If you see our family in Mass, you'll see our kids fidgeting, probably like yours. You might even hear us first, when our babies cry out in the most silent moments.
As much as I think our kids are extraordinary, they are ordinary kids. This leads me to think that what has worked for us could work for other families too.
In the Holy Mass the child’s work is to simply be in His Presence.
I think about this a lot when preparing our family for Mass. The environment of the sanctuary is already perfectly prepared by the builder, priest, sacristan, and altar server. But how can I prepare the “environment” of our family to encounter the Creator when He comes to meet us (and especially our children) in the Mass?
This is why we sit in the very front row. This is why we don’t bring anything into Mass. (Ok, sometimes we bring in car keys and keep those hidden in Dad's pocket.)
No cry room. No “Mass books.” (Light of Sunday book was created for at-home catechesis, and not to distract from the Mass, which is perfect and needs no supplement.)
Including our little one on the way, we have 5 kids ages six and under. Through our parenthood journey, we’ve tried “it all.” We’ve spent Mass picking up my daughter’s stray Cheerios from the pew. We’ve flipped through the cutesy “Mass books.” We’ve sat in the “cry room” while they crawl around and explore.
Yet the more I read about the Holy Mass, primary catechesis, and of Dr. Maria Montessori’s writing, the further we strayed from these ways until we found ourselves with hearts fixed on the Christ alone.
We found ourselves naturally following these two "rules."
1. FRONT ROW—
Even from the second row a child can see nothing but the backside of the person in front of them. From the front row they notice Father wash his hands in the lavabo bowl, the altar boy ring the sanctus bells, and the priest raise and lower his hands over the gifts during the epiclesis.
2. BRING NOTHING—
Nada. Children don’t need distractions to help them “stay quiet.” (Staying quiet is not the goal we're aiming for!) With nothing to fidget with from the pew and an unobstructed view ahead, we pray our children’s gaze turns to Him. We pray they encounter Him, even for just a moment, every Mass.
*I never ever feel an ounce of judgment towards a parent with Cheerios or books in Mass. I only share this because this works for our family.*
It seems counterintuitive. Won’t it be embarrassing to stand up and take them out if/when things get out of hand? Yes, maybe at first. Won’t they get restless? Yes, maybe at first.
Think of Dr. Montessori’s principle of “normalization.” Normalization is the child’s ability to work peacefully and purposefully with concentration. In the Holy Mass, like in the Montessori classroom, children normalize. To me, normalization in the Holy Mass looks, outwardly, like my children resting in the presence of God and participating in the Mass according to their own age appropriate way and by their own personality type.
For age appropriateness
Just one example—I try very hard to stay up front with my 12-month baby. Most of the time, we need to sit in the pew as she nurses or stand in the back. (Argh! Babies insist we stand! It’s not so simple with another on the way.) Until this baby is around 2/2.5 we will begin in the pew and probably end up standing in the back. This depends on her personality, so, we'll see.
Regardless of personality, we won’t play in the cry room or snack in the back (unless you count nursing). We will just stand, until she’s able to remain with the family in the pew.
For personality types
For our kiddos ages 2.5 to 6.5, they remain upfront with Dad. If their personality draws them to sing, they sing. (My daughter Evey sings. My nephew Conor, from when he was two, loudly proclaimed every Mass response he knew. It was beautiful to sit next to him in Mass. Oh, and his Alleluia! The angels heard him sing. It was the sweetest, and clearly his personality!)
My son typically says he wants to “pray in his heart” and doesn’t verbally participate much. He does participate with actions, like: genuflecting, standing, sitting, kneeling, etc.. (I was struck by the photo above from my sister-in-law’s wedding last summer. It’s Ronan with his eyes just above the pew, looking to the altar.)
Every child is different. They participate in the Mass the best they can, and when it’s time for Holy Communion, they each cross their arms over their chest and with proud hearts approach the altar for a blessing from Father.
One last thing we’ve noticed from our trips down to the city (when we’re able to attend daily Mass), is that our children actually normalize faster the more we go. I’ve read about many parents trying their best with rowdy little ones and consequently attending Mass without them or less frequently. I know it seems counterintuitive, but go more! It's such a gift that we can go to Mass and encounter our Lord every single day!
I want to encourage you in knowing that Mass with littles isn’t just bearable, but actually beautiful!
Little ones belong at Mass!
Please pray for our family as we strive to know, love, and serve the Lord. We are praying for you too!