Oh, joy! Your children are old enough to not **need** toys, bathroom breaks, or snacks during Mass. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they are any less antsy or less difficult to bring to Mass. At that age, my siblings and I were whiny, leaned on Mom & Dad regularly, asked if we could go to coffee and donuts every 5 minutes, and tried to crush one another with a death grip during the Our Father (back in the good, old, hand-holding days of 1986!!). What's a parent to do?
First of all, take time to discern if your child even understands the basics of the liturgy. Can they identify and articulate the Liturgy of the Word versus the Liturgy of the Eucharist? Do they have memorized most of the prayers/responses? Can they follow along with longer prayers using the missalette? Few of these are articulated with regularity in the curricula most of your schools or religious education programs are using. This isn't bad, but we must remember that religion classes are meant to support and supplement the spirituality of the child as lived in the home and at church. Your child may learn every 2 or 3 years about the different parts of the Mass or have some of these prayers (Gloria, Nicene Creed, Our Father, etc.) touched on in various lessons, but they often don't take time to explore the meaning.
Regular Mass attendance (minimum of each Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation) are the only way for children to grasp and retain the ebbs and flows of the Mass. On a recent Sunday evening, my 8 year-old niece asked if we were "almost done" while praying after Communion. Due to custody issues, she is only able to attend Mass about twice/month but I thought, by now, she surely knew enough that after Communion we only had one more prayer and hymn to go. Guess not. You may think your children know what's going on and what to expect, but perhaps they do not.
Which parts of the Mass does each child most like? My niece enjoys any time we are singing and, up until now, very much enjoyed getting to go up with the children to put her envelope in the basket for the children's collection. (Aunt side note: apparently, age 8 and 4 months makes one too told to go up with the other kids and also too grown up for children's tithing envelopes.) She used to look forward to getting her blessing, but excitement waned this last year or two. She kept saying, "when can I get that?" and expressed an eagerness to receive our Lord's Body and Blood. Now, she looks forward to receiving the Eucharist instead of a blessing.
Find out what he/she most enjoys about Mass and help them find anticipation for those areas. Maybe they most enjoy visiting with school friends after Mass or high-fiving the summer seminarian, but it doesn't matter. Each little thing is worth it. Help them find value in the meaningful experiences at Mass. They will build as you continue working with them.
In the weeks and months before receiving First Communion, remind your child that he/she should be doing their best to show spiritual readiness. This can be done in a variety of ways, but active participation is key. Also, they can begin to grasp this concept of liturgy as the "work of the people". Try to help your child see what work he/she is called to (singing, praying, listening, etc.) to be a full part of Mass and be ready to receive Holy Communion.
Does your child have older siblings on the altar? Remind him/her that participating in the Mass shows you that they are ready for duties that may be available to them soon such as altar serving, children's choirs, etc. If not, do you participate in a ministry they can help with? If you are an usher, see if your parish will allow your child to seat people and pass out bulletins with you. Do you serve as sacristan? Have your child with you, helping, so he/she can see the important steps that go into preparing for Mass. Sometimes, our youngest children see these ministries as "prizes" of becoming older. While helping them to see and know that Mass is always of value whether or not he/she is old enough to receive the Eucharist or old enough to participate in a ministry, I don't think it's bad or wrong to help them set long-term goals of serving in a ministry and reminding them how current attentiveness and participation prepares them for these duties.
After having a great experience with my Pre-K and K Totus Tuus students last week, I was reminded how much our youngest can get out of Mass when given proper tools. Though we didn't attend Mass, we talked a lot about the Luminous Mysteries and spent time exploring how to keep holy the Sabbath. We need to continue to this practice of offering practical, simple, spiritual tools at all ages. I was at Mass this weekend with a relative (raised Catholic) who has been struggling with our faith. He asked me the point of all these prayers, rituals, incense and sequences (this was the Feast of Corpus Christi) that he had never been taught to understand. It saddened me and reminded me how lucky I am to have explored the Mass and other parts of my spiritual life on my own. He is trying to have the faith of a child but he has the cynicism of an adult.
The best thing we can do is help our child explore his/her spiritual life as early as possible. Helping him/her build a relationship with Christ through prayer, the Mass, and Sacraments as early as possible lessens the likelihood of leaving later. That doesn't mean he/she won't have challenges. It doesn't mean he/she won't leave. However, we need to give our youngest the spiritual tools to fight those battles within when those cynical moments arise. I'll have more on that when I address Mass attendance with tweens and teens in my next post.
In the meantime, what specific challenges do you face with children of this age at Mass? Let's dialogue and help one another find solutions. Pax!