My head was down as I walked out of the 4K classroom; it was Open House/Meet the Teacher night at the boys’ school. I gently guided Nolan, who refused to be carried, to the left towards Keaton’s room when I bumped right into her.
“Oops! I’m sorry!” As I looked up I realized who it was, and we both smiled. It’s always nice to see someone you know at these things, and in unison we exclaimed “Hiiii!”
“Hey, I missed you at church last Sunday!” she said to me.
I threw my head back in laughter because I knew exactly what she really meant:
I missed having someone to talk to in the gathering space as we wrangle our children who refuse to sit through mass last Sunday.
Our boys’ Sunday morning behavior goes in phases that range anywhere from:
Excellent: Quiet as a mouse – receiving praise from the all those around us
Horrid: Wild Animals – recently released from their cage
And truthfully, we never know what we’re gonna get.
About a month ago Collin was gone on his annual guys weekend, Manniversary, (that’s a pretty clever name, isn’t it? Mad props to you boys!) and his parents offered to come with me to mass. I accepted, gladly, although I had planned on taking them no matter what, solo if need be.
(I’m raising my eyebrows to the Kate of four weeks ago because, seriously? I thought about taking them solo??)
When we arrived Papa and Busha were already there, saving us a seat, and with them they had one book for each child; it was genius really, plus our pew was in a perfect location: in the very back, at the end of the aisle—exit easily, and discretely, accessible. But as we settled in so nicely I actually thought (I. actually. thought!): we’re not going to need this exit today, look how good these kids are sitting!
(AM I AN AMATEUR??)
As soon as we all sat after the opening hymn Nolan stood up and slid in close to me, whipping his leg over the back of the pew. “Mama. Maaamaaa.” He cooed, with an impish little grin on his face. I smiled back, not knowing exactly what was going on, not at all realizing that I was basically daring him to jump over the side. When I felt his body going, I quickly pulled him back to our seat. The jump was thwarted, but it was too late—one attempt gone bad and now it was a game to him.
After several more tries and several more times of me hissing “Sit. Down.”, he finally gave up and decided to occupy himself with his book instead. I breathed a sigh of relief. That book did entertain him for a solid 10 minutes or so, but, then, having not contained him on the inside of the pew (Seriously? Seriously, Kate of four weeks ago?), he ever-so-quietly slid right off the end and into the aisle. His legs were spread as if he were about ready to attempt a downward facing dog pose, and he was bobbling back and forth, entertaining himself as toddlers do. I watched and slowly, slowly started making my way to the end…but right as I got there he began meandering toward the back, behind the pew. I got up and moved ever so slightly towards him—I was tip-toeing because I knew if I made any sudden movement he would bolt—but just as I got within reaching distance, just as my arm was outstretched to make the grab, he turned and saw me.
“Hahahahahaaaaa,” he giggled as he ran full speed from one end of the sanctuary halfway around the church.
You’re picturing this, right?
Here, let me help….our church is in the shape of a semi-circle with several doors lining the backside. Everyone is sitting quietly, the Priests are at the alter facing the congregation as the scriptures are being read, and MY TODDLER IS SPRINTING AND LAUGHING MANICALLY THROUGH THE OUTER RING OF THE SANCTUARY.
And, of course, let’s not forget…there I am, breathlessly running after him, willing him to STOP. (Okay, it was probably a slow jog, but still!)
I did finally reach him, and I hauled his butt out the back door. On that day, I was never so thankful to have someone to commiserate with back there in that gathering space.
So here, faithful parishioner of small children, this is for you:
1) Wear good, comfortable shoes.
Some sort of athletic shoes, running shoes preferably, are best. And don’t worry about setting your alarm early for your Sunday morning training run; you’ll clock at least 3.1 miles by the time the Priest is done with his sermon.
2) Pray. Pray Continuously.
Your prayer will sound something like this:
It’s me, Kate. Please let my children behave in church today. Please let them behave. Please let them behave.
