How to handle taking children to Holy Mass is often a challenge for parents to navigate, as well as a polarizing topic amongst Catholics.
Obligatory disclaimer: I am not writing this judging other parents and how they handle their children at Mass, or trying to say this is the best way to handle taking children to church. (I don’t have time in dealing with my kids at Mass to pay attention to what other parents do!) I am legitimately asked by readers how we handle children at Mass with growing frequency, and wanted to write it all out once here. We are relatively inexperienced parents, with children ages 5, 3, and newborn. I don’t have experience parenting little boys at church, or a much larger family, nor do I have experience parenting your children. The following is how we approach taking our children to Mass thus far and why.
There seem to be two prevailing schools of thought – the first cites “Let the little children come unto Me” from Holy Scripture as their ironclad argument that kids and all of their noise should be welcomed by all other parishoners at all times.
The second camp tends towards the exact opposite, arguing that Mass is a place for complete and absolute perfect uninterrupted prayer and silence, and that children should be removed and sternly punished for absolutely any disruptions during the most solemn and important event.
Ethan and I fall in the middle of these two frequently seen “camps”. On the one hand, we don’t believe that Matthew 19:14 means that children should be given carte blanche to make all of the noise they want and everyone around them needs to just offer it up, no matter the chaos that ensues. You could also take that verse and say children should be free to roam about and play on the altar, or even handle the Blessed Sacrament – after all, Jesus said to let them come unto Him, right?
On the flip side, we don’t believe that children must be perfectly behaved or to be punished with a swift removal from the church and given a nasty talking to over the tiniest bit of noise, turning Mass into something they dread and associate with only bad memories of being scolded incessantly for being unable to behave perfectly when it simply is not developmentally possible for them.
We believe that Jesus delights in these innocent little ones and try to hold age appropriate expectations for them. We also hold in mind charity for our neighbors in the pews around us, along with recognition of the awe-inspiring reality that we are assisting at Calvary. The level of noise, talking, giggling, etc. that would be appropriate from little ones sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to Him tell stories, the scene of the “let the little children” quote, is not, in our opinion, equally appropriate during the unbloody continuation of His sacrifice of Himself through His death on the Cross being offered to God. This means we need to give them breaks from the church so they can make the noise they need to at times, as well.
I tend to care for our babies during Mass. I wear them in a baby carrier and usually they nurse in the carrier and/or sleep through Mass. If they start to cry and fuss I wait a few seconds to see if I can’t get them to settle down by changing a position, latching them on to nurse etc. If they don’t stop crying within that short amount of time, I take them out and see that they are resettled before returning to the pew.
In my experience thus far, new babies are incredibly easy during Mass – it is when children become mobile that the confines of the pew tend to lend towards making Mass more challenging for us as parents.
As our babies grow in to toddlers we keep in mind that it isn’t developmentally realistic for them to be totally quiet and still, so we try to meet them where they are by letting them move around in the pew as long as they aren’t being loud. They often sit on the kneeler some, then on the pew itself, then want us to hold them etc. We have some little kids prayer books they can look at, and my very nurturing little girls have often taken a little stuffed animal lovey or soft doll to “mother” during Mass as they see me caring for our real babies. We don’t have any other toys in the pew, and never any snacks or drinks.
We will try to engage the girls by pointing out beautiful statues and stained glass windows when they start to get loud, or whisper to them about what Father is doing – “See Father incense the altar?”
As for noise with toddlers, if they get loud and are not able to settle down, we take them out to the back out of respect for the wondrous mystery we are present at, as well for our neighbors who are trying to unite themselves with the Holy Sacrifice. When we go to the back because they need a break from being in the church, we are happy to take them, but they can’t get down and run around.
They either need to be held in our arms or stay in a carrier. This prevents them from making a game of being noisy on purpose in order to get out of the pew in order to go to the back and run around and play through Mass.
When we have to take little toddlers out of Mass, it can be frustrating, but we try to be gracious and kind to them. This isn’t a punishment, and they’re just doing what is developmentally normal for their brains at that age. Like I said in the beginning, we don’t want to fill them with a dread of Mass and childhood of bad memories being scolded and us crabbily taking them out because of them doing what toddlers do.
