One of the hallmarks of our parish is the openness to families with small children. Parents often remark on how welcome they feel and how they don’t feel horrible when their kids cry at mass. Our pastor never chastises parents if their kids aren’t able to get through mass without crying to his credit. There’s nothing worse than a parent getting a guilt trip because of a cranky baby who doesn’t know any better and is just reacting naturally.

But this story in Canada’s National Post gave me some pause:

Years ago I asked a close friend why she dragged her children to Mass every Sunday. Children in church always look as if they are in the midst of slow-motion fits. They squirm, they stretch, they fall over and lay down on the kneelers, then they drool when they fall into a bored stupor. They try to be quiet but you can see it is a form of torture. All their little instincts scream, “Run!” “Yell!” “Play!” and “Get me out of here!”

Then, when they get really cranky, their mothers and fathers pick them up and walk them around the church to keep them distracted.

One young boy I know used to keep track of the length of the sermon just to pass the time. When the priest was done with his homily, the boy would whisper, “32 minutes,” and smile.

Now let me make a good distinction here. There’s a huge difference between a baby (0-2), a toddler (3-5) and a child (5-12). I think all parish staff members have to be patient with children who are not of “reading” age –meaning the babies and the toddlers. These are the kids that we can expect parents to have to occupy their time with keeping them somewhat “entertained” so that they’ll not disturb others.

However, school age children being rambunctious at mass are another matter. If those kids are allowed to remain misbehaving at mass, I place the blame on mom and dad. A 6 year old knows how to sit quietly and doesn’t need a coloring book and shouldn’t be allowed to play with the kneelers.

Now it’s easy for me to say. I don’t have children of my own and my nieces and nephew aren’t Catholic. So when I’m around children at mass, I’m usually devoid of any responsibility for them.

But I began to think back on my own experience as a child and what my mom and dad would do with the likes of me when we went to church. I’ll share three experiences from their wisdom.

The first is that they made going to church sound exciting. It never seemed like obligation or something that we had to do, even though I grew up in a fairly traditional Catholic environment where that attitude was prevalent. Mom would get me dressed up appropriately for mass and then would tell me a bit about the stories “from the Bible” that we were going to hear. Usually the upcoming Gospel for that Sunday but occasionally it would be something from the Hebrew scriptures if that was appropriate. I had my own children’s bible and my mom would say “When we get to church you’re going to hear the grown up version of this story. Try to pay attention and I’ll help you follow along.”

That indeed is my second piece of advice. Help your child to follow along with mass. Heck, if nothing else it’s an opportunity to help your child READ at a higher level–to hear grown up words and to see them in a missalette (where you can find the readings for mass as well as the Order of mass in most parishes). Liturgists often say that we shouldn’t use missalettes and I’ve always found that troubling as a high “sensor” on the Myers-Briggs. I like to read along and thankfully there’s a solution or two for those who may not have access to missalettes. One is simply to buy Magnificat magazine which not only includes those mass readings but also has morning and evening prayer. The other is to use iMissal on your iPhone which I do each week. Simply point to the parts of mass that are going on or maybe even whisper the words into their ear. I think when my mom did that with me and would “correct” me and tell me to pay attention to what was going on–it gave me the idea that indeed, something important was going on. I got a love for mass that I don’t think I would have if not for my mom and dad’s “instruction.”

The last thing was one of the big mistakes that my dad and sister made. At communion time once when I think I was about 5 I didn’t really understand what was going on. When my mom was with me she’d either stay with me until dad and Kathy (my sister) would come back from communion and then she’d go up when they returned (which is also why she always sat on the aisle) or she’d simply walk up with me. When she was unable to attend mass one Sunday, (she was hospitalized) my dad and sister simply asked me, “Michael, will you be OK to sit here by yourself? We’re going up to communion but we’ll be right back.” I nervously said “OK” but of course once they got out of my view, I cried. Loudly.

Never, ever leave a child alone at mass! For weeks I didn’t want to go back to church after that.

Far too often I have seen children who should know better playing with kneelers, laying down in pews, coloring, playing with toys or sitting in another room altogether and left to their own devices.

We’re not passing the faith along by doing any of this. And while it’s inconvenient and while it may not let us concentrate on the liturgy in the ways we might be most comfortable with, we still have a responsibility to the children.

So parents, what do you think? Am I being unreasonable?

15 thoughts on “Misbehaving Children at Mass”
  1. This is very interesting advice!

    First, I think I personally get more out of Mass when I have to not only listen, but digest the message and repeat it to my children. Just this very morning, I nearly made us late for school as I stood in my kitchen, arms outstretched, speaking about the transfiguration. My 6-year-old was completely glued to me, incredibly interested in the story. But she is a gem anyway and will sit one pew in front of me while I sing with the choir, behaving beautifully.

    My 3 year old cannot be left alone, not only because of his age and maturity, but just because he is a different type of child. He talks during Mass (usually asking questions, like “Where is Jesus?” when I explain he needs to kneel because Jesus is in the room or complaining loudly because he can’t see.

    That’s my only additional advice: Sit near the front so the little ones can see. They are much more likely to pay attention if they can see what is going on. Also, be brave: I bet your children really can make it through mass without food, drink, and toys. Once in a while it is ok for a particularly cranky child to be allowed to hold a (quiet) toy, but expect that they really can make it through without distractions.

    I wish my parents had helped me to learn more about the mass as a child. It wasn’t until I had my own children and needed to explain it to them that I fully understood the different parts of the mass. It has deepened my own understanding as well.

    Thanks for this food for thought!

