I actually think this is the most fun age to be with kids during Mass. There is so much to teach them and so many ways to engage them. I see so many parents with their children of this age sticking them in the pew with a bag of cheerios, a coloring book, and/or toys. My first piece of advice is: STOP! If you choose to allow anything, make sure it is Catholic in nature and make a plan for weaning off of it. For instance, start by only allowing it during the Liturgy of the Word (put away during the Offertory), then only allow it during the homily, and after 6 months- 1 year, tell them they may no longer bring anything to "do" during Mass.
First of all, try to find a Mass time that works well for your family schedule and doesn't interfere with meal/snack/nap times. Also, find a calming routine for the ride to Mass. It's likely you've spent the last hour feeding,diapering, and dressing little ones. There may have been yelling and tears by the kids and the parents.You need to use the walk/ride to Mass to get focused. You can play religious music in the car (preferably chant to quiet people down and get into that reflective mood), you can discuss what you're thankful for this week, you can practice learning prayers, and/or decide who you want to pray for when you get to church.
I highly recommend trying to get to Mass 10-15 minutes early when you're bringing little ones. This might seem ridiculous. If your children aren't behaving, why would you want to have more time at church with them? Here's why:
- Upon arriving, visit the restrooms and make everyone TRY to go. This will cut down on/eliminate trips during Mass.
- Use the gathering space or narthex to say 'hi' to friends, visit, and ask any last minute questions not related to Mass. Remind your kids you will only answer questions about church once inside.
- Let them wander a little. Take them to see a statue or stained glass window and discuss it. Pray in front of the tabernacle. Light a candle. Get the wiggles out, but in an appropriate way that gets them ready for Mass.
- Find seats up front, preferably letting the children take turns choosing. Kids do better when they can see all the action and having a say in where they sit will help.
- Assign jobs to your little ones: putting the kneeler up and down, passing out hymnals, and putting the envelope in the basket. Especially until they are only enough to receive the Eucharist, they need ways of feeling their presence is essential. These don't seem "religious" but it will help your child with paying attention to what is happening and when.
During the readings, let your children follow along and help them. I know some people are big on hearing the word of God proclaimed instead of reading it and I don't underestimate this importance. However, your children are going to be asking you "when is it over?" so being able to show them will help. They can learn patience this way. At this age, my niece used the missalette to anticipate her favorite part of Mass: the Alleluia. By age 5, she could find this word on the page and knew how many more readings until that song. Until they are old enough to follow orally and desire to do so, the missalette is a huge help! Plus, you're reinforcing reading skills! Be sure to do the same with ALL the prayers so your children can work on learning them.
Depending on the context of the readings, you may wish to whisper a 1 or 2 sentence summary of the reading to your child at the end. It can be simple: This reading is about forgiving people. They just talked about listening to your mom and dad. Do the same during the homily. Your children will have more of a desire to sit still and behave if they can understand how this relates to them. If this isn't your forte, check out some samples of the curriculum I'm writing to help with this. I prefer this curriculum being used before Mass, but you may need to use it during until you get the hang of how to help the kids understand what's happening.
Don't be afraid to whisper narrative of other parts of the Mass to children. They will pay more attention if you are helping them understand what is happening and why. "Fr. is going to explain the readings now." "The bread and wine are coming up. They will become Jesus' Body and Blood." "The bread and wine are now Jesus in the Eucharist."
Find out how your church arranges for people to bring up the gifts. Usually, it involves checking with an usher or a sign up method of some sort. This morning, my niece asked to leave 10 minutes earlier than usual in hopes we could take up the gifts. We were too late, but she wasn't disappointed since she understands the system. I'm glad she was so eager to get to Mass and finds ways to make the experience more valuable to her.
A great way my parish engages kids is during the Offertory. Starting a few years ago, the ushers place several baskets around the foot of the altar. Baskets are still passed to the rest of the congregation. Children are encouraged to bring up their donations. (Our parish has awesome tithing envelopes the kids can get in the back of church. In addition or in place of gifts of treasure, kids write down their gifts of time/talent. More often than note, they publish 4-5 of these "gifts" in the bulletin the next week under a section labeled "Children's Stewardship". Each post is signed with first name and last initial. They are usually things such as: "Helped Mom with the dishes." "Read to my little brother." "Visited Grandma in the nursing home." My niece has felt like a celebrity each time she has been published over the years.) At Mass, I watch dozens of children race up around the altar with their envelopes, often holding the hands of their siblings to give their weekly contribution. Again, this simple process helps the kids get more out of Mass and feel they are contributing.
If your parish permits, let your children come up to Communion with you for a blessing. Please take note of how your parish engages in this practice. Only priest and deacons can bless. At our parish, lay EMHC place a hand on the shoulder of individuals coming up with arms crossed. They do not bless, but rather pray aloud, "receive Jesus in your heart". Having your children come with you rather than sitting in the pew will help increase their desire for the Eucharist as they grow older.
The most important thing you can be doing throughout Mass is praying all prayers and responses and singing, even quietly. Your children need to see you participating to foster their own willingness to participate. It also teaches them (and reinforces for us) that the Mass is about offering ourselves back to God. We do that by praying fully and wholly with our hearts, minds, souls, voices, and bodies. Our gestures, attitude, and participation impact how our children pray at Mass. Similarly, if you get int he car and complain about the length/content of homily, how the cantor was dressed, etc. your child will think there is nothing worthwhile at church and no point in attending.
After Mass, encourage the kids to talk with the priest and thank him. Visit with people you know (in the narthex or gathering space- not the sanctuary). Get to know someone new, especially if you sit by the same people each week. Building relationships with your church community will help the children want to go to be able to visit with their parish family. You want your children to equate Mass attendance with as many positive experiences as possible- not with the place where you go to not move or talk for an hour.
Lastly, parents need to look at the curriculum being used by their school and religious education programs. Does it help the children fall in love with Christ and the Eucharist? Does is help them understand the Mass (not just memorize what it includes)? Regular readers know that I am a huge advocate for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The reason is because it does all these things and more. As children get to know Christ, the Good Shepherd, they desire to be at Mass. It makes sense to them once they know the prayers and reasoning behind them. They know to look for certain gestures and prayers that are essential in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
I hope this helps all of you parents. Please post your other ideas for engaging your young children at Mass in the comments.
And, since I happened to complete this post today, let's add Happy Mother's Day to all mothers: natural, adopted, step, god. I add special prayers going out to mothers who have lost children through abortion, miscarriage, or dying young. No mom should ever have to bury a child and this day is tough for so many people.