Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Okey-dokey, Let's Talk About Mass

Recently a reader asked me about Mass and boys' behavior and what to expect. Specifically:

Reader says: "I would like our children to be fully involved, engaged and enjoying it. At the moment, I feel that all they do is sit there quietly, not particularly participating and simply waiting it out."

Mrs. Ed says: Sitting quietly is highly underrated. If two boys are sitting quietly in Mass, you're doing something right. Waiting it out is better than fighting it out. Or sighing it out. Or sleeping it out.

Reader continues: "...lots of his school friends don't attend Mass or any worship services. So, he now pronounces loudly -- and frequently -- how boring Mass is, how dull it is, that he doesn't want to be Catholic any more, etc. ... Do 8-year olds generally 'enjoy' and participate in Mass? What about 6-year olds?"

Mrs. Ed says: First of all, huge disclaimer: I know NOTHING about boys.

But, it's not at all unusual for children to get bored during Holy Mass. Hang in there, Mom! Most children get bored. They just don't get it yet -- that's okay.  Keep the big picture in mind. You're on a journey with them, and it's a long haul.

In my rather limited experience, most children get really revved up about their first Holy Communion, both in preparation for it and when it actually happens. Sometimes that excitement carries them for some time -- how many of us have seen our first Communicants beg to go to daily Mass so they could receive Jesus again? It's lovely, and sweet, and energizing but it doesn't always last. Again, hang in there. You haven't ruined them.

As the kids get a little older, boredom seems to return again for a time, but that's part of the long haul, too. We have to keep pulling back the curtain, showing our children a little more about their faith as they grow and mature, offering them new ways to experience God. It's a lifelong process of growth. It's a relationship. That's the real issue. How do we keep helping them nurture that relationship so that it will grow over the years?

But, back, specifically, to Mass with kids. One of the things I've always tried to do is to let my children see my own desire to be at Mass. It's always helped to completely center the day around it -- Sunday is for Mass, no exceptions, no excuses when we're out of town. We just go. We remain faithful to God no matter what, and no matter how we feel on a particular morning. Most of the time, I long to be at Mass. But I also think it's okay to be honest with children (those who are old enough to understand) about the fact that sometimes even we grown-ups don't feel like going. We all get tired, overextended, etc., and have those days when Mass can feel like one more thing to do. By being honest with our children about this, we can set an example about how to handle temptations. We show them that we're willing to submit our wills to God's, and we're helping them learn how they can do that, too.

It has always helped our family, too, to make Sunday a special, fun, family-centered day. We do things together -- walks, game nights, movies -- we relax, we eat donuts. Atticus often cooks a special dinner. I think when children come to associate Sunday with all kinds of other close, loving memories, it helps them to associate it (and Mass) with God's love, too.

When Ramona was five, I wrote this:

to celebrate Holy Thursday she drew a picture of Jesus and His apostles and then starting gift-wrapping things she found around the house, because "people should have presents when we're happy." Did she understand all that we would feel and remember at last night's Mass? No. Did she understand that we were happy that Jesus gave us the Eucharist? Yes. The rest will come.
.. I watched Ramona yesterday, when she drew her picture of Jesus. Her eyes were shining, and she was brimming with joy. And I thought, for a moment, that one of the reasons the Church wisely gave us Lent and penance, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, is that we grown-ups sometimes forget to shine.
I want to strive to have my children see me shine. (I fail often, but it's worth striving for.)

We've tried to share with our kids that our faith is a huge part of our lives -- it is woven through so many things that we do, and Mass is one more part of that. Celebrating feast days, saint days, baptismal birthdays, doing fun activities that bring the faith alive -- these things can truly make a difference in helping kids to get excited about their faith. Have fun with your faith, and your kids will, too.

A friend of mine recently hosted her first meeting of a boys' club at her house -- they talked and read about archangels, made cardboard swords and ice cream bucket-lid shields, and when it was time for snacks, the boys all got to stab their devil's food cupcakes before they ate them. I laughed out loud when I heard this. I must admit that it never occurred to me to have kids stab their cupcakes. But, this is apparently the sort of thing that boys live for. (It's a good thing I didn't have boys. Really ... a very good thing.)  Great activities and ideas are all over the place -- just start Googling, or check out some of my archives, especially those under "Liturgical Year." (But not if you have boys. We've never stabbed our cupcakes here.)

Those are some initial thoughts, though I know I've just scratched the surface. I'd love to follow up on some of the following:

  • Letting go of an ideal about what I should get out of Mass when I'm there with children

  • Sensitive kids and Mass 

  • Homemade aids that can help young children through Mass

If anyone has anything to add to the conversation, please do!

(Part II is here.)


Mary Kate said...

Love your suggestions and observations, Karen! As the mother of 4 boys (16,13,8,4) and 2 girls (11, 22 mos) I haven't noticed a real difference regarding Mass participation based on gender, but rather, based on personality. Something that has always helped our kids is to sit as close to the altar as possible. I know that that's a scary thing for a lot of people who are bringing small children, but it really works! Kids have a chance to see and hear what is really going on and when we point out things like the "OH! There's Jesus!" in an awed whisper to the little ones, it tends to draw their focus and attention for a while. We avoid crying rooms unless we have a little one who really needs a break and is disturbing other people around us.

