No Magical Formula - Ideas for Mass Survival with Young Kids

Monday, September 23, 2013

I'll tell you right now what this post is NOT:

It's NOT a post reminding you about how it's okay for kids to make noise during Mass - others have said it much better than I can!

Nor is this a post about cry rooms, pro or anti.

Nor is this a post with a magical formula to help you get your kids to behave during Mass.  Believe me, I've read way too many posts with "The Answer" and nothing has worked for us.

"Sit in the front" they say.  Ah yes, and then leave the 2-year-old and 4-year-old up there alone while we each take a yelling twin to the back?  And at a church in the round, what's more conspicuous than the front?

"Keep children on your lap until they're at least 3" they say.  Yes, but what if we only have two laps and 3 children under the age of 3?

Here's the thing:  I have no answers.  BUT I have some tips that sometimes work for us, and if they work for us sometimes, maybe they'll work for you sometimes?

They might be no-brainers, but maybe you'll learn something new!  So share this with your friends with young kids, and share your strategies with me!

Where to sit?

The front might work for you.  The back might be better.  The middle might be best - try different things out and see what works.  But regardless of where you sit, try these tips:

Get to Mass early!

It's hard.  I get it!  And sometimes it's impossible.  But if you can get to Mass just 5 minutes early, you can usually stake out a pew without too many other people around.  THEN you're giving fair warning to anyone approaching:  Danger, small children in this pew!

If they choose to sit near you at that point, it's their own fault.  They were warned, after all!  And often you'll get the other young families, or sympathetic old people.  So if they glare at you, just assume that it's just a curious look, and they don't realize that their "at rest" face tends to look rather judgmental...  Don't worry, there's a surgery for that now!

Sometimes they can't help it!

Look at your seating arrangement!  Are you separating your bickering children or letting them sit next to each other to fight?  Older children need to stay put - there should be no seat shuffling unless there are extreme circumstances.  In the event that John Paul and Cecilia end up next to each other, it's only a matter of time before they start fighting over who gets what book or crayon or wipe or whatever they choose to fight over.

If you have a roamer who's afraid of strangers, sit on one end of an already occupied pew - if you block your roamer (Cecilia, in our case) from the aisle, there's no way she'll venture toward stranger territory at the other end of the pew!

Accept help from strangers!  There's a nice old lady sitting behind you who has been flirting with your babies all Mass long.  Suddenly it happens - your 2-year-old skirts past your defenses into the aisle and starts walking towards the front, taking her dress off in the process (yes, this happened to us).  That old woman is itching to hold a baby, and if she offers, accept immediately!!!  Maybe you'll make a friend who's willing to help with your kids every Mass! 

(Incidentally, if you know any old ladies or the like who want to help with our kids, we live in Northern Virginia - please send them my information!!!)

What to Bring?

Amazon links are affiliate links - thank you so much for your support!

Bring supplies!

But be smart - please don't bring a bunch of hard plastic train cars that will be dropped with a loud clatter over and over!  A soft Noah's Ark toy works really well for young babies, or soft rubber teething toys.  Anything that, when dropped, WON'T roll to the front of the church!


Oh, and my contribution to What We're Reading Wednesday this week!

I try to keep our Mass book separate from the usual home selection so that they remain a novelty for as long as possible.  I love this series:

Lift-the-Flap Bible - Bible Adventures & Lift-the-Flap Nativity are also awesome!  The flaps are super-sturdy, and there are so many that they keep young ones entertained for quite a while.


Print some mass-themed activity pages!  John Paul (age 4) LOVES these.  If you can, bring triangular crayons so they don't roll away if (when) they're dropped.  John Paul loves his MagnifiKid, too.

We've had good luck with bible-themed activity books at the Dollar Tree.  And it looks like you can find them on Amazon as well - I might try this one for John Paul. 