  2. As a father of four, oldest 9, youngest 6 months, allow me to say:
    Once the kid is four or so, depending on the kid, yeah, there should be no need for “entertainment” or food during Mass, and if we provide it we aren’t teaching the child anything, and 4 year olds are certainly teachable.
    But if anyone expects a six year old to sit still and quiet during Mass every week, when the vast majority of what goes on is well beyond their ability to comprehend, then they need to better understand the mind of a six year old. Perhaps the only way to get a child that age to behave that way is to instill fear, and I don’t really want to make my kids afraid of going to Mass.
    I do have expectations for their behavior, and my wife and I are consistently told by many folks that sit behind us how they enjoy watching our family during Mass and how well behaved our kids are. But I can’t expect a six or seven year old to not be a distraction at some point.
    I remind myself all the time, when the kids disrupt me: I’m not going to Mass to get something out of it. That is sometimes a wonderful by-product, yes. But I go to Mass to offer praise, thanksgiving, and repentance to our Lord. Sometimes I do better than others. Sometimes that is the fault of my children and sometimes the fault is mine.

    1. DAK–

      Thanks for the advice here. Let me re-iterate, I’m not suggesting that a 6 year old has the ability to sit nice and quietly with their hands folded for an hour and to fully understand what is going on.

      What I am suggesting is that the PARENTS make an effort to engage the children and to call them to attention when they see their attention waning. That might take on several different forms depending on the kid. Some kids might need to be picked up and held and whispers given into their ears. One parent told me that he picks his daughter up when she’s getting antsy and whispers to her how much he loves her and then tells her that God loves all of us and then sidetracks into what’s going on at mass and how it expresses God’s love in language that his daughter can understand. Others use the missalettes and translate any hard words. Etc.

      I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility.

  3. Via Facebook

    From Maggie Stahl

    “Seriously? We expect a 6 year old to not only be still and silent for an hour, but we also expect them to understand what’s going on? There have been times when a child was left crying so long that I have been distracted, but I find a lot of joy seeing a kid quietly drawing or playing with their toys at Mass. They *are* still participating — they are present, they are with their families, and they are receiving all the graces I am. I have a hard enough time focusing on the homily and readings, myself! I’m not a parent, but yes — I think these assertions are unreasonable.”

  4. I didn’t say we expect the kid to sit still and be quiet for an hour. And I also don’t expect to have parents torture their kid and leave them crying to distract others. That’s exactly NOT my point.

    I was a crying kid when I was little and my mom would take me to the vestibule. But once I could read mom got me interested–and more importantly made sure I knew what was going on and how to follow along. I wasn’t left to not pay attention and play with toys.

  5. I like what my pastor says when little kids cry and scream at mass – he basically tells people to stay put and reminds us all that “that is what we sound like to God!”

    We also have a very well developed children’s liturgy of the word program serving well over a hundred kids per week at two masses and faith oriented kid-care for littler kids as well.

    Kids should be in the habit of going to church – I remember going fondly, not with bad memories. It was part of the fabric of our lives.

  6. Via Facebook:

    From: Susan Magan Karpovich

    I think school age is an appropriate age to expect children to behave in church. If a school age child can’t sit quietly (not motionless but “library voices”) for an hour how do they get through a school day and absorb anything? Our parish has Liturgy of the Word for K-6th graders and it is a wonderful addition to the mass. The kids hear the readings in language geared to them in the chapel. They are allowed a little more freedom of movement there and it’s more of a discussion so they can talk too! I think it’s a win-win for everyone. I do think there is a limit to how much time a child should be allowed to scream before it becomes distracting but berating parents and making them feel unwelcome is not the answer. I believe parishes could do themselves a favor by accommodating families better…a few rocking chairs for moms and little ones in the sanctuary, baskets of crayons with scripture themed coloring pages for toddlers, etc., but I really think by the time a child is old enough to attend school they should be taught proper church behavior.”

  7. My parents always encouraged me and my sister to go to Mass and made it sound exciting. Because they were daily church goers, it seemed like the natural thing to do and they would tell us stories about their daily mass experiences when they were little. So going to Mass with my parents sounded pretty exciting to us. My parents would open the hymnbook and point to the hymns and prayers that were being sung and recited so that we could follow even if we could not read. So my parents helped us to be engaged during Mass and this led to our “good behavior” during Mass. There was no need of coloring books or food or other stuff to keep us occupied.

  8. Fran–

    That’s so beautiful! I never thought of that as a good thing to say.

    Secondly, I heard a priest once say…”That’s music to my ears. Someone had a baby! There are too many babies that we never get to hear cry.”

  9. Susan–

    That was my point too. I read to the first grade at our parish school yesterday on read across america day and they were certainly attention-span challenged. But they weren’t horrible and their teacher was awesome at getting them to attend to matters. They all also were so good when asked to go back to their seats quietly. I credit the teacher for creating that kind of atmosphere.

  10. Oh and Susan–we have a rocking chair in the sacristy where many parishioners have to travel through to get into our church if they use the back entrance. I often see mothers and their children there.

  11. Mike, yeah sounds similar, except for the fact that me and my sister sat in the pew and sang the communion hymn while my parents went to receive Communion and I had to see that she sat in her seat then. My sister loved to hold the hymnbook in her hand and sing while pretending to be able to read. But when they got back, she was curious to see what the host looked like and my parents had to open their mouth so that she could see it and I termed it as her ‘misbehavior’ 🙂

  12. For any child who can read, I highly recommend Magnifikid. My eight year old loves this weekly missal and her little sister likes to look at the pictures. To keep my four year old occupied at Mass we bring along a Mass picture book, an old Magnifikid, and a one decade rosary. I have weeks where my four year old clearly doesn’t want to be there, but she’s very well behaved when compared to many of the other kids [close in age and older] in attendance at Mass. I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect any child who is school aged to behave for an entire Mass. Keeping the under 5 set calm is a bit trickier, but it can be done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *