Mass, Mass bag

Surviving Mass with Little Ones: Our Top Ten Tips

Last Sunday after Mass, there was a long line for the bathroom. When it was finally our turn, my children and I squeezed into the only open stall (not the handicapped accessible one with the changing table, unfortunately). When I opened the door to herd everyone toward the sink for handwashing, the kids tumbled out into the bathroom like undersized occupants of a clown car. A woman who was waiting her turn looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “Wow, they sure are all close together, aren’t they?”

They aren’t that close together, but they’re close enough to make certain things, like group bathroom trips and attendance at Mass, challenging. Right now, we have four kids under six, and two of them are two year olds. (That’s one thing about twins…they are usually pretty close in age.)

When I dreamed about having children, I never imagined the part about struggling to get them to behave in church week after week. Attending Mass with tiny children can feel like a full-contact sport. By the time church is over, I am often sweating from the physical effort of managing my four little angels. Sometimes, on Monday, my arms or my chest or my quads are actually sore.

Why didn’t anyone warn us about this ahead of time and give us some tips? We could have started training in advance. Perhaps an exercise DVD handed out at baptismal classes would be helpful.  I picture a video with a roomful of parents lined up in their Sunday clothes, shuffling sideways through pews without knocking people over while carrying huge diaper bags, scooping Cheerios off the floor while doing deep knee bends in the aisle, passing fussy toddlers back and forth at chest level like medicine balls, balancing their hymnals with two fingers while holding a squirmy baby on one hip and blocking the pew exit with the opposite knee.

If you are a new or expectant parent, you might find this a little hard to imagine, but kneeling while holding a squirmy baby away from the back of the pew (so she can’t eat the pencils and missals or chew the hair of the woman in front of you) can be almost as good as an ab workout. 

I’m only sort of kidding. 

Once we are all sitting down, the physical challenges ease up a little, but the mental challenges have just begun. As I try to occupy everyone as quietly as possible until Mass begins, I notice that people around me are actually praying silently and reverently. I remember that I, too, used to do that, and I wonder how long it will be before I can close my eyes in church without worrying about someone falling out of the pew. I settle for repeating, “Lord, have mercy,” over and over in my mind. When my husband gives me a weird look, I realize that I’ve actually been saying it out loud.

So what are we supposed to do, those of us who want to have our children with us during church? Is it impossible to experience Mass as a family with young children?

It’s not impossible.

Although the physical challenges can be grueling, surviving church with little ones doesn’t have to feel like the weekly equivalent of a marathon. Some common sense, some time-tested tricks, and a well-stocked Mass bag go a long way toward getting our family through Mass in one piece.   

Here are the Top Ten Things I have learned in my six short years of taking my children to Mass: 

1. We always bring the Mass bag.

Our Mass bag has changed as our children have changed. When I first wrote about it here, we only had one child who was old enough to be distracted by most of the books and items in the bag. Now, he is old enough to follow along in his missal and use a Mass worksheet or Magnifikids to help him focus. His Mass behavior isn’t perfect, but it’s come a long, long way. 

Even though some of the items in our bag have changed, my guidelines for deciding what goes in it are still the same:

  • We don’t include snacks. I know other parents who successfully put snacks in the bag for their family, but it’s just too messy for us. Before we made this rule, many Cheerios rolled far away under multiple pews and were crushed by others’ feet three rows ahead. We crawled around under the pews after church trying to clean them up…it was just too much to handle.
  • The items need to be church-related. There is time every other minute of every other day to play with our regular toys. The things in this bag are special, are only be used at church, and are to help our children develop their spiritual imaginations. 
  • No bad art. The pictures have to be beautiful. Three of my children aren’t readers yet, so the pictures are all they have. I still remember the pictures from the Bible I had as a child…those illustrations shape the way our kids imagine Jesus and heaven and many other important things. There’s no room in our bag for silly cartoon illustrations – I want the art to be good quality (and worthy of helping to shape someone’s image of God…that’s pretty important, don’t you think?).
  • The things in the bag have to encourage the children to be quiet. If they make our group volume go up even slightly, they’re out. This is why we no longer have crayons in our bag. There was too much discussion about colors and who should have the yellow and who broke the tip off the magenta. (I love colors and I know God made them and everything, but we can talk about crayons after church.)
  • No tiny pieces that will be lost under the pews. I choose not to deal with this. We have too much going on already.
  • I don’t want the items to distract the people around us. That includes other people’s children who might be sitting nearby. 

