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Best Practices for Keeping Kids at Mass

At the Cathedral of St. Paul, we do not have a “cry room” (or the space to add one), nor do we have a nursery program where children may be left during Mass. Instead, we invite all families to bring their children with them – all the kids, young and old. Children are always a sign of hope and health, and being in church from a young age helps them to learn how to act not only there but in other public settings.

Some parents worry about whether they have really attended Mass properly when they have their young children with them, given the amount of attention they often have to give them rather than to the sacred action. But the Lord understands this; he is pleased you are there with your children, even if they require so much of your focus. Let’s think of it this way: our obligation is first and foremost to be at Mass; beyond that basic requirement, some weeks we get more out of Mass or take more away from it than others. This is all very normal.

With this in mind, sometimes it is necessary to take your child to vestibule/narthex, or even to walk outside to other parts of the parish property. You are still “at Mass” – and of course, you will return inside when it is prudent to do so. These things go in phases and seasons, and often vary from child to child, also. Again – this is all very normal.

With these initial reassurances in mind, we have polled various experienced families for general advice on “keeping kids at Mass” and are pleased to present the following “best practices” for your consideration – understanding that your mileage may vary, as they say: not all these ideas will work for every family or for each child. Hopefully, in any case, they will give you some helpful tools so that you can get more out of Mass in spite of the distractions caused by your children, to help you ensure that others are not as distracted by your children, and so that your children can learn how to behave properly in a public and sacred place.

The following guidance is not meant to exclude single-parent situations; much of the advice, in fact, can be adapted by single parents for their circumstances. Please do not hesitate to let us know if you have any particular concerns!

Thank you for being at St. Paul’s with your children!

The window of Jesus and the Children, located in the Cathedral’s sanctuary.

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BEST PRACTICES COLLECTED FROM EXPERIENCED PARENTS

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GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS: WHICH MASS TO ATTEND

  • Choose a Mass time that you know will work generally with sleep schedules and family needs, and that is realistic in relation to other activities like the need to eat breakfast, sleep late enough, and so forth.
  • Try to be consistent week-to-week with your Mass time, but have a back-up plan for days when things don’t go smoothly.
  • There is nothing wrong with “dividing and conquering” during certain phases of family growth: by this we mean, perhaps Dad takes some of the older children to the Saturday evening Mass while Mom stays home with the baby, then Mom goes to one of the Sunday morning Masses with the baby while Dad feeds and clothes the other children at home. Then the whole family gathers together for Sunday Dinner. Ideally, the whole family would go to Mass together; but sometimes it is better to take the “divide and conquer” approach for a time.
    • Some parents further decide that it is better for a certain child to stay home for a time (usually within the above “divide and conquer” approach). This may well be advisable or necessary, given the child or the parent’s temperament and the other particular factors at play!
    • Just keep in mind the question of the example you set: it is not usually a sin for a younger child to miss Mass – particularly one who has not yet reached the age of reason; however, as they do get older, not taking them to Mass may give them a bad example. It is best that they be back in church on a consistent basis at least by age five – that is, around the age when many children begin their parish school of religion/religious ed classes.
    • A trusted priest will gladly guide you through any particular cases or concerns you might have in this regard.

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS: OTHER REMOTE PREPARATIONS

  • Sitting still and behaving well at Holy Mass is often of a piece with how children behave at home and in other public places. We can ask the question: How do our family practices, in general, reinforce good behavior across the board?
  • In particular, certain family practices, like the daily Family Rosary, can help young children to begin to learn how to be still and prayerful for more extended periods of time. Children can often become quite good at prayer, and over time they learn even to look forward to the times of family closeness and quiet amidst their increasingly-busy lives.
    • There are many fine internet resources now for prayer as a family – particularly the Family Rosary. Try some searches online if you desire more resources in this regard. In addition, it is always good to connect with other families and learn from their experiences.

