Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Surviving Mass with Little Ones: Our Top Ten Tips

Last Sunday after Mass, there was a long line for the bathroom. When it was finally our turn, my children and I squeezed into the only open stall (not the handicapped accessible one with the changing table, unfortunately). When I opened the door to herd everyone toward the sink for handwashing, the kids tumbled out into the bathroom like undersized occupants of a clown car. A woman who was waiting her turn looked at me, eyes wide, and said, "Wow, they sure are all close together, aren't they?"

They aren't that close together, but they're close enough to make certain things, like group bathroom trips and attendance at Mass, challenging. Right now, we have four kids under six, and two of them are two year olds. (That's one thing about twins...they are usually pretty close in age.)

When I dreamed about having children, I never imagined the part about struggling to get them to behave in church week after week. Attending Mass with tiny children can feel like a full-contact sport. By the time church is over, I am often sweating from the physical effort of managing my four little angels. Sometimes, on Monday, my arms or my chest or my quads are actually sore.

Why didn't anyone warn us about this ahead of time and give us some tips? We could have started training in advance. Perhaps an exercise DVD handed out at baptismal classes would be helpful.  I picture a video with a roomful of parents lined up in their Sunday clothes, shuffling sideways through pews without knocking people over while carrying huge diaper bags, scooping Cheerios off the floor while doing deep knee bends in the aisle, passing fussy toddlers back and forth at chest level like medicine balls, balancing their hymnals with two fingers while holding a squirmy baby on one hip and blocking the pew exit with the opposite knee.

If you are a new or expectant parent, you might find this a little hard to imagine, but kneeling while holding a squirmy baby away from the back of the pew (so she can't eat the pencils and missals or chew the hair of the woman in front of you) can be almost as good as an ab workout. 

I'm only sort of kidding. 

Once we are all sitting down, the physical challenges ease up a little, but the mental challenges have just begun. As I try to occupy everyone as quietly as possible until Mass begins, I notice that people around me are actually praying silently and reverently. I remember that I, too, used to do that, and I wonder how long it will be before I can close my eyes in church without worrying about someone falling out of the pew. I settle for repeating, "Lord, have mercy," over and over in my mind. When my husband gives me a weird look, I realize that I've actually been saying it out loud.

So what are we supposed to do, those of us who want to have our children with us during church? Is it impossible to experience Mass as a family with young children?

It's not impossible.

Although the physical challenges can be grueling, surviving church with little ones doesn't have to feel like the weekly equivalent of a marathon. Some common sense, some time-tested tricks, and a well-stocked Mass bag go a long way toward getting our family through Mass in one piece.   

Here are the Top Ten Things I have learned in my six short years of taking my children to Mass: 

1. We always bring the Mass bag.

Our Mass bag has changed as our children have changed. When I first wrote about it here, we only had one child who was old enough to be distracted by most of the books and items in the bag. Now, he is old enough to follow along in his missal and use a Mass worksheet or Magnifikids to help him focus. His Mass behavior isn't perfect, but it's come a long, long way. 

Even though some of the items in our bag have changed, my guidelines for deciding what goes in it are still the same:
  • We don't include snacks. I know other parents who successfully put snacks in the bag for their family, but it's just too messy for us. Before we made this rule, many Cheerios rolled far away under multiple pews and were crushed by others' feet three rows ahead. We crawled around under the pews after church trying to clean them was just too much to handle.
  • The items need to be church-related. There is time every other minute of every other day to play with our regular toys. The things in this bag are special, are only be used at church, and are to help our children develop their spiritual imaginations. 
  • No bad art. The pictures have to be beautiful. Three of my children aren't readers yet, so the pictures are all they have. I still remember the pictures from the Bible I had as a child...those illustrations shape the way our kids imagine Jesus and heaven and many other important things. There's no room in our bag for silly cartoon illustrations - I want the art to be good quality (and worthy of helping to shape someone's image of God...that's pretty important, don't you think?).
  • The things in the bag have to encourage the children to be quiet. If they make our group volume go up even slightly, they're out. This is why we no longer have crayons in our bag. There was too much discussion about colors and who should have the yellow and who broke the tip off the magenta. (I love colors and I know God made them and everything, but we can talk about crayons after church.)
  • No tiny pieces that will be lost under the pews. I choose not to deal with this. We have too much going on already.
  • I don't want the items to distract the people around us. That includes other people's children who might be sitting nearby. 

