One of the best lessons I took from my days as a Totus Tuus instructor was that as a teacher, you are not there to get something out of Mass. You are there to help the children get something out of it. Learning this helped to relieve the stressful thoughts during Mass that often lead to completely unrelated thoughts. One minute I would be telling myself to concentrate. This would undoubtedly be interrupted by breaking up some chattering kiddos, followed by a mental note to ask so-and-so a question, followed by wondering what was for lunch, followed by a reminder to concentrate. Daily Mass for an entire summer with children is exhausting, yet completely amazing. Their tiny voices singing “Lord Prepare Me” and lecturing is just purely joyous. I found quite often that when I let go of forcing the concentration, I got so much more out of Mass and other daily tasks just by following their lead and focusing on what they needed to understand or enjoy things. One of my favorite parts about the weekly plan in a parish was the church tour. It is amazing to see the difference in how different age groups behave in Mass after learning more about the church itself: the stained glass art, the alter… just getting the chance to explore and ask questions really seemed to invest them a little more in the week’s events; especially the Mass itself.
It is amazing to me that I spent two summers responsible for getting hoards of children, grades 1-8, to behave in daily Mass but at the mere thought of wrangling my 2.5 year old son and my 9 month old daughter for an hour and a half I break into a cold sweat. The squirming, the acrobatics, the outbursts that include the following gems “up, down, up, down, up, down!”, “No mom, those are MY pants!”, “Look! SHAPES!” and on a few occasions an endless stream of knock-knock jokes or the alphabet song… I need at least 5 more hands and 10 times the patience, and these are my own kids! I remind myself through sometimes very clenched teeth that I love them dearly.
Most of the problems we have had occur for two reasons: we moved across the country a little over a year ago and my son is just at that age. Before we moved he was a little wiggly, but there were many more things to look at in church before we moved. He was familiar with his surroundings. We visited a few parishes when we first moved, and I think he had a hard time settling in. WE had a hard time settling in. There is a general expectation where we currently live that toddler age and younger should be in the nursery during Mass, not in Mass. In fact, we have been told this so many times, that I feel guilty going to the main church for Mass at all, and we go to the chapel for the Children’s Mass (I will note that even here we are given snotty looks and told about the nursery and how wonderful it is. They also remove most of the kids for Sunday school once the readings begin until the Eucharistic prayer. These things seem contrary to the concept of a Children’s Mass to me, but I digress.) I do not feel this pressure is coming from the priests. My husband was told that the current priest took out the cry rooms, and on many occasions we have run into him mid-meltdown and he just smiles and encourages us to stay and be a part of the Mass. The pressure comes from other parents. Parents I suspect use the nursery. I have a theory that this attitude could have something to do with the fact that in this diocese, tuition for the Catholic schools is not free, but you do get a discounted rate if you are a regular parishioner that tithes. The public schools are not the greatest in our area, and there is a high demand for private education. It is possible that Mass attendance is slightly obligatory for those that want to give us the stink eye. It is also entirely possible that my children are not as adorable as I think they are (Seriously, what 2 year old tells knock-knock jokes?) No matter the reason, there was a period of time where Mass on Sundays was so exhausting, that it left me in a bad mood the rest of the day. We kept going. I tried to remember all the things about Totus Tuus that made things easier. I was not concerned so much with what I was getting out of it, but that maybe he wasn’t getting anything out of it at all. I worry often about my children being able to enjoy and embrace their faith, and this worry stems from the fact that our prayers at home are virtually non-existent. I asked my Grandma the last time I called her how she handled her kids at this age in Mass. I was shocked to find out she didn’t. My daily communicant grandmother (that I think secretly has the pope on speed dial) left her kids at home when they were young and went to Mass solo. I know that 50 years ago things were very different in regards to vehicle travel, etc. but she lives two blocks from the church. It gave me some things to think about to say the least. I began to evaluate how I wanted to do things with my own family. I wanted my children to experience the Mass in its entirety. I wanted them to feel welcome: to know they are an important part of the laity. I wanted them to be able to calm down long enough to experience it, and I wanted us to go to Mass as a family.
Then one Sunday, he was mildly good. Good enough for us to attempt an experiment: we took him to the after Mass doughnut shin dig. We picked out the biggest, chocolatiest , sprinkliest doughnut there, complete with lemonade. The fact that the gym floor has big paw print decals that look like Blue’s Clues was just a bonus. That was a month ago, and his behavior has only improved. Yes, I shamelessly bribe my beautiful, smart and energetic children with sugar to get them to concentrate for Mass, and it absolutely works. He stands by the stained glass window and looks at the shapes until Mass begins. I have a few minutes where I can talk to him about what is happening in front of us. He knows we go to pray to God. He shouts “AMEN!” at appropriate times. He knows the sign of the cross. He is distracted by candles and the bells. He may not pay attention the entire hour and a half, but he is quiet and easier to handle. Best of all, I do not loathe the experience anymore.
To all those parents out there that have had similar Mass experiences, IT GETS BETTER! What works for one, may not work for another. My kids are not bad kids. My son is energetic and I can barely sit for 90 minutes, so expecting him to be able to do so is ridiculous. Mass is during my daughter’s nap time, and she really likes her space when she sleeps (AKA do-not-touch-me-I-am-tired syndrome. Her mother suffers from it as well.). The doughnut may not work forever, but at least it let me get my foot in the door in regards to teaching him about our faith. It gave me a chance to practice what Totus Tuus was preparing me for. Ignore the snotty looks and comments. You are there to participate in the Eucharist. You are just awesome enough to make sure your children are there to do the same!