“Let the little children come to me”
“Have you ever been to Mass with a restless toddler or unsettled baby? I have. Plenty of times. As a daily Mass-goer and mother of five, I’ve lost count of the number of times. While I took reasonable steps to contain their boisterous behaviour, I wanted my children to feel at home in the church, that they belonged there and were welcome.
So I didn’t restrain them unnecessarily, but tried to redirect their energy and curiosity towards the various artworks and actions of the Mass. When one toddler was delighting in new found language, I taught him to say ‘Alleluia’ so that it wouldn’t offend when he hollered it out at Mass. Never mind that it was in the middle of the consecration – he was praying!
“To settle my little girl after communion, I used to pull her onto my lap and we would whisper prayers to Jesus together. I still remember her asking at the age of three, ‘where’s Jesus?’ ‘In that little gold box up there’, I explained, pointing to the tabernacle. ‘Mum’, she replied, ‘we’ve got to get him out of there!’ How true and how wise! In her innocence she reminded me that Jesus belongs in the world, not just in the tabernacle. She was getting it far better than I was!
“One day, an elderly parishioner chastised me for the disruption caused by my toddler. I confess – I lost it. I ripped into her, informing her that my child had every right to be there. The poor woman! Truthfully, I don’t even remember what she said – I was so angry, I lost all sense of restraint.
The next Mass when my little boy did his usual fidgeting, I crossly corrected him, eventually giving him a slap and making him cry. Everything I knew about how Jesus wanted my child to come to know him was surrendered in response to this cranky parishioner. The cumulative impact of critical glares and passive non-welcome from fellow Mass-goers had me on edge and a raging internal conflict ensued. I needed that Mass. I was taking my responsibility to raise my children in faith seriously, imparting a deep, pre-verbal attachment to Jesus. And yet I sensed indifference, even resistance, from the community. Obstinately, I refused to let their negativity dissuade me!
“My children are mostly grown now. As they matured, they learnt how to be reverent and respectful of other’s needs in church. They were no slower than other kids – it’s just that mostly we don’t see those other kids in Church. How sad – for us and for them. Now, when a baby or toddler graces us with his or her noisy presence, I always thank the parents. If they look harried by a boisterous toddler, I talk quietly to the child about Jesus. Sometimes I show him or her something like a statue or stained glass window so that their parent can pray quietly for a moment. I want the parents and the child to know that their presence is valued.
I know that it is difficult for some of our elderly parishioners. They can feel frustrated and anxious by a restless child, even fearful of being knocked over or bumped. However, as the people of God, we must never let these fears interfere with our mission to welcome families with little children.” – Francine Pirola
What you say:
We had a good response to our survey, with just under sixty of you taking the time to respond. We collected some demographic information since it is important to know who was responding.
We have observed that this is not a broad or representative sample of families turning up to Mass on any given week. Rather, this is a sample of committed Mass-goers and Catholics who take their faith and their commitment to Mass seriously. None-the-less, their insights were very telling. Even these committed Mass-goers and faithful Catholics struggle.
The most common reasons that parents find it hard to bring kids to Mass are: 29% of kids don’t want to go and 33% of kids are disruptive
What was even more heartbreaking was the number who shared their negative experiences. Most negative experiences fell into one of two categories.
- The first was negative behaviour from other parishioners and parish priests. Glares, tutting, angry shushing and even parishioners refusing the sign of peace to families who were struggling with their child’s behaviour were a common experience.
“I experienced] mostly dirty looks when my child forgot their halo at home.” – M.C.
“At a previous Parish, a couple of people would give the kids the ‘evil eye’ when they became a bit disruptive and one man even refused to offer the sign of peace to myself and the kids. – C.K.”
“A close friend attended Mass with her young brood while hubby served at Mass. The baby made a bit of noise and people in the pew in front turned around, glared at her and told her to go to the crying room. The husband never served again, the mother felt shattered and her husband now does not go to Mass.” – Dorita
- The second major negative experience of parents was their children’s disruptive behaviour. As two of our respondents put it:
“They totally drive me crazy! The other parishioners are supportive but sometimes I leave mass more stressed than I arrive. While I can enjoy the peace without them it is hard with them. I totally understand though; they are country kids and are active and loud in their everyday activities so asking them to be quiet for an hour when they don’t understand the words, there is little or no music that appeals to them and the images around the room are not engaging to young children.” – Anon
“One Sunday mass a family with 3-4 kids who weren’t regulars sat in the row behind us. There was complete chaos, kids throwing bottles at parishioners (me!), so much noise it wasn’t funny. Our priest had to pause during the Eucharistic prayer as he couldn’t concentrate. The parents were embarrassed but I get where the priest was coming from. They really did need to retreat outside or into the crying (chaos) room for a bit as it got too much for everyone.” – Louise
If committed Catholics struggle, what hope is there for those equally harried and stressed parents teetering on the margins? Why bother going to the effort anyway?
“When the kids get something out of it – eg. They come and say “when I get bigger I get to eat Jesus” – Anon
“I love when they sing; it makes me get teary.” – Sarann
“We often are approached by fellow parishioners that we don’t know very well who tell us how much it means to them to see young children at Mass and how they have enjoyed watching our girls grow up. Having children has made us more ‘visible’ than we were as a couple, and we feel a bit more embraced by the parish. Becoming involved in the Children’s Liturgy program and participating in family groups has also involved us more in the parish. With busy working lives it is also one of the only regular weekly activities that we can share as a whole family. It is precious time.” – Shane
Whilst it’s not surprising that many parents choose to skip Mass when the children are young, it is not necessarily the most productive strategy.
Children need to acclimatise to the Mass from a young age, a bit like reading. Ideally we should be reading to our children well before they are capable of reading themselves. It’s because we want them to develop a deep love for books and a hunger to participate and to learn to read themselves.
The most potent age to form attachment bonds is in early childhood. By providing your child with positive and regular exposure to Jesus through the Mass, you facilitate the formation of a deeply rooted attachment bond to the God who loves them. Just like reading to your children instills a love of books and learning.
There is also a practical element to this. If you are an irregular Mass goer, every time you do go to Mass becomes a negotiation and a battle. “Why do we have to go now? Why doesn’t my mate Jack have to go? We didn’t go last week? Why can’t we skip it this week?”
However, even if you didn’t read to your toddlers or take them to Mass from a young age, it’s never too late to start! To help you on your way, we’ve put together a Mass Survival Guide inspired by the experiences of Mass-going parents who have been there.