All that said, we have to remember that kids are not mini-adults, and cannot be expected to "get out of Mass" what adults can. This is also true of their behavior. Christ knows this! He said, "Let the little children come unto me."; He meant ALL the time! Sometimes, kids will have a hard time (or a hard phase that lasts for a year!), but it's important to keep bringing them! Also, quiet, non-messy snacks and picture books are COMPLETELY FINE! They can make or break the experience for everyone.
We all have an idea of how we want our kids to react or participate at Mass, but we have to be realistic and reconcile it with who they *are* as people. Believe me, teen boys and toddler boys seem to have the same kind of "jumpy" reaction to sitting through Mass! I try to remember that I can only expect their obedience in behavior, not in thoughts; I have prayer to help me with that.
I also try to remember that I want kids to grow to love being at Mass (or at least feel "right") and that has to happen with God's Grace in His Presence. :)

Anonymous said...

What a helpful post! I'd love to hear any suggestions about how to keep toddlers still during Mass. Our two-year-old son has made a lot of progress but the constant squirming is a challenge! We let him bring books about the Mass and let him hold a Rosary but the squirming continues...:)


Karen Edmisten said...

Mary Kate, we've always tried to sit up close, too, and I also think it helps for exactly the reason you pointed out -- they can see all the things we're teaching them about. And I also agree that non-messy snacks and picture books are fine!

I spent part of yesterday searching for the old, homemade missal that Anne-with-an-e and I made together when she was little. Couldn't find that, so looked for the one I made with Betsy. Couldn't find that either! Grrrr.

But, the point is, we made little missals for the girls to follow which illustrated for them, step-by-step, what was expected of them (re. behavior and participation) at Mass. Maybe because they were tailored to each child, and the kids were invested in the making of them, they seemed to help (more than other children's missals.)

Haley, expect squirming to continue for awhile! :) I think ages 1-3 are the hardest. Keep doing what you're doing, and keep in mind that when they're that little, you may not *feel* like you're getting much out of Mass, but you're getting just what you need -- Jesus is still there in the Eucharist, and you're caring for His littlest ones. :)

Kimberlee said...

"Sitting quietly is highly underrated." - Amen to that, Karen! Mass is not necessarily something we need to 'fully enjoy' - we participate at Mass as the highest form of worship. Perhaps reading some books like The Weight of a Mass might help in understanding the privilege that it is to hear Mass. Also, for the 8yo, it's not too early to start aspiring to serve at the altar, and many boys really begin to connect and love the Mass when they are able to serve. And Haley, there are helpful posts at First Heralds about toddlers at Mass.

Skysaw said...

Karen, beautiful post. Let me add that at least some of us priests love to hear babbling and crying at Mass because it's the sound of the future, and that's never less than beautiful. I agree with the idea of *not* taking the child out if at all possible. If he or she is sustaining an unbroken high C at 100 dbs for 20 minutes straight, then yeah, it's time to take him or her out (and put the child in the kids' choir at the age of 8 or so).

BTW, as someone who obviously doesn't and never will have kids, I have learned from observing hosts of large families that the so-called terrible twos do indeed last from about the first birthday to the fourth birthday. Some parents have corrected me and said "make that fifth."

Deirdre said...

Hi Karen,

Thank you SO much for answering my original email so fully, clearly and helpfully. Lots of food for thought.

I am encouraged to read from you, and another comment-er that boredom is natural. Some of the Christian families that I read about (and occasionally envy just a bit) talk about how the whole family sings together in worship, lead by the Father and with all children enthusiastically participating. So I think I am comparing us against a tough (and possibly optimistic?) benchmark.

My belief (perfectionism again probably) has also been to think that colouring books are NOT ok as they are distracting and children "should" be fully focused on the mass. Thanks to some of the comments I am rethinking that strategy. Maybe there is room for quite activities....

Finally, we too focus on making Sunday fun. No homework, music practise and as few jobs as we can get away with. We always come home for pancakes, lattes and sweets after mass. Sweets are rewards for good behaviour. When they were really small we awarded a sweet for every section of the mass. One for the Our Father, another for shaking 3 sets of hands, two for helping with the offertory etc. Helped focus young minds for a while!

Thanks again for your thoughts and kindness in answering my original email.

I am so thankful that God promises to water the seeds that we sow in our children.

Kim Barger said...

My 2 girls are 6yrs & 8yrs. They attend weekly Mass @ school & Mass with us on the weekends, but there is still squirming on one side & poking & funny faces on the other side. I have several books on saints, which keeps them quiet & still, but they put them down to participate during the Gospel, the Consecration & the Our Father. The 8yr old now pays attention to most of the Mass because she likes to sing.
When they were smaller, I bought 2 cheap 4x6 photo albums from the drug store. I filled it with prayer cards & other small religious pictures. (Christmas cards or pictures from flyers at church). My Mother & MIL donated a lot of prayer cards. I changed the pictures out so to keep them interesting.

Melanie B said...


I've got a 5 yr old girl, 3 yr old girl, 2 yr old boy and 8 month old baby boy. I don't expect any of them not to squirm. Even the 5 year old who loves to be at Mass is by temperament a child who cannot sit still.

I think picture books are fine. I do try to stock up on saints books, books about the Mass, Bible story books, etc to help send the signal even to the 2 yr old that Mass is different, a time dedicated to thinking about God. We haven't done coloring books mainly because I worry about dropping crayons or pencils and about pencils and crayons being turned on the pews and floor.

One thing I've found to help was to read books about Mass during the week. We had a coloring book about the Mass that they loved and going over the parts of the Mass and the responses helped them to be a bit more engaged. Not perfectly engaged but I count looking up once and pointing and then going back to squirming or ears perking up when they recognize a prayer or a hymn but only saying or singing a few of the words.

And our former parish used to give out Magnifikids, a kids' publication put out by Magnificat that has the week's Mass readings as well as the Order of the Mass and a few fun activities. We had some of those laying around for a long time and would sometimes read them to the kids. We just signed up for a subscription. I'm hoping they'll be another aid for the squirmers.