About halfway through the service this prayer will probably sound more like:
This is borderline begging, but don’t worry, God understands.
3) Find someone to hang out with in the gathering space.
Preferably someone in your approximate age group, that also has children. The older generation did not raise these hooligans; their children behaved like angels in church—they think you are a terrible parent; do not talk to them. The younger generation, the ones without kids yet, will NEVER allow their kids to act like this—they think you are a terrible parent, do not talk to them.
And if steps 1-3 fail, perk up your ears and eyes for other children misbehaving; if nothing else, it will make you feel better.
I’m just kidding.
In all honestly, retelling our morning story to Collin when he returned from his weekend away made me think about what does work for us during mass. We don’t bribe the boys with rewards or threaten punishments based on their church behavior—not because we’re above that, but because we tried that, and it didn’t work. There were promises of going out to lunch and stops for ice cream (and let’s just get this straight: I didn’t offer ice cream because I thought it would entice them, I offered ice cream because I was in the mood for ice cream.) But at the end of mass I felt like the only person being punished was ME because now I had to go home and figure out what to serve for lunch, and it didn’t include ice cream!
But there are a few things that have proved (somewhat) successful for us (when Children’s Gospel Time, a.k.a. Day Care, isn’t available)…
1) A book or two.
I refrain from saying “books” because too many books creates more of a problem then a solution (same goes for too many crayons!) This seems to be especially helpful for the toddlers, ages 1-2, but we also use this for our older boys. For Nolan, I try to bring something church related: a story about Noah, Baby’s First Bible, something with pictures of animals because that seems to keep his attention the longest. For the older two, our church offers activity bags for the kids to bring into mass, and inside of those are usually a rosary (which provides lots of entertainment) and a picture book that walks them through the motions of the service. This is geared towards a Catholic mass, but I would assume there would be children’s options for other denominations as well.
2) Let them ask questions. Tell them what is going on.
This is the tactic I’m currently using with Hutton, age 4. I think as parents we tend to assume that at this age (3 to 4 years old) kids just won’t be able to understand a church service, but I think that what we forget is that at this age children are so inquisitive. They want to know, even if they can’t fully grasp it. So, as long as he’s using a hushed voice I let Hutt ask questions, and I answer them. How you answer them, of course, is up to you. I lean towards complete honesty when it comes to the boys’ church questions, but sometimes that can backfire. Last week when Hutton asked me “How did Jesus die?” His voice was well above a whisper when his follow up question was “well, did they clean up the blood?!”
I also try to explain to him what is happening and make sure he is sitting somewhere that he can see. I’m pretty sure he thinks it is some sort of magic show going on up there when the priest turns the bread and wine into the body and blood, but man does that little head of his ever snap to attention when he hears the bells during the Eucharistic prayer! He might not get it, but he knows it’s important.
3) Ask them what they like best about church.
Don’t be surprised if the first few times you ask the answer you get is: Nothing! That’s normal. (At least I hope that’s normal, because that’s the answer we got!) But as they get older and a bit more mature they’ll be able to tell you something they really do enjoy. Keaton, age 5, loves the sign of peace and shaking hands. He looks forward to this, and so intermittently throughout the service we let him know how long until we get to his favorite part. This keeps him alert and at least somewhat engaged.
But my most important tip—the one we have to remind ourselves each Sunday as we look at each other bewilderingly after collapsing into the front seat of the car—the one that we repeat over and over on weeks that it feels like skipping would be the easier (safer) thing to do….is this…
Remember that God loves children (even noisy children!) and He wants them there.
Despite what the old women in front of you thinks, He doesn’t care how they behave; He’s just pleased you brought them.
And also this: You are not a terrible parent because your child misbehaved on Sunday morning.
And also, also, this: YOU HAVE SEVEN MORE DAYS UNTIL YOU HAVE TO DO THIS AGAIN! WOO!! ::fist pump::