How to engage small children during Mass

by Timothy Olson

Having small children at Mass is a challenge. My oldest child is five, my middle is about a year and a half, and my youngest will be born any day now. Every child is different, and their ages have a lot to do with how much of the Mass they are capable of engaging in. Over the last several years, I’ve learned a few things that I find useful.

First, no matter how old your kids are, being extra affectionate at Mass helps set the stage. I want my children to recognize that God’s house is the place where you come to be loved.

My family tries to sit where the kids can see what’s going on. This means sitting close to the front. Many parents are nervous to do this, but it pays off. My kids are better behaved when they can watch what is happening. Yes, we still have to take kids to the back if they get too fussy, but this seems to happen less when they can see. Moving a bit to the side lessens any embarrassment of having to go to the back.

Speaking of going to the back, I try to deal with a fussy kid in the pew. If they are acting up too much to stay, my next step is to take them to the back of the Church, but still inside the doors. Often this is enough to calm my kids (your mileage may vary). As a last resort, I’ll take them out the door, but only for a few moments. Keeping your kids in Mass probably bothers and distracts a few folks. Most people, though, give me a smile that says, “I get it. I remember what that was like.” I want my kids to realize that Mass is for them. The kids are as much a part of the parish as we adults are. When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me” he didn’t add, “but only if they are perfectly behaved.”

Before I had kids, Mass was a time to sit quietly in the presence of God. Now that I’m a parent, I’m talking constantly to whichever kid will listen to me. During Mass I explain things and ask the kids questions. We talk about the stories in the artwork and windows, “That’s a picture of St. Nicholas. He was a bishop. Some people call him ‘Santa Claus.’” During the entrance procession, “Oh, look! Today there is a deacon. Do you see the deacon? How can you tell that’s a deacon and not a priest?” “Who are those kids sitting up there? What do you think they are there for?” During the readings, “Oh, this reading is from the Gospel of Luke! That’s your name!”

I know that my kids are too young to get much out of the homily, so I try to find one point that I can put into words they understand. “Today’s homily is about tithing. That’s when you give something back to God to say ‘thanks’ for all the good things he’s given you.” Later, I ask, “Do you remember what today’s homily was about?” I try to do it at least once more while we are at Mass and again after we leave.

When the offertory comes around, the kids put something in the basket. It might be their money, it might be Mom and Dad’s money, or it might be a picture they colored. I also explain what’s going on up front. “See that bread and wine? In a little bit the priest is going to change that into Jesus.” “Father is using incense. The incense is a sign of honor and of our prayers going up to God.”

Throughout most of the Mass, I’m pretty loose with whether my kids sit, stand, kneel, or lie down on the floor. Around the time of the consecration, that changes. I tell my son, “You need to kneel or stand now. No sitting. No coloring. Something important is about to happen.” This emphasizes that the consecration is a big deal. He might not understand why yet, but he knows it’s a big deal. During the elevations, I have my son repeat, “Hello Jesus, thank you for coming. Thank you for loving me. Help me to be more like you.” I also ask him to teach this to his little sister.

Every kid is different, and some of the things I mentioned might not work for your children. Mass is important to me, and I want my kids to know why. Hopefully these tips will help you to develop some ways to teach your own kids why Mass is important to you.

Timothy Olson is a father and canon lawyer in the Diocese of Fargo.