Continuing with the question: What do you expect from your children during Mass?
It's a question I think all Catholic parents wrestle with, one we've been fine-tuning for a long time. Right now we're instructing our eighth First Communicant (Anna) and have two toddlers after her waiting their turns. Also, before I married, I taught preschool, and 1st through 3rd grades at a Catholic school, so I've taught scads of preschool through First Holy Communion age children. Some were sweethearts, some were stinkers, most were a little of both. But, unique as all children are, no matter the situation, one thing's always true: They're all capable of living up to high expectations. As long as the expectations are reasonable and they are taught patiently.
So, what's reasonable? In my mind, reasonable expectation means not requiring more than the mental or physical ability of a child can muster. But, don't sell your kids short! This amounts to more than many folks realize. It's amazing how much the smallest children can muster, if we expect greatness from them -- and if we teach them to expect it of themselves.
One thing's for sure, though: if we don't require our children to behave properly, they won't. If we don't teach them, they can't.
So, how should we teach them to behave in Mass? What should we expect?
Certainly, all children are different (some mature a bit more quickly than others; some are thinkers, some are doers; some just have longer attention spans than others), but there are benchmarks that most children should be able to meet, in the broad sense, and specifically as it relates to their behavior in Mass.
First of all, I think we all recognize the "age of reason" as the growing up season, with the reception of First Holy Communion as the concrete dividing line where Church-time behavior is concerned. I believe that, by the time children reach this age, usually around the ages of six or seven (barring ADD or the like), they are more than capable of sitting still for an hour in Mass, give or take. But, if a child is three years old, we can't expect him to behave perfectly in Mass yet. Hopefully, he's on his way, but the learning curve can be long sometimes... For this reason, we don't take our toddlers to movie theaters or formal affairs where they would likely embarass us. In fact, if we have the option of "trading off " Masses, we don't take our toddlers with us to Mass, either. But when we do take them, we expect our Littles to have learned to at least be quiet in church by the time they're two-and-a-half to three years old.
How, you say? Well...
Mom and Dad Have to be Trained First
Starting when they're infants we never, ever allow our children to be noisy in the church proper. This is not a discipline we expect of the baby, mind you, but of ourselves. If our wee ones start to make a peep, we take them out immediately -- or sooner. It may seem that three-week-olds are too young to teach, but let me tell you, they're not too young to learn. When we allow an infant to cry, fuss, wiggle, crawl, etc in church, why shouldn't she assume that's acceptable behavior? Over time it sinks in: Churchtime is the same as hometime -- with pews. Not a good precedent to set. At some point, we're going to have to break a noise or wiggle habit we've allowed to get started -- and it's easier to prevent than to stop it once it's started.
We also never let our little one's fannies touch the pew, or their feet touch the floor (or kneeler) until we know that when put down they can be trusted to be relatively still and face forward in the pew. I think most of us have had stare-downs with toddlers in the pews in front of us. Just a little distracting. And another bad habit that will have to be broken sooner or later.
Most of our kids have learned to be still and face forward, with very little problem by the time they're three, but we've had a couple of ringers. There's always at least one in the crowd, and for us, it's been our two kinesthetic learners, Dominic and William, our "on the go" boys. These kinds of children are more of a challenge to train to be still, but it's all the more important to take the time and trouble to do it. Because we couldn't put them down without pandemonium, Dan and I had to hold both of the little chunks all the way through Mass fifty-two weeks a year, plus Holy Days, until they were around three years old. Stubborn little guys. But Mom and Dad were more stubborn. Ha! (You should see the muscles in my arms from holding toddlers that I couldn't trust to put down!)
Some things we've learned about the infant - toddler stage Mass training:
* Never allow a wiggleworm to sit next to a sibling who is a temptation. This seems like an obvious caution, but you might be surprised how many times in a big family, the shuffle gets wrong as we file into the pew, and Mama doesn't notice until there's a donnybrook at the far end. (And then it's really my head that needs to be rolled...)
* Provide something quiet for an infant to teeth on, or for a toddler to hold -- a small picture missal or saints' book is ideal. Until a child is three or four years old, we allow them to bring their blankies in, as well. They're quiet and comforting and not a distraction to anyone around them.
* As a toddler matures, usually before age four, she can be expected to start learning how to fold her hands properly through Mass. Our rule is that, unless the children are holding a missal (or other prayer book of some kind), their hands should be properly folded. This is a wonderful discipline for children, especially future altar servers, but it also keeps them from fidgeting, and making noise and distraction. (They generally choose to hold their missals, which is exactly what we want them to do...)
* If all the children are required to visit the restroom before Mass begins (which means Mom and Dad have a duty to get them to Church in time to take care of this detail), noone can use that excuse for leaving Mass. No child under seven in our family is excused from this mandatory visit, and no child is allowed to leave Mass because they say they need to use the restroom. If they can sit through a two hour movie without going to the bathroom, they can last through Mass, as well.
* Always, always, always feed the pre-Communion children before coming to Mass. I cannot stress this enough. There is no reason to expect small children to fast before Mass, and everyone around them will have to pay for their crankiness if they're hungry. (We prepare small baggies of dry cereal ahead of time -- the lower sugar variety -- so the Littles can eat them on the go, while everyone else is dressing, or in the car on the way to Mass.)
* On the other hand, never, never, never allow children to eat in the church (except for baby bottles). This sets up a precedent you will eventually have to break, it litters the church, and is a distraction to everyone around you -- especially other small children. If a small child has been fed before coming to Mass, he can and should be quietly distracted when necessary with something besides food. Or he can be brought out.
By the time they're walking and talking...
With our encouragement, and, as the years go by, the encouragement of their older siblings,
Mass day is a day the children all look forward to. The Littles want to know when they get to go to Jesus' House (Gabe is always asking,"When is Church day?), and the older children are all talk about what Mass the choir will be singing for the season or feast. And I want to be clear that this isn't an accident of geneological piety; I don't want to sound like I'm bragging here. Our kids can act out with the best of them! There are days when I'd like to give the whole gang of them to the next passing caravan of gypsies. (Bless their hearts...) But, over time, they do learn that Jesus' House is not the place to try their luck. They come to understand with their hearts and heads the sacrifice of love at which they're assisting. It's bad enough to displease Mom and Dad, but it's humiliating to displease Our Lord -- there present in the tabernacle.
How we help the love along...
Once we've laid a good foundation with our infants and toddlers, training our First Communicants has never been much trouble. The hard work has already been done. Every year, we spend time going over the Mass with all of the children during our school day so the smallest grow up learning the importance of the Holy Sacrifice. When we begin our formal First Communion Catechism, we explain abstractly and physically what reverence and courtesy mean during Mass.
Here is a little exercise to play out every so often for the benefit of all the children, toddlers and up:
Get a child conspirator (usually the hammiest one you've got) and have him act out "good child/ bad child" scenarios.
here for some specifics on royalty courtesy.) Teach the girls how to curtsy and the boys to bow.
What next: You get to be the queen of course (unless someone else is an obvious choice!), you choose a royal guard (Dad is really the best for this job, but an older brother works well, too), and you set up the secret "lout" (Your ham...). When everything's ready, and everyone knows the protocol, the queen gets to process regally into the room. The children behave appropriately. Except for the lout. And the Royal Guard escorts him out, while everyone else gets to either be knighted or given a royal petit four (or somesuch).