PREPARATION FOR MASS: AT HOME AND IN THE CAR ON THE WAY THERE

  • While some adults may be in the habit of skipping breakfast or waiting till after Mass to eat, children should almost certainly be fed before they go to a morning Mass. Parents might consider avoiding breakfasts that are higher in sugar (such as most commercial cereals, things like waffles/pancakes, cinnamon rolls, etc.), since these tend to result in a “crash and burn effect” for the children when in church; instead, focus on breakfasts that have good protein content so that the children’s energy levels stay more consistent in church (e.g., sausage/eggs with biscuits, etc.).
  • Older children should be involved in helping get everyone ready. Most children who have reached the use of reason can be expected not only to dress themselves on a schedule but also help with smaller tasks in getting everyone ready to go, and the bigger children can also help with dressing/preparing the younger ones, loading the car, etc. The goal should be to get everyone to church at least five minutes early so that all can kneel and say some prayers before Mass begins – this is often hard to accomplish, but where there is a will there is a way! Aim high!
  • The way that the car ride goes is very important. Any in-car entertainment systems (headrest televisions or what-not) should not be on during the ride to church; neither should the children have tablets, phones, or other “screens” to distract them. Instead, it would be good to listen to some peaceful or sacred music or to have silence, so that all can prepare themselves.
    • Older children should be instructed to think about what they intend to pray for in the Mass they are about to attend: which family members, friends, teachers, and other people/things they want to pray for, as well as who they want to offer their communion for that day, what they want to thank God for, and how they want to ask Jesus for help with their struggles and fears.
    • With younger children, there should be talk about expectations: they will behave, church is sacred, we will be quiet, we will focus on Jesus, we will find the crucifix, we will look for the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, we will listen to what the priest says, we will pray for grandma and grandpa et al., we will listen to the beautiful music, we will look at the beautiful stained glass, and so forth. Children respond to beauty with a sense of wonder and awe!
    • The expectations that are named (for children young and old) should also include warnings about consequences for bad behavior, particularly when negative patterns may have started to emerge. Parents also do well to discuss these things between themselves beforehand, so that they can be a united front in how they handle discipline with their children both in church and in other social/public situations.
  • All children who are potty-trained should be required to go to the restroom before they leave the house, even if they protest they do not need to. Parents also need to think about how soon before they leave are the children eating and drinking: maybe it is better to eat breakfast before getting the kids dressed, so that by the time they are dressed they are more likely to be ready to use the bathroom. They should be warned that using the restroom is probably not going to be an option in church.
    • In this area, many older Catholics remember when their parish church did not even have a public restroom (this used to be the case also at the Cathedral!). They had to go before they left home – or else they had to “hold it”!

AT HOLY MASS

  • There is nothing wrong with breastfeeding in church, as long as it is done with basic modesty. However, we do have benches in the entrance area for those who prefer to have a bit more solitude. Please be careful about diaper bags and do not leave your items unattended!
  • The church bathrooms have flip-down changing tables, if baby’s diaper needs attention during Mass. If parents have non-infant children go to the bathroom before leaving the house, then the two bathrooms in the church entrance are more available for those with infants who need to do things like change diapers!
  • Conventional wisdom might suggest that it is good to bring coloring books, other books, toys, and even snacks to church. Many experienced parents, however, believe some of these practices are detrimental and only delay learning good behavior. Some do admit their occasional use – particularly of books with a religious theme (see the bottom of this page for some recommendations). With that in mind:
    • Be reminded, again, that it is OK if you are distracted by your children during Mass. It is important for you all to be there and the Lord will reward you for bringing them, even if you don’t remember the homily and feel like you didn’t get to pray like you wanted. “This too shall pass” – it is a season in life.
    • Since it is OK for you to focus on your children and on training them properly, instead of placating them with distractions (screens, books, keys, toys, food, etc.), try to gently whisper to them about the many beautiful things in church: the stained glass, the crucifix, what the priest is doing, that Jesus is there in the Eucharist, the sanctuary candle (the red lamp near the tabernacle), the Holy Spirit window high up above the altar in the ceiling, the pipe organ, the stations of the cross, etc.
    • Some infants or toddlers, during a certain age range, get very angry when they cannot receive Holy Communion like Mom or Dad just did. During this phase, it may be best that Dad holds the baby while walking behind Mom; then, after Mom has received, he hands baby off to her while she walks away, then Dad steps forward to receive. The priest or deacon will be happy to watch the hand-off occur.
  • Many parents agree that during certain phases of infancy or toddlerhood when children might be more vocal or fussy, the best thing is to take the child out from the homily on, either to stand in the narthex/entry area or even, when needed, to walk around on the rectory lawn a bit. Some children go through very vocal periods and end up distracting both the congregation and the priest unduly. When that happens, remember: “this too shall pass” – but it might be necessary to step out!
    • Often, a sense of “community” and solidarity develops between parents who have regularly had to spend time with their children in the entrance of the church and/or outside. As the children’s behavior improves, it can be hard to leave this particular moment of community behind! Again, there are different seasons and phases of life, with many memories (and friendships) along the way.
  • Some children will want to get up regularly during Mass “to go to the bathroom”. The constant back-and-forth is distracting to other parishioners and reinforces bad behavior in the child. Mass is not that long: children should generally be expected and expect to stay with Mom, Dad, or older brother/sister for much of the entire time.
    • Many parents recommend holding infants and toddlers until they are able to sit mostly still. The baby/toddler may resist this, but you can continually remind them that once they learn to sit still, they will not be held anymore. Children who are allowed to “roam free” will often do just that – and end up distracting many others in the process.
  • That said, if a true bathroom need arises, we always counsel accompanying your child to the restroom, for child protection/safety purposes.
  • Where you sit in church matters: a certain conventional wisdom says that if you have young children you should sit in one of the front pews – maybe that wisdom should be questioned! For if you are having to get up with your children throughout Mass, you may distract many others as you go all the way down the aisle and back many times. If that is your reality at present, it would be better to sit in the back or otherwise near a door.
  • Meanwhile, if your children have learned to sit still, then it might be better to sit toward the front so that they can focus even better on what is happening – leave the space in the back and near entrances for those who truly need it!
    • Consideration should also be given to the people who routinely sit around you. If the nice person in the pew behind you is always wanting to entertain your infant (by talking to him/her or making funny faces, smiles, etc.), it’s obvious that the child is a distraction for them and that they might be a distraction for the child; everyone means well, but it’s not an ideal path to good learned behavior! Better to move to a different area if you find that sort of dynamic starting to unfold.
  • Many older Catholics speak about the pinch of the ear or squeeze on the arm they received from Dad or Mom if they started to misbehave in church or in other public places. Parents should develop these tactics as needed and the tactics should be tied to other consequences (see more below, also): if I had to squeeze your arm in church today, then we are going to have a talk about it after, also.
  • Countless parents have stories of feeling unwelcome or judged by others at Mass when their child was misbehaving or otherwise going through a difficult phase. It is hard to control what others do, but let these indications be an assurance that we want you and your child there, and that the Lord is pleased with your efforts to raise them right and your perseverance through the more challenging stages! Children and families are welcome at the Cathedral!