Based on these criteria, here’s what is inside our current Mass bag:

rosaries for each child

a set of holy cards on a ring

clipboards with paper and ballpoint pens (always one extra pen, just in case one stops working or gets dropped)

SuperSam’s Magnifikid or a Mass worksheet

a few board books that rotate with the liturgical year

a picture missal

Sometimes I include our Betty Lukens felt book, but I found that having it in there every week made the girls more likely to fight over it. 

2. Everyone goes to the bathroom before church starts. This means we need to get there early. Sometimes we don’t manage this, but it’s our goal.

3. We always pack four more diapers than we think we will need. Just trust me on this one. We’ve never needed all four, but we’ve come close.
4. When we have a child under age two, I always wear my baby sling, even if George is carrying the baby. Chances are, I’m going to need an extra set of hands, and the sling is the closest thing I have.

5. I usually wear my charm bracelet…not as a lucky charm, but as a distraction. I’ve been collecting charms for it since middle school, and it can distract a child in my lap for quite a long time. Even SuperSam still likes to turn it around on my wrist to look for his favorites.  

6. We are choosy about our seats. We try to sit near the end of a pew so we can escape easily if someone needs to be taken out. We also try to be close enough to the front so that our children can see what’s happening, but far enough back that we are not distracting if our people get wiggly. Arriving early helps a lot with this, too. If we come in too late to find those choice seats, we err on the side of caution and sit in the back. We’re also careful about how we position ourselves as barriers among the children. If two of them have been fighting the whole way there in the car, they’re getting separated during Mass.

7. We use bribery when necessary. We often stop for donuts or another treat after Mass if everyone has behaved well. 

8. Until our kids are about 3 years old, their feet don’t touch the floor at Mass. They can choose to sit on our laps or beside us on the pew, but when we stand up, we pick them up, too. This helps keep them out of trouble but also makes it easier for them to see what’s happening.

9. We are clear about our expectations for behavior at church. We make these expectations developmentally appropriate and we go over them every week before we go inside. Quiet whispers. Quiet hands and feet. Stay in your own space. Stand, sit and kneel when we do. Beyond that, we hope they will follow along and sing and pray the parts they know, but we don’t force this. This year, SuperSam will be starting preparation for First Communion, so we will raise the expectations for him accordingly. 

10. We take deep breaths, work as a team, and don’t despair if we have a terrible week where no one behaves well. Everyone has off days. It doesn’t mean our children will never behave at Mass. It doesn’t mean they are godless heathens and that we are doing a terrible job of raising them in the faith. It means we skip the donuts that week and try again the next week. (Or it might mean the children skip their donuts and the grownups still get them, depending on how much we had to endure.)

As SuperSam has gotten older, he has done much better at church and usually sits quietly now. Most weeks, he even participates in large portions of the Mass. My twins are also getting older, but they are not necessarily getting any easier to manage in a church service yet. We still hold them a lot of the time. They are, however, getting heavier all the time, which makes them more challenging to hold during church. By the time they are four or five, I will have the most amazing biceps of anyone I know. People will ask me what I do to get in shape. 

I’ll just tell them we go to Mass every week.

This post is part of a kids + Mass blog carnival! Check out these other great posts on handling children in Mass:

27 Books for Your Mass Bag (and Tips for Dealing with Little Ones in Mass) at Carrots for Michaelmas

Survival Skills for Mass with Kids at Fountains of Home

Mass Effect: Why We Bring Our Kids to Church at two Os plus more

Age-Appropriate Goals for Mass Behavior at Catholic All Year

church, faith, frustration, Lent, Mass, parenting

My inner Mary is dehydrated.

Holy Water Font, St. John’s Abbey (photo by Nancy M. Raabe)

My parish used to take the water out of the holy water font during Lent.

Although they stopped doing that a number of years ago, I still remember the feeling of oddly-dry fingers on the way in to Mass that accompanied the stripped-down altar and the absent Alleluia.