When we know Mass will be particularly long (Christmas & Easter especially), I try to get something extra-exciting like a sticker book.  John Paul was PERFECT on Easter because of the resurrection sticker book he got in his basket!

I'm adding these to my wish list, that's for sure:



Just no.

Unless your child has serious health issues that make it necessary to go no longer than 60 minutes without eating, PLEASE don't let your children eat in the pew.


They ALWAYS drop something (and then my kids find old stale cheerios on the floor and eat them, or find a fruit snacks wrapper in the hymnal holder and wonder why THEY didn't get fruit snacks?).  And if they're old enough not to drop something, they're old enough not to need to eat.  I cram them full of food before Mass.  Nursing babies can nurse until they're old enough to make it through Mass without (which depends on the baby).  Sippy cups with rubber bottoms *can* be okay, depending on the baby. 

What to do:

Discuss proper Mass behavior frequently.  Discuss consequences for inappropriate behavior frequently.  FOLLOW THROUGH with your consequences (our kids must apologize to Father for bad behavior after Mass, forgo any treat, and are sent to their rooms upon our return home if they're really bad). 

Bribe if you need to, and if it works for your children.  Money to put in the poor box, a doughnut after Mass, getting to go say a special prayer at the altar rail...

Auntie Leila recommends engaging children in quiet time each day in which they are required to sit in one place in order to prepare for situations such as Mass.

Wear a baby, or be ready to - if you need to take a toddler out and can't leave your husband with two infants and the other toddler, it's very helpful to be able to slip a baby into a stretchy wrap or buckle the baby onto your back in an Ergo so your hands are free if said toddler needs to be dragged/carried out...

If you need to wear two babies, you can try that too!

Don't get too wrapped up in regressions - sometimes John Paul is terrific for weeks at a time and then has a truly terrible Mass, at which point I often start despairing that it's just so hard to take our children to Mass and we must be convincing all the young couples not to have children because they're all terrible.  The same thing that worked last week may not work this week - such is the rule of children.  Roll with it and hope for better behavior next week!

Dress up.

It gets the kids in the mindset that Mass is something special.  It makes your family look like you actually put effort into your appearance, and therefore any misbehavior isn't your fault, since clearly you at least have enough control over your children to get them dressed properly.  And it will make you feel better about things, because who doesn't feel good when they look nice?

If we can get four children under the age of 4 dressed and ready for Mass in time to leave by 8:15, you can too!
And if it gets really bad, don't feel terrible about tag teaming.  We sometimes have Masses that I leave feeling completely defeated, as though nobody has ever had a more difficult group of children to deal with, and having a Mass with *just* the older two children reminds me that we just need to get through this stage (and perhaps the next) and then we'll be able to go to Mass as a family without feeling as though we distracted everybody horribly, including the priest.

What do YOU do?

What are your best tips for getting through Mass with multiple young children?  Specific products that help?  Strategies that are no-fail for you?  PLEASE share!  If you've found the magic formula, I'd love to hear it!


  1. Oh, how I wish there were an Amazon link for the magic formula.
    We like our Betty Lukens felt book a lot - it's quiet and functions a lot like a sticker book, but it's reusable. I'm going to have to get another one now that our twins are old enough to want to play with it, too.

    I reviewed our book here- it's a keeper:

    1. Ooooh I'll have to try that out - do the pieces last through constant sucking from babies? Because I have a feeling the babies would probably try to steal all the pieces and eat them...

  2. Great post. No tips to add here, dealing with one is relatively easy! ;) Thanks for sharing!

  3. great post with helpful tips! we're gearing up to having two under 3 in the next while, so I'm thinking some sticker books will be a good investment.
    We attend the 5pm Mass and are blessed to have a church with a big grassy yard and screen doors. If (haha, if - more like when) Molly needs to be taken out during the homily or prayers, whichever of us (or Gramma!) takes her out doesn't have to miss anything!
    *On the "blessed to have a church" note, I just discovered that our church added a "family" restroom complete with changing table. Praise God!!

