So, Your Toddler is Terrible in Mass . . .

I shared this image on the Catholic All Year Facebook page over the weekend:

I love this quote from Pope Benedict XVI. It comes from a question and answer session he had in St. Peter's Square in 2005 with some children who had just had their First Communion.

Some folks loved it, and found it inspirational. But for others, it touched a nerve a bit.

Kaitlin from More Like Mary - More Like Me wrote me an email:
Help! I just saw your meme about going to Mass as a family and it made me so sad. For the past month or so, we've been putting our son in the nursery for Mass. He's 16 months old. Our daughter (3) stays with us. I miss him so much when we're at Mass and he's not with us. However, his behavior is awful. . . .
Let me esplain . . . No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I. I'm so sorry! That's absolutely the hardest age. One year olds are hard. They are hard in Mass. And on airplanes. And when you're trying to cook dinner. THEY ARE HARD. And if you had an abnormally easy one to start with (which I did NOT) well, God bless ya, a regular one year old must be quite a thing to get used to.

II. I think we all, as moms and as Catholics, think that somehow our children should desire things like Mass and prayers. We want them to pray out of love for God and it feels wrong to "force" them to do it. The problem is, that we are all fallen creatures, even our beautiful children, and we don't naturally desire what's good for us.

Behaving properly for Mass isn't a religion issue, it's just a general behavior and obedience issue.

III. Whether or not to discipline a one year old is a parenting decision. You can choose to do it, or you can choose to wait. We do discipline one year olds, with success. But I know plenty of lovely people who don't.

I can't quite tell from the question (which was longer, but excerpted above) whether your preference would be to keep putting him in the nursery for the time being, or have him with you in Mass, or whether you don't even know what your preference is. So, I will address all three options.

1. If putting him in the nursery works, go for it. Three year olds are much more able to understand consequences and follow instructions than one year olds. If you choose to wait, it DOES NOT mean he'll never learn to behave and you'll never be able to attend Mass together.

In my experience, one year old is the hardest age. Infants can nurse or sleep, two year olds have their own things going on, but are a lot easier in a lot of ways, (I kind of love two, actually) three year olds have the drama thing, but can usually keep it in check during Mass for the promise of a donut.

If you choose to put off the instruction for a bit, you can be more conversational and less authoritarian about it. Maybe. Some kids are always going to respond better to a more authoritarian approach. But in any case, if you have an option for a place to put him, and that's working for your family, DO IT and don't fret about it.

2. If you would really prefer NOT to put him in the nursery, or for folks who WOULD put their toddler in a nursery, but that's not an option, you CAN do this. You can get a toddler to behave in a way that all but the very grumpiest church ladies should be comfortable with, and we really can't worry about those types anyway. So let's just not.

Here's how we accomplish Mass with a one year old:

We start small, with reasonable, age-appropriate expectations, clearly articulated in a way a toddler can understand, and backed up by set consequences and rewards.

Stay In the Pew
Quiet Voice
No Banging

We make sure our toddler understands what's expected of him ahead of time. We tell him that we expect the above behavior in Mass. We remind him the day before and the night before and in the car on the way over. And he knows that we Always Mean What We Say.

We bring quiet, tidy snacks for kids less than two, like fruit snacks or Cheerios, that get held and distributed by a grownup. No sippy cups, no books, no toys for one to two year olds, because in our experience books and toys make it really likely that our toddlers will violate expectations two and three above.

We sit up front. One year olds are allowed to sit in the pew or on the kneeler, they can stand on the ground or on the kneeler or even on the pew if it's a standing up time. They can go from one end of the family to the other (on the ground). The can go from one parent to the other. They just have to stay in the pew.

They can talk and ask questions, they just need to do it in a quiet voice. Even if it's not a very GOOD quiet voice. But they need to attempt it. Over two, we work on not talking.

No banging. Using the kneeler is okay. Banging the kneeler is not okay. Looking at the books is fine. Banging the books is not fine, etc.

All throughout Mass, I give whispered reminders and warnings and encouragement and information. The husband is great about holding a one year old and very quietly telling him what the priest is doing or what are the pictures in the windows etc.

If the toddler doesn't meet expectations, he gets a warning. "You must speak in a quiet voice in Mass. If you speak in a loud voice again we will have to take you out of Mass." Then, if we have to, we do. And we make sure that being taken out is no fun. I find it very effective to sit a one year old in a corner outside of the church, remind him of which expectation he wasn't meeting, and give him a quick little hand spanking. (For more on that topic, see here.) Then, once he's settled down, we come right back in.

We do it as often as behavior warrants. But as soon as they believe that I mean it, it becomes a lot less frequent. It still happens, but infrequently.

Then, after Mass, overall behavior is rewarded or punished, usually with donuts or no-donuts. There is a reason donuts have been available after Mass since time immemorial. They are a great motivator. If the toddler had to get taken out of Mass he DOES NOT get a donut. And the sadder he is about that fact the better.

In our house, being taken out of Mass also means you go straight to bed for your nap as soon as we get home from church. But again, once they believe we mean it, consequences become more infrequent.

That's what we do. It has worked for us with easy toddlers and hard toddlers. Calm but firm. Always mean what you say. Reasonable and age-appropriate expectations. Consistent, consistent, consistent. Same 'ol. Same 'ol. Same 'ol.

3. What if you don't know WHAT you want? What if part of you wants your family together in Mass, but part of you just doesn't want to deal with the back and forth and the looks from other parishioners who maybe are trying to be supportive but maybe are being judgey? And you just don't know. And the nursery or the cry room is very tempting. What then?

If that's where you are, I'd really, really encourage you to stick it out in the main church. That's what we do. I feel confident that my noisy toddler and I have just as much of a right to be in the main church as any of the other sinners in there. I'm going to make every effort to teach him right behavior in Mass, but I think the best place to do that is IN Mass.

Some weeks my kid is going to be the one acting up. Some weeks it's going to be your kid. It's okay.

And, REALLY, almost everyone is NOT mad that your kids are there, even if they are less than perfectly behaved. Some of the people craning their necks to get a look at you, just want to see your cute kid. Most of my early stress over how people were reacting to my children was coming from my own insecurities, not actually from other people.

If we just all stayed in the main church with our kids, took them out as necessary, and did just our best with them, perhaps we could finish off once and for all that climate of baby shushing that seems to have snuck in from someplace. I think Pope Francis would agree. (And Pope Benedict. And St. JPII.)

That said, I'm not here to try to make you do something you're not comfortable with. This doesn't have to be YOUR crusade. All of my suggestions are gleaned from my own personal experience with my own personal children. Your children may vary. And, of course, special needs kids are going to need special expectations and concessions. You know what your child is ready for. If you or your kid can't do it right now, then don't. But don't give up. And don't be chased off by the shushers.