In our house, going to church on Sunday (or the Saturday Vigil Mass, which counts for Sunday) is a non-negotiable—meaning, all members of the family go to church (barring illness or other serious impediment). I know families who don’t bring their children to church until they’re old enough to sit and behave, but we are not that family, so we’ve had to figure out how to manage the one hour at church with a mix of newborns, toddlers, and preschoolers (the school-age kids tend to do pretty well).
I’m not going to lie, bringing little ones to church can feel like having your fingers chewed off. What seems like an event intended for spiritual nourishment and refueling can actually make you feel worse than you did when you walked in. I have by no means figured out how to have a wonderful experience at church when I’m in the midst of the smallest, grabbiest, loudest, most unreasonable of children, but I so firmly believe that it’s imperative for the health of my kids’ faith life in the long term to be as familiar with Mass and to understand its importance as much as possible that I’m willing to do what needs to be done to get them there each week. And though I don’t always get out of church what I’d like to, I really think the effort on the part of the adults counts for something. God knows what we’re dealing with and how hard we’re trying.
So. How on earth do we manage? We use these strategies:
(1) Don’t go alone if you can help it
While I know it might not be possible every time or for every parent, and I’ve taken the kids to church by myself many times, it’s infinitely easier to have another adult with you to help manage everyone. Having both parents there is the best, but my parents and sisters have helped me out many times in the past as well.
(2) Divide and conquer, and/or figure out a seating chart ahead of time
Having more than one adult can help keep the kids separated from each other, which is such a key part of helping them stay calm. If you’re alone, or if you have more kids than adults, consider figuring out the best way for them all to sit to avoid conflict and goofing around during church. For us, our oldest goes into the pew first, then no. 2, then no. 4, then me, then no. 6, then my husband, then no. 5, then no. 3. We’ve tweaked this and edited it as needed, and some Sundays need to be different from others. We’ve also put the troublemaker in the pew right in front of us on occasion—whoever it happens to be that Sunday, separating him from his brothers is almost always the best solution. Also, some families find that their kids behave better in the front row, while we vastly prefer the back row (or as close as we can get) so our shenanigans aren’t on display.
(3) Be sure to bring necessities
I don’t mean distractions—I’ll get to those in a minute—I mean the things without which you’re nearly guaranteed a disaster for the three-and-under set. For us, it means bringing their lovey (blanket or stuffed animal, depending on the boy), a bag of Cheerios, and a cup of juice (or a nursing cover, if I’m still breastfeeding). If I have those things, our chances of making it through Mass are so much better.
(4) Child-friendly distractions
These are nearly on par with the necessities listed above. I bring teethers or toys for the little ones that can be attached to them with a pacifier clip (so they don’t bean someone in the head when they inevitably toss them), but the older they get, the more church-focused things I bring, like children’s books of the saints, laminated holy cards, and a rosary or two. Also, “delayed gratification” is key. Don’t give them everything at once—give them one thing when they start to get fussy, and wait for them to have their fill of it before moving on to the next item (this is the same for the necessities listed above).
(5) Choose the right time for your schedule
I know not every church offers multiple services, but I’m so grateful ours does—it allows us to go to the Mass that doesn’t fall during naptime, for example. Or if getting out of the house early is problematic for your family, choose a later time if you can.
(6) Take them out when they cry—but bring them back in
Certainly if a child is causing a ruckus, he or she needs to be removed from church. While I believe children should be welcome at church, I do also think we should be as sensitive as possible to those around us. But always bring them back in once they’ve calmed down! Even if you have to take them right back out again, even if you have to go in and out of church seventeen times during the service, I think bringing them back in is so important. My boys love being taken out of church, and if we stayed out with them, you can bet they’d start acting up just in order to be taken out. Bringing them back in—after a stern talking to outside—ensures they realize that acting up will not give them a free pass to get out of church.
These are the things that have worked for us over the last thirteen years, and still do (our youngest is still learning). Some Sundays are harder than others, for sure, but these tips have helped us cope and keep going to church each week. And remember: if you have to leave church early one week, or just can’t seem to make it at all, get up and try again! Eyes on the prize! If you make church a priority and commit to going, you’ll figure out the best way to do so for your family.