I find the from about 12 months to 24 months old, our girls have really benefitted from a break from the pew during the homily. Ethan or I will preemptively take them to the vestibule and stand and sway with them. Giving them the change of scenery and ability to make a bit more noise for a while mid-Mass often helps them come back to the pew refreshed for the second half.
Philomena has been able to handle going to Mass and being pretty well behaved since she turned four, and Zelie since she was about three. Sometimes Zelie still needs to be taken out to the back for a break, but those times are becoming pretty uncommon now.
Our girls do best separated from each other with us between them so they can’t bicker or start playing and giggling together. They also do best sitting as close to the front of the church as possible so they can see everything going on easier.
Sometimes our girls will have an issue still – getting upset about a book the other has, wanting to sit closer to the baby etc. These are totally developmentally normal behaviors for little kids, and as long as they aren’t prolonged and becoming disruptive to others, we manage from the pew and don’t take them out.
Respecting Needs of Seasons
Sometimes we go through a season where the developmental capacity of our girls has required more sacrifices from us as parents than others.
One of my New Years resolutions this year was to go to daily Mass with the girls at least once a week. Philomena was fine with this, however Zelie, then 2.5, was not able to handle it. During these quiet Low Masses she was finding it funny to make this loud high pitched screeching sound over and over. I was having to take her out and she was finding my frustration funny. Going was a complete embarrassing nightmare, so we had to take a daily Mass break for a few weeks – then COVID closures kept us from Mass in person for a few months.
When our local Masses resumed, Zelie was approaching 3 years old and she had made a developmental leap to where she was able to handle sitting in Mass without leaving almost all of the time. In fact, the girls now go to Mass three times a week on average – a Low Mass with me on Friday evenings, a High Mass with Ethan on Saturday mornings, and then High Mass again on Sunday mornings as a family, and its very rare that we have an issue requiring leaving the church anymore.
Sometimes we have had times where a girl has gotten into a behavior “rut” at Mass, constantly trying to do something like kicking the pew in front of them or making that screeching sound Zelie was last winter. When it’s becoming a constant source of frustration for her and us, we will just take a break for a couple weeks and have that girl stay home while Ethan and I alternate different Masses on Sunday mornings.
Not taking a child to Mass will often result in comments of disgust or shock from Catholic parents, but historically, little children didn’t go to Mass until they were older. We can read in memoirs of the Martin family how St. Therese of Lisieux would ask her sister Celine what the sermon had been about that day, as she was still not attending Mass yet.
Saints Louis and Zelie raised a beautiful family of holy daughters who all became nuns, and one the great Little Flower… and they didn’t take their little children to Mass – it simply was not the custom through much of Church history. While the custom now is to take children to Mass, one is not bound to observe the second commandment’s call to go to Mass until they reach the age of reason, so it is not a sin for parents to keep children home if they need to for a period.
We have found that alternating Masses on Sunday for a few weeks when we have been really struggling will often result in Ethan and I being much more refreshed spiritually, and that the girl who was having a hard time will have long forgotten whatever constant boundary-testing behavior she had been engaging in, and be excited to return.
Making Church Familiar
One thing that I do think has helped our girls to feel comfortable at Mass, and respectful of the need to quieter there is making church familiar to them. We try to frequently make little stops to the Blessed Sacrament. When we are taking a day trip or long vacation anywhere, we always seek out a pretty church if there is one for a visit.
It is easier for very young children to be quiet for five minutes inside a church just walking with us to look at pretty windows or statues. It lets them build up small victories of going and seeing Jesus without having to go out from being really disruptive. This builds their self confidence as they get to practice being quiet without a bunch of people around and Mass going on. I think this really helps them learn that we behave differently when we have the privilege of being in the Presence of God.
We also let the girls look at Mass on the computer if they’d like to, and they really enjoy watching pretty High Masses and playing along, wearing their veils and taking care of their baby dollies as they pretend to be there.
I believe that beautiful, solemn liturgies with gregorian chant really helps the girls as well. There is something so awe-inspiring about it, clearly other-worldly, that draws you in to it as something special and set apart from the world, that calls for us to be set apart at it.
Our girls aren’t perfectly behaved, but we have come to a place where going to Mass is pretty low stress for all of us… just in time for Baby Felicity’s arrival which will bring a whole other round of stress and work while she grows. In the midst of those challenging times with her at Mass, I will try to remember this is just a season, and she will learn like her sisters before her… eventually.