How you can help parents struggling with young children at Mass

One recent Sunday, my 4-year-old discovered an already-been-chewed piece of gum underneath the pew just as our pastor stood to deliver his homily. Before Edward popped the wad into his mouth, I leaned over and hissed, “Do not eat that.”

He glared at me, and I asked Mary, my 11-year-old, to throw the gum in the trash. Then, I turned my scattered attention back to father’s homily. After a minute or two, my 13-year-old daughter tapped me on the shoulder to let me know Edward had escaped from the pew, hot on the trail of Mary and the A.B.C. gum.

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I slipped from my seat to find him.

One man sitting a few rows behind me, having witnessed the entire scene, whispered, “Go get him, mom!”

Another parishioner pointed over his shoulder and said, “He went that way.”

There is no way to anticipate the rabble-rousing behavior kids produce during a 60-minute Sunday Mass.

I endured the long walk of shame as several more onlookers informed me of my little escapee’s whereabouts. When I finally spotted him, Edward was standing in front of his sister pleading his case about the gum and his unreasonable mother.

I overheard him say, “I’m not sitting in the pew with her.”

If someone had warned me before marriage about the difficulties I would face in bringing my small children to Mass, I am not sure I would have believed them. There is no way to anticipate the rabble-rousing behavior kids produce during a 60-minute Sunday Mass. For a long time, most of my church experience included silencing squabbles between warring siblings and discouraging at least one child from scaling the kneelers while I half listened to the readings.

My husband and I struggled for years to manage our posse of small people until one random Sunday something happened that revolutionized the years of theatrical religious drama we had endured. One morning at the 10 a.m. Mass at our new parish, some longtime friends, Janet and Danny Hoover, professional parents of a large brood of children, sought us out and sat down in the pew with us and our five children, ages 8 and under.

The stress of managing our children was gone, as was the worry we were annoying and distracting other parishioners.

I wanted to lean over and tell Janet and Danny to get up and run. I wanted to inform them that sitting with our kids was like sharing a pew with a traveling circus, but before I had a chance to plead my case, Janet grabbed a toddler, Danny grabbed another toddler and a few of Janet’s older kids sat between my other little ones. For the entire 60 minutes, our children were quiet and entertained by the person with whom they sat.

The next weekend, Janet met us in the parking lot and invited us to do the same thing. It was hard to accept help, but it was impossible to deny how efficacious it was to sit with the Hoover family. The stress of managing our children was gone, as was the worry we were annoying and distracting other parishioners. Janet and Danny weren’t shocked by anything the kids did (they’d seen it all by then), and they helped teach my children the appropriate responses to the prayers. When we moved out of state several months later, we were sad to leave the Hoovers, and Mass was never again as manageable as it was during those months when we had backup in the pew.

What if we asked ourselves, “How can I serve the people struggling in my pew?” instead of sitting silently and judging them.

I was reminded of the help from our friends those many years ago last weekend when my husband and I filed into a pew with our six children, right behind a young mom and friend of mine, who just had her third baby under 3. When her 2-year-old began to get antsy, we invited her into the pew with us. It was our turn now to help the other younger parents in the church who needed help surviving Mass.

•••

Catholic families want to feel wanted in church. Unfortunately, instead of receiving a warm welcome, many of us are met with criticism, judgment and a general intolerance of the behavior of our little people. There is a general attitude that these families should come back to Mass when their children know how to sit quietly and “behave.”

As someone active in parish ministry, I work with a devoted team of people dedicated to spreading the Gospel. We are constantly brainstorming ways to communicate God’s love to those sitting in the pews and beyond. We strive to create programs and events that nourish the hearts and minds of our parishioners.

If you are a young mom or dad, struggling with your kids at church: Take heart. You are not alone.

But perhaps we should redirect our energies.

What if we quit trying to develop the perfect pastoral program and instead tried to make those people we see every Sunday in the pews feel welcomed and loved?

What if we embraced those families who show up at the back of the church, self-conscious and starving for the body of Christ?

What if we asked ourselves, “How can I serve the people struggling in my pew?” instead of sitting silently and judging them.

We do not need perfectly designed programs to smile at newcomers or to invite someone to sit with us. We just need an open heart and a willingness to serve.

So, if you are a young mom or dad, struggling with your kids at church and feeling embarrassed or discouraged: Take heart. You are not alone.

