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Mass Hysteria? 4 Tips for Helping Children Behave in Mass - Tom McFadden

Mass Hysteria? 4 Tips for Helping Children Behave in Mass


Can my children behave in Mass? Yes, but it takes a plan, high expectations, and more. Tom McFadden, father of 11, with tips he discovered as a “new dad”.

It’s Sunday morning. The Lord’s Day.

However, it doesn’t always seem like a time of joyful celebration, especially when you have little children and you must bring them to Mass.

The whole idea of getting them cleaned up for Mass, dressed properly, buckled into the car, and into the church pew on time is overwhelming to many young, and old, families.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and here are some insights from my own experiences.

When my wife and I got married, I had no real thoughts on many things, one thing being how exactly children should behave in Mass. I knew I wanted them to behave, but that was about it.

I hadn’t thought about whether they should bring rosaries into Mass, or cereal snack bags, or crayons and Catholic coloring books, or any of that.

I hadn’t thought about whether they should dress up, or go as they are, or whether we should sit near the front, the back, or in the vestibule. I didn’t know whether we should let children cry in Mass and make them sit there, or at the first peep, take them out, running down the side aisle in shame.

I had no rules on taking trips to the bathroom during Mass, or how my kids should stand, sit, or kneel.

Because of this “lack of thought,” when my first two children were being raised, as toddlers, we did many things with them at Mass, all with the intention of just making sure that we get in, get out, and survive – without making too much of a fuss and embarrassing scene.

Then things changed.

When my two eldest were about 1 and 3, I became a Director of Religious Education at a Catholic parish.

For better or worse, the people in the parish looked to me as an example of how to be a Catholic, how to raise a family, how to teach the faith, how to live the vocation of marriage, and, yes, how to ensure kids behave in Mass.

I was not expecting all of that, but then and there, my wife and I sat down and discussed what we needed to do to ensure that our children behaved better in Mass (because up to that time, they were not so good) for their own sakes, and for the sakes of those looking to them to be examples of the ideal children in Mass.

And here’s what we came up with.

1. The Young and the Restless

Let’s face it, sitting in a church pew for an hour or an hour and a half is unnatural and difficult for anyone, let alone a toddler or a baby. So many people forgo the expected trauma of bringing little children to Mass, and go in shifts, to make sure the children don’t go and disrupt the Mass. Bad idea.

The family is the domestic church, and the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Your kids belong there. Sure, they don’t need to be a nuisance to others and to yell and scream throughout Mass, but always remember that everyone at Mass was once a tot too – even the priest – so they should be able to handle a little disruption every now and again.

2. Who’s the Boss?

Sometimes, it’s like playing a game of chicken. Who will cry or scream first – Mommy, Daddy, or baby? It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a time-tested and fool-proof way of helping your infant or toddler be less disruptive in Mass – keep the young toddler in your arms, and do not let him sit on the pew, crawl on the floor, or do anything other than stay tightly planted in your arms.

But he wants to get down, and if I don’t let him down, he will cry? Doesn’t matter. Who’s the boss here? You or the baby? I hope you answered correctly. It is very important to teach your child he does not have to do every action or activity he wishes to do, at the moment he wants to do it.

Your child must learn how to say “no” to himself and his urges, and how to be restrained, and this is where you come in. You hold him throughout the entire Mass, in good times and in bad times, until he stops expressing an interest in doing something contrary to what he should be doing.

At some point, I promise, he will stop fighting you. When this happens, he will just put his head down on your shoulder and sleep, or just sit on your lap and watch other kids crawling around on the floor, licking the vestibule door, or hanging on the baptismal font, but he will not cry or whine about it.

It takes time, but it works. I have done this with 8 of my 10 children, and although each kid responds a little differently, it always works. As a side note, I have found this works well if the father is the one doing the holding, rather than an older sibling or the mother.

3. Great Expectations

If you want good results, then you need to have a good plan. If you want your children to behave in Mass and be model citizens, it takes some training and practice. It takes conversations and encouragement. However, it also takes follow-through and persistence to achieve your high and lofty goals and to meet your high expectations.

You must set standards for what you consider good behavior in Mass, including defining proper Mass attire. Maybe it is following along in the booklet, maybe it’s standing up straight, maybe it’s singing all the songs, maybe it’s keeping hands together, maybe it’s not talking to siblings, or maybe it’s not putting hands in mouth or nose. Maybe it’s keeping their mouths off the pew in front of them.

These are your decisions, but whatever the expectations, they should be known by all in the family, repeated often, and then enforced by Mom or Dad throughout the Mass (do not wait until you get home to enforce, do it during Mass itself) to ensure compliance.

4. Frequency

The more frequently you go to Mass, the more common the experience for the children and the better behaved they will be. If you can bring the kids to daily Mass, all the better. Many a time, on a given Sunday at our parish, people will ask why my children are all so well behaved.

I tell them first, that it takes a lot of work, and second, that they are used to going because they go every day. It is the most common thing they do outside of the home, and as a result, it is second nature to them.

Sure, they still fall into a daze, or turn around and look for people they know, or forget where they are, or have to use the bathroom, or appear to be asleep, but because they go daily, my children are in tune with what is going on around them, and why, and they know how they are to behave.

There are some who will just try and survive, but my recommendation, as with all aspects of life, is we should thrive – not simply survive. Our children can behave in Mass – it just takes a unified plan, high expectations, routine, enforcement, patience, and prayer. Good luck!

About Tom McFadden

Tom McFadden
Tom McFadden holds a BA and MA in Theology and has worked at Christendom College since 2000, serving first as the Director of Admissions and most recently as the Vice President for Enrollment. He and his wife Amanda are the proud parents of eleven children.

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