I came to the Catholic Church incrementally, but part of what drew me in was the quiet, prayerful holiness of the Mass and the diversity of prayer practice in the tradition. My introverted soul craves quiet contemplation, longs to rest in silence and drink it all in. I remember the days when I used to arrive early to Mass just to kneel and soak it up, letting my soul stretch and reach upward as everyone was arriving. I felt I connected with God at every turn then, and when I left Mass each week, I carried the fiercely burning light of Christ at the very center of my being, so hot that I could physically feel it behind my breastbone.

In the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, I was Mary all the way…sitting at Jesus’ feet and hanging on his every word. 

Fast forward to now, and I feel like it’s all passing me by. I’m exhausted. I’m surrounded by clamor and chaos, and it’s my job to restore order. I’m in full-Martha survival mode.

Smiling on Mother’s Day…after Mass, of course.

Getting us all to church each week feels like an epic challenge, managed only by my most careful planning and hard work. I try to streamline Sunday morning as much as possible, but by breakfast, we’re often running late. We are never early (partly because we run late almost everywhere these days, and partly because getting to church early just means our little people have to stay put in the pews longer), but I wish we were on time more often.

When we arrive, we park and unload everyone, lugging them into church from the parking garage with the huge diaper bag stocked with distractions and extra clothes and diapers, praying that we will make it through the Mass without at least one child needing to be removed for tears or tantrums. We spend our time not sitting in quiet prayer, but bouncing, walking, whispering, shushing, swaying, pointing at words in books, turning pages, rescuing runaway crayons, preventing people from rolling on the floor, and trying not to be distracting. There are weeks when we spend the entire Mass out in the foyer with toddlers who are driven to walk, to climb, to talk about everything they see. 

I know that’s how God created them. That’s how they experience the world – it’s what they do at this stage in their lives. They are too young to understand about sitting for that long, and we are outnumbered. We bring things to distract them, but the laws of toddler physics are inevitable: eventually, a toddler-not-in-motion will become a toddler-in-motion…and woe to the mother who tries to impede that toddler.

If we are in the foyer, I always sneak back into the church for Eucharist carrying whichever Sister is least likely to make a scene. The priest often makes comments in his lengthy post-Mass announcements about how people should stay through the final hymn, but we usually sneak out again.

When I was Mary, I always stayed through the final hymn. (Honestly, I even judged other people for leaving before the final words had been sung.)
Now Martha is in charge, and she knows that sometimes, we need to cut our losses and get out of there as quickly as possible.

By the time we reverse our arrival process, stuffing the coat-clad, frustrated children back into the car before grabbing lunch quickly in our attempt to make it home before nap time (so we can collapse when the children are sleeping), I’m often in tears, sweaty with exertion. I’m exhausted from the struggle of managing it all. Sometimes my arms are actually shaking from the physical effort of keeping it all together. Most weeks, I only know what the readings are if I managed to read them ahead of time (as the chances of my absorbing much of what is said are low).

Parenting on Sundays sometimes feels like as much work as all the other days added together.

My friends who are not churchgoers wonder why we do this every week. If it’s so hard, why are we putting ourselves through it? Surely God would understand if we came back in a couple of years when everyone was better able to handle it?

God would understand, yes. But it’s not God I’m worried about.

It’s me.

I’ve written before about how I think it benefits our little ones to be in church with us, but when it comes down to it, I’m the one who really needs to be there. I need to dip my fingers in the font. (There’s plenty of water there now; it’s my soul that is parched.) I need to sing, even if I don’t remember all the words and can’t manage holding a hymnal (or am caught in the foyer without one). I need to lock eyes with the child that is challenging me most and say, “Peace be with you.” I need to encounter Christ. And in that one small moment after receiving Eucharist, I need to take a deep breath, look into the face of Jesus on the cross and say, “Yes.” Or maybe, “Lord, have mercy.” Or maybe nothing at all.

I need to be Mary again, just for a second.

Even if I’m struggling the entire time, in that one moment, there is strength to sustain me. I can do this for the rest of this day, for another day, for another week. I am not alone in my work of mothering these children. My work is God’s work. My children are God’s children. God loves them infinitely more than I do, and God loves them through me and in spite of me…and as long as I remember that, I cannot fail them entirely.