And if you need help managing your brood, look for me at St. John’s Catholic Church. We sit on the right side, fourth pew back. We have extra hands, open hearts and room for you to join us.

I can hold the baby while you receive Communion.

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Lisa Weber
6 months 2 weeks ago

I am glad when people bring their kids to Mass. It's all okay with me, though I do appreciate enough quiet to be able to hear the homily.

As a child in a family of twelve, my heart breaks for the women who are trying to manage a handful of children who are all preschool age. If that is what they truly want, that's okay. If it is because they are trying unsuccessfully to make natural family planning work, then they need to move on and find another path. I don't know, and I don't ask about these families, but I saw my parents struggle with more children than they had time and money to care for and it was enough to make everyone in my family leave the church when they grew up. I was the only one to return - after my childbearing years were over.

John Chuchman
6 months 2 weeks ago

Kids know better than us that today's liturgy IS totally boring, outdated, irrelevant, rote, etc. I learned from mine that it is better to skip it than to come out more upset than before.

Lena Graham
6 months 2 weeks ago

I agree that children are part of the community, and that we are all seeking to become closer to God, and it is our responsibility to urge them along in that path. Faith is not something that is developed over night. If one thought about it, it doesn't make sense to let a person wait until they're an adult to develop faith (and can finally sit still) any more than we would wait for a person to become an adult to introduce them to music or math.

From essaytyper data and stats, it looks like there are many congregations willing to welcome children to their worship services. I find htis very heartening!! Those of us who have struggled with children in church know that Sunday often isn't a day of rest, but a day of wrest (ling)!! I remember looking at other seemingly perfect children in church and wondering why God didn't want me to go to church. (If He really wanted me to go to church, he would make my children quiet like those other children!) Sooo, a friend invited me to practice "going to church" with my children at home. We practiced walking into church, sitting down, keeping our feet under us, not punching each other, using quiet voices,etc. We talked about how that quiet voices and quiet bodies helped the Spirit be in the services, and brought peace, helped people to pray, and we did that for a while. It helped a lot. Did not cure all ills, but bit by bit, it helped.

Keep up the good work, mom. It is worth the hard work!

And PS, whether or not you agree with the doctrine, attend an LDS church (Mormon) just once to see how children are included. Your own level of expectations and possibilities will skyrocket!

CATHERINE ARVENTOS
6 months 2 weeks ago

I will never forget the priest who from the pulpit invited parents with young children to walk around the church with them as needed. He reinforced that young children belong in church. My young son was quite the handful at that time and it made all the difference for me in continuing coming to church. (My toddler daughter ran out of the pew one day and up the aisle towards the altar. She almost made it onto the altar when I caught her. That was before this nice priest came to the parish. I was very embarrassed but now look back with amusement, especially when I see other young ones not at their best at Mass. It always seems to be the younger child who causes the older child to get into trouble with parents....)

Brack Guthrie
6 months 2 weeks ago

I would like it see more parents at least trying to discipline their unruly children rather than just sitting there smiling as if little Johnnie is incapable of doing wrong. There have been times when I considered just getting up and leaving because I was unable to hear anything that was going due to loud children and their parents who refused to take crying babies to the cry room or make their older children behave. A little consideration on all sides would be helpful.

Paul Stephen
6 months 2 weeks ago

When we teach children that their love matters, we teach them that they are sufficient appropriate here and at this moment as individuals from the congregation group. They don't have to hold up until the point when they can trust, implore or venerate a specific method to be welcome here, Do My Essay and I know grown-ups who are as yet hoping to be demonstrated that.

Darryl Cooper
6 months 2 weeks ago

Mrs. Duggan, what a wonderful article. You also receive a special prize for the lovely construction of the sentence that reads: " our children were quiet and entertained by the person with whom they sat." I hope to find your family at Mass one day!

Dcn Cliff Britton
6 months 1 week ago

last summer, while serving at the altar, a young child let out of scream during the elevation. I could feel everyone freeze. Yet, our pastor, unfazed, waited a moment and then said "And Jesus cried." I restrained myself from standing and giving the man a hug right then. To those who have forgotten what it is like to have young children at Mass I ask you to lend a hand; play "pass the baby" or whatever it takes to keep families at Mass intact and celebrating together.

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