John is your typical toddler in most regards. He throws the occasional tantrum when he doesn’t get his way; he will eat an entire mini-pizza one day, and then claim to hate the mere sight of such a thing twenty-four hours later. John likes to read his board books and play with his puzzles; he likes running around at the park and going down the biggest slide that he can find at the playground. He follows around older kids like a lovesick puppy, and I often find him imitating them in every way he can.
In some ways, I know John is unique. His favorite food at the moment seems to be peas (though that might change next week), and even at more than two years old, he has never tried to climb out of his crib (knock on wood). He still likes his naps, and he still sleeps twelve hours a night. And John’s favorite pastime is going to Mass, and then playing Mass at home and making us play Mass with him…over and over again. So he’s not exactly your typical toddler.
John has been attending daily Mass regularly since he was about ten months old (I think). I know for sure that when we began, he had just begun taking two naps during the day, and we would attend the noon Mass at one of our local churches in between them. When he dropped to one nap, we switched to the 9am Mass at our home parish. At first, I did it for me. I really missed going to daily Mass. So I packed a cup of water, a snack cup, whatever stuffed animal he most favored (normally his stuffed bear named Teddy), and a handful of books, and I brought him to church with me. I would run through each distraction, and as long as the Mass didn’t go much longer than expected, we normally ran out of distractions just as Mass was ending. About the time John turned one, I abandoned the snack cup in favor of just books, and now, a year later, all John needs is his stuffed bear (or cat, or dog, or giraffe). Now, John doesn’t need to be distracted. In fact, if I tried to distract him, he would probably pitch a fit.
At first, I brought John to daily Mass for my own benefit. Now I do it just as much for me as for him. John loves going to Mass. He loves watching the priest, the altar servers, the lectors, and the ushers. And he loves watching you. He sees everything, and now more than ever, I am incredibly conscious of my behavior during Mass- and yours. John imitates our behaviors with great precision, and I know that the people in the pews are having a huge impact on his behavior during Mass.
In the beginning, John was content to “consecrate” just about anything that was vaguely host-shaped. Then he began carrying around a tension rod like it was the cross and he was an altar server. Then he began demanding that we be the priest to his altar server, or alternatively, the altar server to his priest. Sometimes he would demand that we hold a book for him and he would hold out his arms as if he was praying. Other days, he would demand that we follow him around as he carried his tension rod-cross from room to room. As he has gotten older, he has begun blessing everyone from us to his Teddy to the tiny table that has become his altar. He beats his breast during the confiteor, pretends to ring the bells at the consecration, and even bows at the appropriate time during the Nicene Creed. He learned all of this by watching us.
John’s love of the Mass has really made me consider my own behavior. I have become much more intentional in everything that I do, as have many of the people around me. Our fellow daily Mass-goers know that John is watching. They see him staring, studying our every movement. They know that when he bows, it’s because he saw them bow first. John’s focus has caused us to all become more focused. We are teaching my son to pray, and now more than ever I feel the need to be a stellar role model for him.
I honestly believe that taking John to daily Mass has had the largest impact on his behavior in church. For one, in the days when a full hour was just a bit too long for him, the thirty to forty minutes required to attend daily Mass were much more manageable. There are also less people in attendance, which means less distractions, and John and I can take an entire pew for ourselves right up front. Daily Mass also tends to have a different atmosphere than Sunday Mass. It is quieter, more reflective, and generally attracts a different sort of crowd. I have to admit, daily Mass with its mostly retired men and women (with the occasional young person, child, or infant thrown into the mix- John and I aren’t always the only ones in attendance) has been much smoother than Sunday Mass with its typical shenanigans going on. With so few people in the room, John can really pay attention to them, watch their actions, and imitate their movements. With the exception of the occasional difference in posture, we are all doing the same thing. We are all focused, facing forward, intent on what is happening on the altar. And when John sees that, he does the same.
So what’s the best way to teach John (and countless other toddlers) to pray, to teach him how to behave during Mass? Show him how it’s done. Be a good role model for him. Set a good example. People constantly compliment John and me about his behavior in church, but it’s as much me as it is you. People ask me how I got him to behave, and the answer is simple: we practice often, and I always try to set a good example. That being said, more often than not, John’s not watching me. He’s watching you. So what’s the best piece of advice I can give to a parent trying to get her child to behave during Mass? If possible, try to bring them to daily Mass so that they can watch everyone in a quieter, more focused setting. But of course, more importantly, just keep coming back. It might be difficult at first, but it does get easier, I promise. And just remember, even the best-behaved kids in Mass will sometimes have a bad day- just ask my son about the time that he realized midway through Mass that he’d brought Kitty Cat with him instead of Teddy Bear. End. Of. The. World.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!