    1. Oh how nice! We can barely hear anything when we take the kids our at our church, unfortunately :( Whoever built it really didn't have children in mind!

  4. My kids are stranger adverse so we purposely sit next to strangers and that usually makes them shy enough to behave a bit better.

    And, I actually encourage my babies/toddlers to nurse in church, ,because it's a guaranteed 10 minutes of quiet and i'll take what I can get. LOL Sometimes I purposely don't nurse before church, because I want my baby to want to nurse when we get there, and again..I'll take the guaranteed quiet. I don't do solid food or anything, because of the mess factor, but I do nursing.

    1. With number 1, I totally avoided nursing in church, and probably judged people who did. With number 2, I mentally held that I avoided nursing in church, but probably ended up doing so 50 percent of the time...because he just happened to need it then, ya know? But with number 3, I finally figured out how to get 10 minutes of quiet to myself (possibly 30 if he takes a nap!), AND guarantee that my husband would have to be the one to take the toddler out. Breastfeeding FTW!

    2. I encourage them to nurse until they reach the point where, covered or not, I'm at risk of exposing myself to the entire congregation! It *is* nice when they're younger though, because I use the same strategy as Beth... But I use that strategy at home too - one baby has a poopy diaper? I pick up the other and start nursing her and ask Andrew to change the poopy one :P

  5. Speaking as one who regularly alternates between having disruptive toddlers and going solo, I think it helps just to know that most of the time your kids aren't distracting anyone. OR if they do, it's just for a second and then they move on. I think the hardest part of having rowdy kids at Mass is the energy you waste on guilt when almost nobody was upset to begin with. I think most little ones have a superpower of directing the noise only at their parents so you're driven to distraction while everyone else thinks they're adorable.

    So I guess start by taking comfort in the fact that your kids are never as bad as you think they are. If you're not embarrassed and worried, it's easier to deal with the rest.

    1. It's true. Even when John Paul had that super-loud, super-high-pitched shriek for which he gave no warning, people very often just wrote it off to "what little kids do". I was holding him for one of those, and after Mass I apologized to the young woman who was right next to us. She was surprised and said that it was perfectly fine and she liked having a baby nearby. And, as you said, sometimes people just have a resting facial expression that looks like a glare.

    2. Sometimes they ARE as bad as we think they are - twice in the past few months I've had to take a screaming toddler out and Father has stopped the homily briefly to remind the congregation that we're HAPPY to have kids at church, even if they're screaming :P

      Always kind reminders, but it's pretty obvious that if even Father hears them during his homily, they're probably being a liiiittle distracting!

  6. I do miss those little infant days when they slept through the whole thing snuggled up on our shoulders. The first time our babies were really big enough to be awake at church we were running late and I made the mistake of grabbing a handful of their favorite toys without pausing to think about what the toys actually were. Turns out three rattles and a squeaky giraffe aren't great for the silent atmosphere (duh...). This may be better suited to Protestant churches where the sermon/homily makes up a bigger proportion of the total church time, but my parents encouraged us to take sermon notes like the adults around us once we could write at all. As a kid, it helps you pay attention to what the pastor/priest is saying and at least jot down one or two ideas or scripture references to take home for the week and think on.

    1. I wonder if I can get John Paul to do that when he's older... Right now I catch so little of the homily that I think it would actually be nice to have a kid taking notes!

    2. Good practice for later in life, too! I mean for John Paul, not for you. You probably know how to take notes already.

  7. Seriously, they need to get parents on the committees of those picking out church designs. The church in the round, it is not welcoming or whatever, it honestly scares me away for exactly the reasons you state. Give me our tiny old-fashioned, NON-SLANTED floor, high backed pews church ANY day. It makes all the difference in the world.

    That said, we don't have a ton of issues at Mass. (WE ALSO DON'T HAVE TWINS!!) We do have bad days but we pretty much have always done exactly what Melody says here:
    She says it perfectly and we've had the same outcome. I especially love her point about busyness outside the home.

