I remember fondly the nervousness of taking my children to Mass each week, especially when we left the house (usually late) and they began to get a little wiggly. My husband and I did not want to disturb the other parishioners or the priest and slid into the last pews whenever possible. On the rare occasion we had to sit in the middle of the church, we slouched in our pew trying to escape notice.

We brought help – Cheerios, quiet toys, pens and paper to keep them quiet. These brought another fear:too much fun, making a mess or dropping the toys.

My husband and I apologized to our priest once for the noise our family made, and he replied, “That’s why I have a microphone!”

As I sit in church today, sometimes with my adult children, I occasionally hear the sounds of little ones (or their toys) that let everyone know they are present. I love their presence, and yes, I empathize with the parents and perhaps those parishioners who might be annoyed. But without these children who are the next generation to walk with God, how will we grow our faith?

I recently came across an article from Our Sunday Visitor that might benefit parents, children and fellow parishioners: “Zoo in a Pew: Tips for Managing Behavior at Mass.” The advice comes from parents in a variety of situations. It includes:

  • Bribery: Some parishes serve doughnuts/snacks after Mass that children might like. My husband and I used this tactic or the promise of pancakes when we later had breakfast.
  • Make Sundays special. Make the whole day devoted to family time with God, a drive for ice cream, a special family dinner, reading together, playing a game and having limited chores.
  • Model, prepare, review, explain. Share with your children what is going on at Mass, model proper behavior, discuss the readings beforehand. After Mass, review what happened and share the experience. If you don’t know what something means, do some research together or seek advice from your priest or deacon.
  • Develop a relationship with your priest so he is familiar to the children.

Persistence is also important. Sometimes it’s the easy road to shelve the goals we attempt and say, “I’ll try this again later.” The thing is, later comes, but we might be onto something else.  Be open to trying, but reevaluate the expectations of your children and the steps to take to prepare them. Again, discuss this with your priest; he might have some great suggestions.

A final suggestion for parents is to sit up front. This has always been a challenge for me, as I also don’t like to draw attention to myself. The experts share that sitting up front can engage children because they can see what is happening. A gentle caution: If children need to leave or take turns leaving throughout the Mass, this can be a distraction to not only your fellow parishioners but also the priest. Try to have children go to the bathroom before sitting down in the pew.

A final suggestion to parishioners — patience and understanding. Befriend a family to offer kindness. Rather than scowling at the child who might be offering special words of love to God, Jesus or the guardian angels, just kindly smile and then refocus on the Mass. After, take care to share the love that Jesus shared with His disciples as he said, “Suffer the little children who come unto me.”

We are all His children.

For more information: teachingcatholickids.com/zoo-in-a-pew-tricks-and-strategies-for-good-behavior-at-mass.

—Terri McCormack is marriage and family life coordinator for the Diocese of Burlington.

—Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.