My husband and I have three daughters who at young ages already express some big opinions about life, including a four-year-old who complains about going to church. She knows what she wants, what she doesn’t want, and isn’t afraid to say it. So simply telling her that she must go to church doesn’t cut it. She needs to understand the why behind Catholic Mass, and she wants to know what’s in it for her.
Our children will test the waters to see just how much church matters to us as they navigate just how much church matters to them. They will be exposed to a secular world in which relationships with God are either nonexistent or on an “as needed” basis where people pray only when they want something specific from God. God, in our current society, isn’t given a permanent, daily spot in people’s lives. If we stop paying attention, our children will fall into that mentality. We parents are the first and most influential evangelizers of our children, and they look to our example.
“It’s easy for us as Catholic parents to not want to feel like we are forcing them to pray or go to Mass,” says Kendra Tierney, mother of eight and author of A Little Book about Confession for Children. “It should all just come from a love of God in our children. But we are all fallen creatures. That just doesn’t come naturally to our children. Pious children are the exception, not the rule. Most kids are going to whine and complain about stuff they don’t want to do. I think any whining or complaining about Mass should just be viewed as general complaining and not specific to religion—the same as whining that they didn’t want to take a bath or go to school. The key is to not put more weight on it than it actually deserves; don’t worry that you’re going to make your kids not want to go to Mass as adults because you made them as kids. We make our kids do things all the time. We don’t let them not brush their teeth because they might not want to do it as adults.”
Successful Catholic families do much more than just show up for Mass every Sunday. Sitting silently for an hour isn’t on any child’s to-do list. If you want your children to love Mass, you have to give them reasons.
Be their leader
First and foremost, your children won’t love Mass if you don’t love Mass. You should be excited about going. Show your children how much you look forward to listening to the readings, singing the hymns, and receiving Communion. Tell them how happy you are to be visiting God’s house, hearing what Jesus wants you to hear, and receiving him through the Eucharist. Your joy won’t go unnoticed. In addition, be sure you are taking your children to confession with you on a regular basis and describing how that sacrament makes you feel.
Enlist the older kids
For Tierney, who also blogs at CatholicAllYear.com, it was difficult to get her firstborn to behave at Mass. But, she says, with each child it got easier.
“It was a real challenge to get my oldest to understand that he had to behave in a particular way at Mass. It’s really different from the way he would have to behave almost any other time,” she explains. “It seems that little kids don’t take their cues from grownups. They don’t expect that they should have the same type of behavior as adults, but they do follow their siblings. Once the oldest children are on board, the youngest get it.”
Find a welcoming parish
If your priest or the congregation frowns at your children anytime they breathe too loudly, then it may be necessary to find a new parish, one that has programs for young children and follows Jesus’ teaching to let the little children come to him. Children are going to make noise at Mass, especially during those first few years. First of all they don’t understand how to whisper, and they think everything they want to say is of vital importance. It’s one thing to have your child jumping around the pew or running down the aisle every other minute; it’s another to have your child sitting on the floor, asking questions about the statues, or asking to be picked up. Your children will feel the tension if the people around you at church are shooting daggers at you with their eyes.
Once you find a parish that’s right for you, Kat Tomasewski, mom to three children and writer at MomOnTheGoInHolyToledo.com, recommends building a community there. Your children will be able to make Catholic friends, and so will you. The Tierneys have friends at their parish as well, and the kids are always excited to see them and visit with them after Mass. It creates the feeling that Sunday is a special kind of day.
Prepare them for Mass
“Nowadays people spend more time preparing their kids to see a movie than they do Mass,” says Tomasewski. “If we take the time, they get excited. For our four-year-old daughter, she has her church bag packed with her church books and little saint figurines. It all starts at home. You can’t live in the secular world Monday through Saturday and then on Sunday switch over.”
Tomasewski prepares her family by looking over that Sunday’s readings ahead of time, and the children then listen for certain words during the readings at Mass. After Mass Tomasewski asks them how many times they heard those particular words, such as love. It helps them to focus and pay better attention.
Her older daughter recently discovered the My Parish App, which allows parishes to share Mass times, baptism announcements, and even the homily.
“My older kids have a subscription to MagnifiKid, which helps them follow along. Once they can read, there’s no reason they can’t follow along in the regular missal,” said Tierney. “Our little Catechism lessons include becoming familiar with things in the church and parts of the Mass, and that helps kids pay attention when they have a sense of what’s going on, and having the readings is helpful for them too.”
Let them dress up
My girls love to dress up. They would wear a fancy dress to play in the dirt any day of the week. They also love to have control, so allowing them to choose what they wear to church from of a few preselected items let’s them feel that attending Mass is special.
Make it about them
Children should feel like there is something in it for them when the go to church, because there is!
“I usually tell them God has something very special to tell each of them, and if they listen during the readings, they’ll hear it,” said Tomasewski. “I also ask them what they’re going to thank Jesus for today.”
In addition you should bring your younger children up to Communion with you so the priest can give them their own personal blessing. Have them talk with the priest after Mass so he knows them and they know him. Having that relationship will mean that the priest now can call them by name, which will make your children more comfortable. Talk to them about how much Jesus wants to see them at church.
Proximity makes it real
The Tierney family always sits up front so that the children can see what’s happening on the altar rather than staring at the backs of other people. It helps to keep them focused and interested.
“We really make a point of getting there in time to be in the first couple of pews. The kids can follow along and see what’s going on. I don’t feel that angst and worry about if people are looking at us because I can’t see them,” said Tierney.
Sing out loud
He who sings prays twice, right? So sing! Children love music, and they will sing and learn the words with you if you teach them. During the week you can sing these same songs at home or in the car. Children love hearing familiar music and will light up when they hear a song they know at Mass, but they have to learn the songs first. You’re their teacher—use music and singing to inspire your children, and make Mass a happy place for them.
Focus on the Blessed Sacrament
Tomasewski believes that we should tell children exactly what the Eucharist is, even if we aren’t sure they will understand it.
“My four-year-old daughter’s interpretation of Communion is that when the adults and her sister go up, they are receiving the Blood and Body of Christ, and then they come back and have a very special conversation with Jesus,” explains Tomasewski. “Once you hit first grade, they’re ready for Eucharistic Adoration. They have a better understanding.”
Attend the youth Mass
Does your parish have a Mass designed specifically for children and teens? If so, try your best to attend that Mass. There will be plenty of other children there—possibly some of their friends from school. This will help your children see going to church as a normal part of life. So much of what they are exposed to on television or out in the world tells them that church is boring and unnecessary, but when they see their playmates and other children at Mass, it helps them feel like Mass is a place where they belong.
Make Sunday a family day
Children love to spend time with their parents. Our weeks are full of school, work, and errands, so make Sunday a day for family time, and your kids will look forward to it all week.
“Donuts are great and should not be overlooked as a way to create positive associations with going to Mass,” says Tierney. “We always have a special breakfast. On donut day the kids are really excited; they know that what we do on Sunday is go to Mass and spend the day together.”
Attending daily Mass is an excellent way to help your children be more comfortable with church. They will see their parish as a second home. However, if it’s impossible to get to Mass every day, make sure you are at least praying every day as a family. You can even make a point of going over the daily readings together.
Jesus wants your children to be at church, tantrums and all. God has a plan for them, and that plan begins with their parents taking them to Mass consistently and helping them to understand its important role in our lives.