    1. I know, I would LOVE more traditional architecture... And the side lobbies and narthex all have heavy wooden doors, so we can't hear OR see anything when we have to take the kids out...

      I think we just need to get through this phase and hopefully we'll be able to deal with anything! But the twins really do throw a new obstacle at you :P

  8. We are lucky that there are so many young kids at our parish that we don't ever get any dirty looks. We are surrounded by little ones.

    Otherwise a lot of your tips hold true for us. Our two biggest can't sit by each other or they bicker. The three year old needs to be kept away from the aisle to keep her from running. We used to do food at mass and now we don't, it got to be too much trouble. Once in awhile for daily mass for the three year old if I can't get breakfast in her before we leave. My only tip to add is to feed them a good breakfast first. I feel like the days they eat a super sugary breakfast are the days that go way worse. So protein, and less sugar. And the more we go the better they seem to do. Which isn't always easy....

    1. Yes! A good breakfast is so so sooooo important - I try to feed them as much food as possible before we go so that maybe they'll slip into a food coma, although that hasn't worked yet... One of these days!

    2. Yes! A good breakfast is so so sooooo important - I try to feed them as much food as possible before we go so that maybe they'll slip into a food coma, although that hasn't worked yet... One of these days!

  9. I love your advice and I especially love the quip that the mean faced strangers "don't realize that their "at rest" face tends to look rather judgmental..." So funny! Always assume the best intentions in others, right? And I'm definitely going to print the Catholic Kids Bulletin--that looks fantastic!

    Our mass behavior has been dramatically improving this year, I think it's a combination of the fact that the children are older and that our new parish has only one Sunday mass so Father says he can make it go as long as he wants since there isn't another group of parishioners needing the parking lot--i.e. at least an hour and a half during Ordinary Time and a solid two hours from Advent to Easter. If you can make it through a two hour mass you can make it through anything! And also the doughnut bribe waiting for them at the finish line. I'm not a proponent of child bribes in general but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta to do!

    I still remember my first attempt at a mass bag full of great Catholic playthings--including that giant primary colored wooden rosary that's so did not go well and fyi it makes a really loud sound when your little angels swing it round their heads and bash it into the pew in front of you--the little darlings:)

    I think my advice would be to just hang in there and be patient--and whatever you do, don't lose it at your kids during mass--screaming kids are mildly distracting, screaming adults are much harder to tune out! Try to teach the prayers, etc. at home so they can participate at mass, whisper in their ear to explain what's happening so they stay interested and cue them in when it's time to say the different parts they know. My boys are always a little late with their responses (and a little louder than everyone else!) but they do so much better when they are able to pay attention and participate than when they are left to their own devices :) And I've heard once your oldest children are older and able to sit and be really good the younger ones will just WANT to sit nicely like their older siblings so we can all cling to that hope!

    Just remember it gets better! Okay, sometimes it gets worse but mostly it gets better :)

    1. Yes! That rosary - I always think it's a great idea and then it ALWAYS gets dropped repeatedly with a loud clatter, or banged on the pew over and over...

      And your last paragraph is absolutely true. I think parents overreacting (which I've DEFINITELY been guilty of) is far more distracting. Sometimes I think I NEED to react strongly so at least people think I'm trying? But honestly, if they think I'm not trying then they clearly need a reality check!

      I sure hope that once the older ones behave, the babies will... I've seen it true of many large families, so I'm hoping we can follow suit!

  10. We sit with my best friend and her two kids. I parent hers and she parents mine and my husband backs us both up. It seems that her kids listen to me better at Mass and vice versa. Maybe hearing the same thing from a different voice helps. We also have another friend that sits in our pew. He helps out and my kids prefer sitting over there than with me. As long as they are quietly paying attention I'm not offended! We sit in the same place every week, so the people around us are used to us and they can move if they get tired of us. To be honest, we've made friends with the people who sit near us and they all seem to love the kids. Also, this year, Benjamin goes to Children's Church, so he is gone for most of Mass.