I’m so grateful for the gifts of their lives. I tuck them in every single night with a blessing and the words, “I’m so thankful to be your mama.” I’m working hard, and I’m learning to manage, and I’m a Martha-among-Marthas most days: capable, organized, and on top of my game.

But today, the Mary in my soul would really, really like to just rest quietly at Jesus’ feet and drink her fill.

church, Mass, Mass bag, parenting

Church with little kids: Betty Lukens Felt Books

If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been working on our Mass bag for SuperSam and the Sisters. We take this bag along to church so we have items at hand to help occupy and engage our squirmy brood.

This past weekend at church, the family behind us had two young children and an infant. Somehow, their children were perfectly still and quiet despite not having “stuff” along to keep them that way. Because I was occupied with wrestling the Belle to thwart her pre-walking pew escape skills and preventing SuperSam from rolling his crayons across the floor, I was unable to discover those parents’ secret for managing their family (and looking so serene while doing it). Maybe they bribed the kids with the promise of Happy Meals after Mass. Maybe the mother had a taser in her purse. Maybe their kids are just further along the path to sainthood.

It doesn’t really matter – handling my children requires serious energy during church. I need some resources to keep everyone reasonably happy and engaged, and I’m willing to incur judgment from people blessed with less wiggly children if necessary.

On my search for appropriate items for our church bag, I came across these felt books from Betty Lukens. Remember Betty Lukens? Her company designed the felt board stories we used to do in Sunday School when we were children.

I was the girl that loved Sunday School…the paste, the little metal scissors, the wooden chairs arranged in a half-circle. I loved it all (at least until I started asking the types of questions that frustrated my teachers and got me sent out to talk with the Minister of Education in his office). The only thing more thrilling to me than winning the Bible drills (where we flipped frantically through the tissue-thin pages of the Bible to find the verse before anyone else did) was being asked to put one of the felt pieces up on the board during the story. The felt grass was so green, and the felt sky was so blue…and the little sheep on the hillside looked so white and fluffy.

I loved those sheep. And I loved, loved, loved those stories.

Now a grown-up, mama version of my goody-goody Sunday School-loving self, I was really excited to find that Betty Lukens has started making portable felt activity books with the same kinds of stories that were on the big felt boards. They have several different ones available and were kind enough to send me the Old Testament Bible Stories to try out for our Mass bag.

There was some work to do to assemble the book. The kit arrived with everything but the scissors and glue. The pieces and pages were arranged in a single, big sheet of felt to be cut out.


Two pages of directions contained everything I needed to know to put the book together. After the cutting was done, pages were glued together on three sides with the top left open to form a pocket. This allows for storage of the pieces for each page inside the pocket, keeping everything together. (Due to the odd number of pages, the last page does not have a back, so there is no pocket for these pieces. I solved this by making a cover for the book and gluing the final page to the back of the cover.) The cutting and assembly took about an hour from start to finish and left quite a pile of felt scraps. I used hot glue for everything that needed to be put together, which worked very well.

There is a slit in the fish’s mouth so he can swallow Jonah.

The book is a great addition to our Mass bag. SuperSam likes taking all the pieces out and arranging them on the pew in rows before putting them into the book. I like that this is a quiet activity that occupies his fingers without raising his decibel level. I also like that he is learning some stories in a hands-on way that engages his imagination.

One joy of parenting is passing on to my children things that I loved when I was their age. I’m pleased to find that these felt stories are as interesting and enjoyable for my little boy as they were for me when I was little.

(It will be okay, though, if he’s not quite the Sunday School nerd that I was.)

Disclosure: Betty Lukens provided me with a felt activity book to review for this post. I was not compensated for this review.

activities, church, Mass, Mass bag, parenting

Church with little kids: What’s in your Mass Bag?

We sat in a pew in the main part of the church that Sunday because we were actually on time. The Sisters were settled on our laps, and SuperSam was snuggled between us. There was some wiggling, but the children were content. We had made it through the opening hymn, the confession, the first reading. Just when we thought things were going pretty well, there was that moment. The moment when, during a quiet lull between Scripture readings, SuperSam burst out at full volume, “You didn’t bring me anything else to keep me occupied?”

