Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What I Wish I Said to the Mom Who Approached Me After Mass


A few years ago, a woman I had never seen at church before approached me after Mass.  She had a toddler with her, and because there are very few other children that attend the Mass we do, I was pretty sure it was the toddler I heard during Mass.  I had a toddler of my own at my side, a baby in my arms, and two older kids off somewhere else (I think this was around the time the boys were infatuated with the confessional, so probably there).  

While my children are not always fabulous at Mass, they had been exceptionally good that day.  As the woman neared me, for a split second I wished my kids hadn't been so good that day.  She was coming toward me with a pleading look in her eye, and I didn't want to be on the Perfect-Mass-Family pedestal (I know it exists because I've put other families up there myself.)  She's going to ask me for advice.  She's going to want to know how we do it.  She's going to ask me... how do you get your toddler to behave at Mass?  Please don't ask me.  Please don't ask me.  Please don't ask me.  I don't know the answer.  I don't know!

I didn't know the answer to her question, but she asked it anyway.  How do you get your kids to behave at church?  She had struggled through Mass with a toddler as I had struggled before.  We had not done anything different that particular Sunday; there was no discernible reason whatsoever that my children had behaved so well at Mass that morning as opposed to any other Sunday morning.  So when she asked me how I did it, I stumbled over my words, admitted that taking kids to Mass is hard, agreed that taking toddlers to Mass might actually be a form of cruel and unusual punishment according to the eight amendment, and that I'm sorry, but I really don't have any advice for you.  

I mean, we do stuff to increase our chances of success... We bring religious picture books for our kids to look at.  We've allowed some of our babies to eat Cheerios in Mass.  We let our babies and toddlers crawl on the floor and on the pews.  We usually attend Mass with my parents so there's often a favorable ratio of adults to kids.  We take restless babies to the back to walk around (our church doesn't have a cry room so that's never been a thing for us.)  We have rules for the older kids on what's expected of them. We often bribe encourage good Mass behavior and participation with the promise of donuts.  We celebrate with donuts when deserved ;)   But none of these ensure good behavior from our children at Mass.  None of these guarantee that we won't make a spectacle.  And in no uncertain terms do they make it more likely that our children will grow up to be  pious daily communicants.  There are no guarantees.  

I didn't offer any of these suggestions to the woman who asked me how do you do it.  But in the pressure of the moment, I didn't give her my best answer either.  Since that day, I've often thought about what I wish I said to her.  If I could go back, I would tell her the two things I tell myself when confronted with kid-related struggles at Mass...  Keep bringing your kids even when it's difficult and Don't let your children's behavior be the measure of the Mass. 

That's all I've got.  But, it's the advice I take to heart when considering my own family and instructing my own children in the proper behavior, participation, and appreciation of the Mass.

Keep bringing your kids!  Try all the different strategies once you get there (books, coloring, snacks, rules, rewards, etc...) but keep bringing them!  Mass with toddlers is hard, hard, hard, but the Mass is so important that it trumps the toddler's difficult-ness.  Perhaps more to the point, kids will understand (maybe subconsciously, at first) that what we are doing is important because we continue to do it even though they make a spectacle, even though they throw a tantrum during the Consecration, even though they run out into the center aisle to confront the priest during the recessional, even though they swallowed the gum stuck under the kneeler.   I feel like I need to insert an inspirational poster here with a quote about perseverance and with a picture of a rock climber hanging by his fingertips in the middle of a cliff, because to be honest, Mass with a toddler often feels like how that cliff-hanger looks.  But I believe it truly is our perseverance in the face of the struggle that will impress on young hearts the significance of what we're doing.  Have you ever felt like attending Mass with your kids is a power struggle?  Go with it!  We will not let go or give in or surrender no matter what you throw at us!**  That's how important this is.  



Keep bringing your kids, but don't let their behavior become the focus of the Mass.  I never really have to convince myself to bring my kids to Mass - we've always done it; I don't have to rev myself up for it.  But I do  have to occasionally remind myself of the second part of my advice.  A couple years ago I remember spending an entire Mass watching my kids' behavior and participation to see what they got right and what they did wrong so that I could review it all with them blow by blow after the fact.  I didn't really attend Mass that day.  What I did was convey to my children that their behavior was more important than what was happening on the altar - the Scripture readings and homily, the communal prayers, the Consecration and Eucharist.  Now during Mass I periodically glance at my older children to see if they're paying attention and participating, or to gently pat them to remind them not to slouch, or to put my arm around the toddler as a reminder not to test out a twirly skirt in the pew... but I still occasionally catch myself playing hawk-eye and have to remind myself that the measure of the Mass is not how well my children did. We are not there so that they can have perfect behavior.  We are there to be in the presence of the Lord and to take part in the Eucharist, the "source and summit" of the Christian life.  That's more important than monitoring every little twitch and twirl and giggle.  And they will only learn that if they witness it.  



