Now you may be thinking, Lady, you just don’t know my kids! If you are 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 have 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 longif you stick 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 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 are 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 have 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 for many a playroom, a reading room and a convenient hangout. I have 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 is 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 be used only 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, Learning Doesn’t Have to End

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 did not 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 lesson 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 the children’s liturgy, since we are making the effort ourselves to explain things to them at their level. For us, it is important to be together as a family and benefit from the graces we receive at Mass.

It is 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 cannot say it enough: be consistent!

For those who are single parents, I will be the first to admit that your job is harder. I have 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 is no question that with one adult, it is harderharder, 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 ableand eagerto 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 childreneven the little onesgrasp 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 10-year-old offhandedly commented that something the young man said inspired him to think about becoming a priest one day. I am not sure exactly which words of wisdom hit the mark, but I am definitely glad my son was at church and behaving appropriately to hear it.

Elizabeth A. Ficocelli writes from Reynoldsburg, Ohio. She is the author of Childs Guide to Holy Communion and Childs Guide to Reconciliation, forthcoming from Paulist Press.

Comments

Dave Cushing | 1/29/2007 - 10:50am
I was surprised and disappointed by the article on teaching children to behave in church (5/6). Despite the author’s well-intentioned effort, I am afraid she misleads parents. Moreover, it seems to me that the underlying theology of the article contradicts the theology of “full and active participation” envisioned by the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” and subsequent liturgical documents, summarized so well by Thomas Slon, S.J., in the same issue.

As a parent and a director of religious education, I encounter this issue of children in church frequently. I have come to the conclusion that most of the time we approach it from the wrong perspective. The important issue is not so much whether parents are training their children to behave in church, as Mrs. Ficocelli suggests, but whether parents are raising their children to participate in liturgy.

I admit that doing the second is more challenging. It does not lend itself to simple prescriptions that will comfort members of the assembly who are distracted by the food, toys, books “and other items families use to keep their children quiet.” It also assumes that it is actually possible for children or adults to participate fully and actively in the average parish liturgy.

Apparently Mrs. Ficocelli believes that singing joyfully (even swaying and bouncing to the music!), responding enthusiastically and carefully, bowing reverently, bringing up the gifts and serving as eucharistic ministers constitutes full and active participation. I am afraid many Catholic adults (and, I would guess, most children) do not.

Children are fast learners, as Mrs. Ficocelli observes. What are they learning if we follow her example? It seems to me that there is a real danger that they will grow up exactly like their parents, who were taught that the role of the assembly is to stand, sit and kneel quietly and reverently, to speak only when spoken to, and then to respond only with carefully scripted formulas that allow no room for personal expression or community experience. Eventually, like so many adult Catholics, these children will remove themselves from the assembly altogether—not because they lack the hunger or desire to participate more fully, but because they are tired of being treated like unruly distractions who have never learned to behave and have never been allowed to participate.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” Did I miss the part where he added, “but only if they have been properly instructed ahead of time, quietly follow along in the printed script and apologize to the people around them if their behavior is distracting”? No doubt many adults “are sick and tired of being interrupted by the emotional outbursts of small children.” So were the disciples. We know the Lord’s response when they tried to anticipate her advice and remove the children from the assembly “at the first moment” that they create a disturbance.

Yes, there are limits to what is acceptable and appropriate at Mass, even for children. But the article misleads parents about the true nature of liturgy and teaches children that their role is to behave, not participate. I’m not sure it was helpful (or theologically consistent) for America to offer its readers—and countless worried parents—what your headline so aptly labeled “Mass hysteria.”

James Torrens, S.J. | 1/26/2007 - 4:21pm
I had to chuckle while reading Elizabeth Ficocelli’s “Avoiding Mass Hysteria: Teaching Children to Behave in Church” (5/6). She and her young ones would be as discomfited as I was by the children wandering loose at Sunday Mass in the Catholic chapel of the state penitentiary in Tijuana. Some are visiting their fathers; others are “in residence” with their mothers. None of their motion or commotion, however, seems to distract the prisoners from close attention to the Eucharist or the word, God bless them. As to my own reactions as a priest, I have this poetic meditation, called “Suffer the Little Children”:

the benches crowded and solemn I’m bent for the consecration and leave it to the kids! the high pitch of their play one near the altar peering one visiting the pews two running the main aisle up and back, up and back who’s tending them anyway? I’m about to scold when i remember something

R. A. Spencer | 5/21/2002 - 9:59pm
Thank you America and Elizabeth A. Ficocelli for the wonderful article "Avoiding Mass Hysteria" (5/6). Finally, a sensible "How To" template on Mass perparation and participation for kids written by an experienced parent who worships at Sunday Mass with her family. I'm happy that parents bring their kids to Mass, but when Mass time turns into play time, attendees are deprived of reverent worship.

Maureen Brown-Petracca | 5/5/2002 - 8:15am
I am deeply disappointed in America Magazine publishing, “Avoiding Mass Hysteria” in the May 6, 2002 issue for two reasons. First the tone of the article is pedantic and judgmental so it immediately puts a parent on the defensive and secondly because it missed a wonderful opportunity for showing how even young children can be drawn into mystery of the divine liturgy.

In the opening paragraph, Ms. Ficocelli congratulates herself on how well her children are behaved by saying that people are “compelled to tell us how good our children were in church that day.” Her statements that “some days are better than others” and that she has her “share of fussy infants, whining toddlers, and distracted-school-aged children” seem at best false modesty to point up how well she is actually coping with the children. Her use of the terms, “absolutely necessity” and “we make it a point” underscore the judgmental tone of the article. Her repetitious use of the phrase, “We do ____” implies that her family is the only one doing it correctly. Indeed, she expounds at on the sins of the other members of the young Assembly such as eating in church, getting up to get a diaper changed, use the potty, et al which distract her family from proper worship. Indeed, Ms. Ficocelli comes across as the Martha Stewart of church attendance while many of the parents in the pews probably identify more with Erma Brombeck.