Based on these criteria, here's what is inside our current Mass bag:
rosaries for each child

a set of holy cards on a ring

clipboards with paper and ballpoint pens (always one extra pen, just in case one stops working or gets dropped)

SuperSam's Magnifikid or a Mass worksheet

a few board books that rotate with the liturgical year

a picture missal

Sometimes I include our Betty Lukens felt book, but I found that having it in there every week made the girls more likely to fight over it. 

2. Everyone goes to the bathroom before church starts. This means we need to get there early. Sometimes we don't manage this, but it's our goal.

3. We always pack four more diapers than we think we will need. Just trust me on this one. We've never needed all four, but we've come close.
4. When we have a child under age two, I always wear my baby sling, even if George is carrying the baby. Chances are, I'm going to need an extra set of hands, and the sling is the closest thing I have.

5. I usually wear my charm bracelet...not as a lucky charm, but as a distraction. I've been collecting charms for it since middle school, and it can distract a child in my lap for quite a long time. Even SuperSam still likes to turn it around on my wrist to look for his favorites.  

6. We are choosy about our seats. We try to sit near the end of a pew so we can escape easily if someone needs to be taken out. We also try to be close enough to the front so that our children can see what's happening, but far enough back that we are not distracting if our people get wiggly. Arriving early helps a lot with this, too. If we come in too late to find those choice seats, we err on the side of caution and sit in the back. We're also careful about how we position ourselves as barriers among the children. If two of them have been fighting the whole way there in the car, they're getting separated during Mass.

7. We use bribery when necessary. We often stop for donuts or another treat after Mass if everyone has behaved well. 

8. Until our kids are about 3 years old, their feet don't touch the floor at Mass. They can choose to sit on our laps or beside us on the pew, but when we stand up, we pick them up, too. This helps keep them out of trouble but also makes it easier for them to see what's happening.

9. We are clear about our expectations for behavior at church. We make these expectations developmentally appropriate and we go over them every week before we go inside. Quiet whispers. Quiet hands and feet. Stay in your own space. Stand, sit and kneel when we do. Beyond that, we hope they will follow along and sing and pray the parts they know, but we don't force this. This year, SuperSam will be starting preparation for First Communion, so we will raise the expectations for him accordingly. 

10. We take deep breaths, work as a team, and don't despair if we have a terrible week where no one behaves well. Everyone has off days. It doesn't mean our children will never behave at Mass. It doesn't mean they are godless heathens and that we are doing a terrible job of raising them in the faith. It means we skip the donuts that week and try again the next week. (Or it might mean the children skip their donuts and the grownups still get them, depending on how much we had to endure.)

As SuperSam has gotten older, he has done much better at church and usually sits quietly now. Most weeks, he even participates in large portions of the Mass. My twins are also getting older, but they are not necessarily getting any easier to manage in a church service yet. We still hold them a lot of the time. They are, however, getting heavier all the time, which makes them more challenging to hold during church. By the time they are four or five, I will have the most amazing biceps of anyone I know. People will ask me what I do to get in shape. 

I'll just tell them we go to Mass every week.

This post is part of a kids + Mass blog carnival! Check out these other great posts on handling children in Mass:

27 Books for Your Mass Bag (and Tips for Dealing with Little Ones in Mass) at Carrots for Michaelmas

Survival Skills for Mass with Kids at Fountains of Home

Mass Effect: Why We Bring Our Kids to Church at two Os plus more

Age-Appropriate Goals for Mass Behavior at Catholic All Year