    1. We really need more adults! We're just so outnumbered, but I don't know the people at our parish well enough to ask for help...

    2. You should just try asking someone some day. They may say no, and you'll be a little embarrassed...but think how awesome it will be if they say yes! Then you can ask someone else the next time.

  11. This is great! I agree with everything. I only have two things to add: (1) We try to avoid sitting right next to another family with small children, because then our boys (ages 2 and 3) will be preoccupied with wanting to play with them. And (2) try to work on one mass behavior at a time. I find 15-18 months to be the most difficult stage at which to have a toddler in mass, because it's so hard to reason with them at that point. But once they hit 18 months or so, they're capable of understanding what you want from them. We work on being quiet first. They can move around as much as they want, as long as they stay quiet. Once they're reliably quiet in mass, we start working on sitting still. I think it's a lot easier for them to accept the behavior we want from them when they have the opportunity to take one hurdle at a time.

    1. Working on one behavior at a time is a great idea, and I totally agree with the progression of expectations - I can't even imagine being beyond the sitting still AND being quiet phase - I guess beyond that you would focus on paying attention? Ah, to reach that point :)

  12. For us, Daddy keeps the big boys in the pew up front and I hold Louis in the narthex. Big boys are encouraged to "do what daddy does," including saying the prayers and doing the moves (sit, stand, kneel). They loooooove doing what daddy does.

    Before mass, I usually ask them what are some things that it's OK if you do? Sit, stand, kneel, put your hands up in the air, put your hands on the back of the pew in front of us, put your hands together, put your hands on your head, wiggle your toes, pray, sing, think about Jesus, ask Jesus for things, thank Jesus, think about things that Jesus likes, listen to the priests words, etc. Then, I ask what are some things it's not OK to do? And this is usually drawn from a list of things they have recently done at mass that were not OK, like jumping on the kneeler, crawling underneath the pew, touching siblings, talking loudly but not praying, etc.

    We like holy cards as "pew toys" - they are totally quiet, totally religious, and we totally don't care if they are damaged or lost.

    I've asked Symeon to see if he can hear it when the priest says certain words - "holy," "praise," etc. We also talk about what the words mean. The keeps him quiet AND gets him listening.

    I've also challenged the two-year-old to a competition to see who can kneel the longest. It didn't really work, but I thought it was a brilliant idea anyway. :)

    Barrett is big into the rewards/punishments. The Montessori part of me doesn't like that very much, but I think I'll be OK with it as long as we phase it out in a couple of years.

    I also try to remember that, if I'm honest, sitting through mass without getting distracted is hard for me, too (even when I'm alone). So I make sure they know that sometimes I forget how good it is to be there, too. But we always have to stay close to Jesus so we don't get lost on the road of life.

    1. I think we need to restock our holy card supply - they were our best "pew toys" for Cecilia when she was the twins' age, but they've pretty much all disappeared!

      Great suggestions - thanks!

  13. I suffer from BRF - that was a hilarious meme! I think the biggest thing is to just keep going. Model the behavior you want and eventually they'll get there. When my 2 y/o is especially fussy (she has a sensory disorder, so sitting that long can be torturous for her), we got into the narthex and practice the sign of the cross with the holy water. She's about 26 months and has been able to do the sign of the cross since about 18 months (and knows she's done if the hand that was in water goes anywhere near her mouth!).

    1. Yes! I think my parents skipped Mass with us pretty frequently when we were all very young, and they know now that that really wasn't the way to go...

    2. We do know that now. But to be fair, I wasn't Catholic until you were 9 (and the other kids were 14, 12, and 7), and your Mass behavior was probably fairly fixed by then. Anyway, this means that there is progress over the generations, right?