In Sofia Cavelletti’s book, "The Religious Potential of the Child", she talks about how children have a deep in born hunger to know God and that adults can either facilitate the child’s love of God or squash it. From my reading of the article, Ms. Ficocelli approach seems almost guaranteed to squash it. She seems to believe that children are empty vessels to be filled rather than having an in born hunger for God. She states that the “younger children have learned to be quiet in their car seats” and that she holds any child younger than three in her lap for the duration of Mass an approach that seems more akin to a straight jacket than that of an instructor and a pupil. Her statement, “When they are of age, our boys will serve on the altar.” seems more reflective of her desire than of her children’s desire. This approach seems to focus more on her control of the child and the child’s actions which is more apt to drive a wedge in the child’s relationship with God rather than facilitate it.

As a mother of three small children (ages three and under), I am humbled every week at what the knowledge of having a free will really is. Just getting everyone seated in the car to go to mass can require the diplomatic skills of Warren Christopher as we try to determine, who sits next to whom, who gets which toy, and who has which book. I find myself living a lot of questions now. What does it mean to be a Catholic parent? What is the most important thing about my faith that I want to pass onto my children? What about attending Mass transforms me? How does attending Mass help me live out my faith? Simplistic formulaic answers not satisfying. For me the most important preparation I can give my children for living a Catholic faith, is by openly struggling with these questions. Ultimately, I don’t want my children to have an image of God as a person with a giant log book sitting in heaven saying, “Well you lived in the Arlington Diocese and these were the holy days of obligation that you missed and this is how you misbehaved at Mass.” Instead, I want them to respond to God’s love with their own love.

Instead of Ms. Ficocelli’s article, I wish that you had run a piece on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (http://www.catechesisgoodshepherd.org/index.html). This is a program that focuses on religious education for children as young as three years old and introducing them to the Bible and the liturgy. Once children can see that wonder of the sacrament for themselves they will want to behave and not be held in straig

R. A. Spencer | 5/21/2002 - 9:59pm
Thank you America and Elizabeth A. Ficocelli for the wonderful article "Avoiding Mass Hysteria" (5/6). Finally, a sensible "How To" template on Mass perparation and participation for kids written by an experienced parent who worships at Sunday Mass with her family. I'm happy that parents bring their kids to Mass, but when Mass time turns into play time, attendees are deprived of reverent worship.

Maureen Brown-Petracca | 5/5/2002 - 8:15am
I am deeply disappointed in America Magazine publishing, “Avoiding Mass Hysteria” in the May 6, 2002 issue for two reasons. First the tone of the article is pedantic and judgmental so it immediately puts a parent on the defensive and secondly because it missed a wonderful opportunity for showing how even young children can be drawn into mystery of the divine liturgy.

In the opening paragraph, Ms. Ficocelli congratulates herself on how well her children are behaved by saying that people are “compelled to tell us how good our children were in church that day.” Her statements that “some days are better than others” and that she has her “share of fussy infants, whining toddlers, and distracted-school-aged children” seem at best false modesty to point up how well she is actually coping with the children. Her use of the terms, “absolutely necessity” and “we make it a point” underscore the judgmental tone of the article. Her repetitious use of the phrase, “We do ____” implies that her family is the only one doing it correctly. Indeed, she expounds at on the sins of the other members of the young Assembly such as eating in church, getting up to get a diaper changed, use the potty, et al which distract her family from proper worship. Indeed, Ms. Ficocelli comes across as the Martha Stewart of church attendance while many of the parents in the pews probably identify more with Erma Brombeck.

In Sofia Cavelletti’s book, "The Religious Potential of the Child", she talks about how children have a deep in born hunger to know God and that adults can either facilitate the child’s love of God or squash it. From my reading of the article, Ms. Ficocelli approach seems almost guaranteed to squash it. She seems to believe that children are empty vessels to be filled rather than having an in born hunger for God. She states that the “younger children have learned to be quiet in their car seats” and that she holds any child younger than three in her lap for the duration of Mass an approach that seems more akin to a straight jacket than that of an instructor and a pupil. Her statement, “When they are of age, our boys will serve on the altar.” seems more reflective of her desire than of her children’s desire. This approach seems to focus more on her control of the child and the child’s actions which is more apt to drive a wedge in the child’s relationship with God rather than facilitate it.

As a mother of three small children (ages three and under), I am humbled every week at what the knowledge of having a free will really is. Just getting everyone seated in the car to go to mass can require the diplomatic skills of Warren Christopher as we try to determine, who sits next to whom, who gets which toy, and who has which book. I find myself living a lot of questions now. What does it mean to be a Catholic parent? What is the most important thing about my faith that I want to pass onto my children? What about attending Mass transforms me? How does attending Mass help me live out my faith? Simplistic formulaic answers not satisfying. For me the most important preparation I can give my children for living a Catholic faith, is by openly struggling with these questions. Ultimately, I don’t want my children to have an image of God as a person with a giant log book sitting in heaven saying, “Well you lived in the Arlington Diocese and these were the holy days of obligation that you missed and this is how you misbehaved at Mass.” Instead, I want them to respond to God’s love with their own love.

Instead of Ms. Ficocelli’s article, I wish that you had run a piece on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (http://www.catechesisgoodshepherd.org/index.html). This is a program that focuses on religious education for children as young as three years old and introducing them to the Bible and the liturgy. Once children can see that wonder of the sacrament for themselves they will want to behave and not be held in straig