Our parish usually has Children’s Church during part of the 10:00 AM Sunday Mass, and SuperSam enjoys his class there. In the summer, though, or if we have to go to a different Mass for some reason, he sits with us. I know it’s not developmentally appropriate to expect him to follow along with the entire Mass at 4 years old, but we feel that he gains something by being part of the gathered Body of Christ, even if he isn’t completely able to engage with everything that is happening.

My hope is that the sound of the music, the rhythms of the prayers and the responses will wash over him, imprint upon him, become part of his sense of what church feels like. He can kneel and stand and sit when we do, even if he’s not entirely aware of what it all means yet. Being part of the Mass with us, even as he’s staring up at the stained glass windows or watching the candles is slowly developing his liturgical awareness. Even taking part in small ways is growing his God-image and feeding his spiritual imagination.

The ways in which SuperSam participates in church are growing as he does. He always dips his fingers into the font on the way in and out of the sanctuary (though we have to lift him up so he can reach, which is no small feat while balancing a baby on one hip and the enormous diaper bag on the other!). He’s excited to offer the sign of peace to others, especially The Sisters. He loves receiving a blessing when we go up for Eucharist. He sings along with the simple, prayerful song that is always sung after we return to our seats. He likes to be the one to put money into the collection basket. He sometimes asks to light a candle for someone after church, especially if our family has been praying for that person at home.

And yes, sometimes he throws himself down on the floor in protest during the prayers and won’t get up, which usually leads to George and I hauling him up by his arms and holding his dead weight between us as we smilingly sing the Our Father. (Please, try not to stare. This could be your kid next week…or five minutes from now.)

Given how active SuperSam is, we have found there’s a real need for something that he can do, something on which he can focus during the homily and during the longer readings. So many words are spoken, and most of them pass over his head. Mass can feel incredibly long for such a small, squirmy, talkative boy.

With this in mind, I began searching the for items for our Mass bag. It’s a simple blue tote bag with handles like you might find at any craft store. It could be decorated easily with paints or markers (and maybe someday, I’ll get SuperSam to help me do this). For now, we have been using an extra bag we had around the house.

Some things I kept in mind when putting our bag together:

  • We don’t include snacks. I know other parents who successfully put snacks in the bag for their family, but with three small people, it’s just too messy for us. Before we made this rule, many Cheerios rolled far away under multiple pews and were crushed by others’ feet three rows ahead. We crawled around under the pews after church trying to clean them was just too much to handle.
  • The items need to be somehow church-related. There is time every other minute of every other day to play with our regular toys. I want the things in this bag to be special, to only be used at church, and to help our children develop their spiritual imaginations.
  • The things in the bag have to encourage SuperSam to be quiet. They need to be somewhat interactive, but if they make his volume go up even slightly, they’re out. (It would be nice if they encouraged the Sisters to be quiet, too, but I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic.)
  • I can’t handle anything with tiny pieces that will be lost under the pews. We have too much going on already.
  • I don’t want the items to distract the people around us.

So far, here is what we have in our bag:

  • Baby board books for the sisters, one “baby’s first Bible” and one called Adam and Eve’s New Day by Sandy Eisenburg Sasso (a family favorite because of the amazing artwork)
  • The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes by Kenneth Taylor (which SuperSam never opens)
    • Crayons in an Altoid box (only a few, because they have a tendency to roll when dropped)
    • Bible story coloring book (we got ours at Dollar Tree, which had a surprisingly good selection)
    • Dry-erase wipe off board for writing or drawing
    • Lacing cards and string
    • Button string 
    • Wooden children’s rosary (more beloved by the sisters than by SuperSam at this point)
    • Children’s Missal book with the order of Mass so he can follow along (so far, he likes to follow through the Gloria but often loses interest after that)
    • Prayer cards on a ring with pictures of Jesus, various Bible stories, saints and angels

    • Betty Lukens felt book of Bible stories – a new addition, and my favorite item so far. Interactive but quiet (except when SuperSam feeds Jonah to the whale and says “nom nom nom” in what he believes is a quiet voice). Each page has a different familiar Bible story with felt pieces that can be placed on the page. (Stay tuned for a review of this item next week!)

    I’m thinking about making a photo book with pictures from the children’s baptism. I’d like to be able to rotate the items out so that the bag contents change somewhat. Especially in weeks with multiple Masses, sometimes the novelty wears off.

    Do you have a church bag for your children? What’s in it?