As parents, we still have a responsibility to instruct our children in age-appropriate Mass behavior.  It's our task to help form them so that eventually their behavior flows from their understanding and appreciation of the Mass.  But all the rules, and tips, and tricks, and  Cheerios and picture Bibles and Missals for young people won't help if we don't convey the unshakable import of the Mass by our committed attendance and our righteous attentiveness.  Providing our children with the witness of our holy commitment, devotion, and attention, gives them the best foundation for imitating and eventually owning proper behavior, reverence, and participation at Mass.  

I wish I could go back and look that fellow mom deep in the eye and smile and confidently say to her, You're doing great.  You're here!   And you brought your daughter and I know that's hard.  It's half the battle.  And you did it.  It's not always perfect, and you may not be the image of the pious family on the parish brochures, but you've done the important thing.  Stick with it!  

**The power struggle is real, and I realize that there seriously are times when the kids just have to be taken out of Mass.  Been there, done that.  So when I say "we won't surrender" it primarily refers to the decision to make getting to Mass a priority every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation.  It doesn't mean you wont have to take extreme measures to manage your children once you get there ;)

18 comments:

  1. "Never Give Up! Never Surrender!" Love what you have pointed out about what the real focus should be and the importance of our actions of getting there, regardless of the resulting behavior.

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    1. oh! I should watch that movie again! It's a "classic" ;)

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  2. This was great! We were just discussing something similar with the girls, about how doing the right thing can be hard, but we do it anyway... About digging in vs giving up, about eternal vs worldly reward. We have to fight the tide of the "do what makes you happy" society right now, with "doing the right thing will make you (eventually) happy". :). Also, awesome when you just get done discussing proper nutrition with your pediatrician and the toddler informs them they get a doughnut on the way home if they sit still during shots. Sigh!!

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    1. hehe - I think I've told you about the time A told the doctor all about how he loves pizza and ice cream even though his last meal he had gobbled down salmon, wild rice, and broccoli ;)
      You're right in saying that so much of what we do feels like we're going against the tide. These can be tricky times in which to parent.

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  3. Well said! I particularly appreciated your take on teaching by example that paying attention and being fully in the moment of worship is more important than keeping an eagle-eye on how the kids behave.

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    1. Thanks :) I'm going to have to take my own advice to heart this weekend as it will be my son's first time serving at the altar and I know I will be tempted to make sure he's doing everything right ;)

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  4. It's so important that we keep encouraging each other in this!! There are days when it is truly a huge struggle to make it to and through Mass with young ones...but the graces are always there and Jesus wants us there!

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    1. Sooo important to remember that Jesus loves having our family there to worship him!! (even when it seems like some of the other parishioners may not...)

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  5. "Don't let their behaviour become the focus of the Mass" Spot on!! And true, often we fall into this trap.
    "Keep taking them" Yes!!

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  6. This is so great, Theresa! We had a mass last year with one upset 3yo and the most tantrumy 20 month old. It. Was. Awful. We were both in the back with two crying kids and a tearful mama. We left slightly early for the first time and I. Was. A mess! I felt so defeated but emailed and called for some support and got some great encouragement that I just needed then. ๐Ÿ˜‹

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    1. It really can be so hard, but isn't it great that there are so many other faithful families trying to do the right thing for themselves and their kids who can encourage us!

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  7. I just have to keep reminding myself that Mass is Mass is Mass, regardless of how much time I spend in the pew and how much attention I pay... It definitely helps to read the readings beforehand, because the prayers are mostly the same, I'm probably taking somebody to the bathroom during the homily, and the liturgy of the Eucharist is the same!

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    1. I love that the Mass is the Mass no matter what - despite my distraction, my kids' ridiculousness, the small size of the congregation, the priest's lack of enthusiasm, or whatever. We can always count on Jesus being there and giving himself to us!

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