  14. What about if you go to a parish where before Mass the lector asks everyone with young children to use the cry room and if the family does not use the cry room and the children make any noise people tap you and ask you to go into the cry room? Does your church have "children's church" where the kids ages 4 to 10 go somewhere else right before the homily and come back right before the Consecration? They have that in many of the churches in my area and sometimes the kids even come back to the pew with candy. My husband and I couldn't believe it... and parents were letting their kids eat the candy during Mass. We've never let our kids go to "children's church" and I really don't want to now that I see that going on.

    My kids can sometimes be loud in the cry room which make me scared to even try to sit in the back of the church. The three oldest always start fighting over anything they find or have with them and are constantly shuffling in their seats.

    1. Oh dear!!! We have no "children's church" and most of the parishes around here don't - it's something you only find at the sketchier parishes around us, because the more orthodox parishes value keeping children in the actual Church.

      Part of me wants to say find another parish, but another part of me thinks, maybe God put you there for a reason, and there's some way to help the priest and parishioners be more welcoming to families? Have you approached your pastor about the issue? If he doesn't see it as a problem, it might be time to find a new parish if possible. But if he's willing to address it and make changes, maybe you can spearhead the effort!

      Candy during Mass though... That's appalling!

  15. Great post! I definitely love your point about getting there early. We always try to avoid sitting next to other toddlers, since different parents have different rules and it can get confusing. Like we don't do snacks or toys, but lots of other parents do. Sitting near families of elementary-age children seems produce the best behavior for us because Claire thinks big kids are basically rock stars and is just fascinated by them!

    1. Oh man, it's SO frustrating when there are kids with tons of food and John Paul and Cecilia see it and think THEY should get teddy grahams or fruit snacks or whatever... Sigh.

  16. I think the full tummies is crucial! Since my hubby is a deacon he HAS to be there early so I am able to give the girls breakfast in the hall right before church, change them into their dresses (we leave the house between 6:30-6:45 am and its an hour drive) and race over to church. I have two wanderers. Since we don't have pews and we are a small little mission we have a few rows of chairs and that is it. Fortunately E has gotten alot better about sitting and reading the book and praying. There are a few other families who have INSANELY noisy toddlers like R so we all end up in the back or in the Narthex at some point. Another thing we have going for us is our priest has 5 kids so he is used to an elevated noise level and is 100% in favor of semi-quiet babies staying in church - when there is a screaming fit going on babies need a breather - well I do more than they do probably. Since the ONLY time during Liturgy that I have my hubby's hands available for child wrangling (unless he is giving the homily) is during the homily I tend to get a bit more sympathy from parents with older kids...

    Example. Last weekend, E wanted to stand with the priest's youngest daughter and their family. Generally okay. The girls are 5 and 3 so there is some distraction going on but not horrible. R is so mad at me because I won't let her run around like a crazy child and take off her shoes so she goes immediately to the priest's wife who then goes back to her chair with R in tow. I have 2.5 seconds of Liturgy of semi-undistracted-ness and look up and realize that the priest's wife has her 3 girls and my 2 girls completely quiet and semi-controlled. Totally impressed!?!?! We were joking after Liturgy that another mom was going to send her girls (7 and 2) up to sit with them because there was such good behavior.

    Oh well. Those moments rarely rarely happen and I think that most Mass times with kids are survival of the mom-est. Totally agree with you on the food thing. Totally!

  17. These are great tips! I am so glad you said no food. I hate seeing children eating during church.

    We have two sons, so this wouldn't work for you, but it works for us: We sit separately and each take one of the boys with us. They behave so much better when they can't egg each other on or find the same things amusing or argue over who gets the better book. And it's so special to have one parent all to yourself. I have no problem with bribes to get through Mass. We try to reward with playground time on the school playground afterward, or even a few minutes of iPad play (obviously after Mass) for exceptional behavior. That is a very special treat and big motivation.


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