AFTER HOLY MASS: THE RIDE HOME, REWARDS, OTHER CONSEQUENCES

  • It is appropriate to reward good behavior. It is also appropriate to have a talk in which the child (who might be going through a difficult behavior stage) is asked to say how s/he did and the parent can respond with constructive feedback.
    • Rewards might include things like stopping for donuts after, having a special sweet at home that they do not get to eat the rest of the week, or other things that are “worth looking forward to”.
    • Most children naturally want to please and will work for rewards. At the same time, parents may have to re-evaluate their reward system if one child or another is consistently failing to meet expectations. Reward systems should be constructive.
  • It is also appropriate to punish bad behavior. Usually, the consequences of bad behavior should be known in advance. When Mom or Dad then follows-through, the child learns that the matter is to be taken seriously and will hopefully work to adjust going forward. Again – most children want to please!
    • Some parents fear that punishing bad behavior in conjunction with church might result in the child growing up to have a repugnance of church. That is a misplaced concern. Ask any of the older Catholics who are seated around you if they were spanked or pinched or had privileges taken away when they acted up in church, and they will all tell you “yes”! If you discipline your children constructively and with firmness, consistency, and love, they will learn well.
  • Just as the car ride to church may have included discussions about expectations, so the car ride home might include discussions about doing better next week or otherwise to praise good behavior.
  • Beyond speaking about behavior, it is good to recall some points from Mass, from what you were able to focus on in the midst of wrangling children: some point from the homily, some moment of prayer you experienced, something from the music, some image that you noticed, some person or family you saw, what color was Father wearing and why, what were we thankful for today, what did we pray about for the coming week, etc.

BEYOND SUNDAY MASS: VISITING THE CHURCH AT OTHER TIMES

  • One way to “normalize” the experience of church is to visit it more often. The more familiar your child is with it, the more s/he will be conditioned to act properly when there.
  • Parents who are able, then, should consider making a special Visit to the Blessed Sacrament during the week with their children. Much of the above wisdom can be applied to that also (including talking in the car on the way there about expectations, prayer intentions, and so forth). The Cathedral is open for private prayer throughout each week.
  • Another possibility is of trying to make it to occasional daily Masses. This could even become a special treat with just one parent at certain times. However you strategize it, it will ultimately reinforce the “specialness” of church.
  • The Cathedral is also happy to organize tours for individuals, families, school groups, or other groups. Such tours focus not only on our church’s history but also on our works of art and the many other details of our beautiful sacred space. Contact the office to arrange a tour!

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OTHER RESOURCES

  • The books by Maïte Roche come very highly recommended for younger children.
  • Starting this Fall, the Cathedral will have its own gift shoppe. If you are interested in books and other devotional resources for children, talk to the bookstore representatives so that they can order what you need and desire!
  • Many families have found that their children aged 6-12 benefit from the Magnifikid! monthly publication.
  • Multiple parents have recommended the parenting books by Dr. Ray Guarendi, a well-known Catholic author, speaker, and psychologist. In particular, look for his book, Discipline that Lasts a Lifetime.
  • The Cathedral is blessed to have many families of different types – young, old, large, small, homeschooling, private schooling, public schooling, etc. Sometimes, one of the best ways to feel more comfortable at church and help kids to connect and focus is by getting to know the other families there. Then, the children look forward to seeing their friends, parents look forward to catching up after Mass, and other social opportunities develop. If you are new to the Cathedral, talk either to Father Jerabek or to Krista or Barbara in the office, and we will gladly help you start to connect with others!

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The above is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to parenting, nor is it meant to foresee every situation that arises. Raising children is a great adventure with many twists and turns. Hopefully, these “best practices” will inspire and help. If you have any additional best practices to submit for consideration, please email them to Father Jerabek, Rector.

Thank you for coming to the Cathedral of St. Paul with your children!