Sunday, November 15, 2009

Whadda Ya Expect?

As "promised" -- or warned -- last Sunday, this is loooooong....  And I almost didn't post it, because it is so very lengthy, but also because I really worry that it will come off sounding preachy, or like I think I've got it all figured out.  Gosh, I hope anyone reading this who knows me knows I'm not that way.  And anyone who doesn't know me, please understand that I just really want to pass along a few things we've managed to pick up along the way.  Most of this is just good common sense we've learned from other experienced parents or wise Religious through the years, and much of this is information most parents already know... But I thought it would be useful to write it all down, for the sake of my own dwindling brain cells, and in the chance that there may be something here of use to someone else who might need it.  Please take what you like, and ignore the rest, or skip the whole long thing and come back tomorrow when I post something short and fluffy, if you like.  But, for those who may be interested, here we go:

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.

Patiently, meaning, we don't expect them to learn overnight. Patiently, meaning we retain our composure and teach with love no matter how we're provoked.  The more uptight we are about anything we're trying to teach, the more uptight the children will be.  And the more uptightight everyone is, the less real learning takes place.  (What the kids learn in these situations -- at best -- is to obey out of fear, and that's never the best way.)

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.

Now, you might have noticed (and you might have lived the fact), that many of us parents spend a lot of time in the vestibule or cry room.  I often feel like I've logged more time outside the church than inside the church during Mass over the last twenty-two years! You may want to speak to your own parish priest about it, but I've been assured that I've fulfilled my Sunday obligation from the cry room. My leaving in order to allow others to assist at Mass without distraction more than makes up for the amount of time I might have spent in the church, also distracted by my crying child.

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...

All human beings understand and respond to affection, and the best way for a child to understand the abstract notion of God's Love is to receive it through the gentle hands of his parents. Children love to be where love is, and it's up to us to make sure our children make this association with their Faith, particularly through the Mass. Mass time should be a happy time.  Like I already mentioned,  we never allow crying or whining in the Church, because we don't want it  to be a conditioned response every time we walk in the church building. On the other hand, though, we do everything we can to promote "warm fuzzies" while we're there.  Throughout the Mass, we give subtle winks of encouragement and hugs, or a small thumbs-up if a child is staying on the right page in their missal. If we ever need to correct the children, it's with a smile and a pat. It's only the most egregious and purposeful misbehaviour that is punished -- and then, that's done away from the church, so that no bad associations can be made subliminally.  And, then there are doughnuts.  The children know that doughnuts or some other treat awaits the well-behaved child after Mass is over.  Sometimes, I think this is really the only reason the children behave.  It's all about the sugar.  But, hey, it contributes to the "warm fuzzy" memories, and you know about bribery -- it works. 

Beyond Toddlers
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.

Set up:  Fancy up a chair for a pretend throne for the first lesson, then, if you have a free-standing kneeler and a chair, set up a mini pew for your second demonstration.  (Alternatively, two chairs, one in front of the other, with a pillow on the floor betwen works fine.)  First, you're going to play out the Queen of England routine:  Explain ahead of time what protocol is in the English court.  You could even make it a mini-school unit, if you wanted. (Go 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).    

Next comes a talk about how the queen of England expects and deserves certain respect here upon earth.  Most would never dream of misbehaving if they were invited to visit the queen.  We would not chew gum; we would not slouch in our chairs; we would not talk to someone else while she was speaking; we would not play with our cell phones or i-pods.  We would sit up straight and face where the queen was sitting; we would use our best English, speak when we were spoken to,  we would be clean and tidy; we would smell nice, and we would wear the nicest clothes we own.  All this, and Queen Elizabeth is a mere woman.  

You know, of course, where this is going. 

(Mad Little Boy illustration, below, by Maurice Sendak)

Our next scene, we place before the crucifix, and/or a facsimile altar, if we can arrange one, with our little "chair-pew" set up before it.  Everyone watches while our ham exhibits all the wrong postures.  (If your ham is creative and observant, he won't need to be prepped for this... but you can get with him or her ahead of time and script it if it makes you feel more comfortable.)  Once your ham is in place in the pew, and everyone is sitting behind watching,  Mom says, "Should Johnny or Jenny Q. Public  sit like this? (Our ham slouches).  Everyone says "No! How Rude!" and expresses other noises of disapproval.  "Should we sit like this?" Mom says. (And our ham hangs his armpits over the pew).  Everyone shouts, "No! How Rude!"  "How about like this?" (and our ham turns all the way around, staring at those of us behind him...) Everyone responds as before...  You get the idea.  Then, we have our ham exhibit the proper way to sit, stand, and kneel through Mass, followed by our praise. We connect the "courtesies" of court with the greater reverence we owe to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  Our genuflection is akin to a curtsy or bow, and our proper posture, dress and decorum are the very least we owe Our Lord when we visit Him in His earthly home.    Properly, the discussion ends with a prayer uniting our prayers to all the Masses being offered in the world.  This kind of visual, interactive lesson sticks with children, and the more fun we make it, the better they'll remember it. 

Some of our favorite resources to teach the children to understand and appreciate the Mass:
* Know Your Mass: An illustrated manual of instruction on the Traditional Mass in Latin for Catholics young and old.
* The Mass Explained to Children by Maria Montessori
* The Weight of a Mass; A Tale of Faith, by Josephine Nobisso
* Manners in God's House: First Prayers and First Missal

Daily Preparation

We prepare for Mass all through the week by following the daily feasts, and keeping current with the seasons of the Liturgical year.  After every set of prayers, morning prayers, prayers at mealtime, and evening prayers, we ask the benediction of the saint of the day, for example.  So, today (November 15th), we will end our prayers with: St. Albert the Great, pray for us.  This is an immediate connection with the Mass of the day, even when we cannot attend (which is most of the time, because we don't have access to daily Mass where we live.) It's good, during the week, to say things like, "This morning, we get to read about St. Albert the Great!" and, "Isn't it wonderful? Two more days until we get to go to Mass!" Words mean things and children readily pick up on their subtle implications.   During Advent we add special prayers every day, as well as during Lent and on Ember Days, and, when we can, we liven up our studies with crafts and projects that mirror the season and reinforce their meanings in our spiritual lives.  It's our goal to try and make our home a "Church in Miniature," but also a place where playing, praying and learning go hand in hand. 

We expect a lot of our children's behavior in church, and outside of it, and we spend a lot of time drilling exactly what we expect -- and why. Courtesy and respect are so much a focus of our day-to-day lives that, by the time the children have reached the age of reason, they've heard it all a thousand times, and they're probably sick of it, but, whether they like it or not, it's started to sink into the fiber of their beings.  They learn to expect good behaviour of themselves.  They're embarassed when they slip up, and scandalized when they see others behaving badly. The older they get, the more conscientious they become. (Yes, even the teenagers!)

What we expect, in a nutshell:
* That we will be spening a lot of time outside the church proper until the baby learns to be quiet and calm.
* By the age of 3, the children should know to be quiet and fairly still.
* By the time they're good and potty-trained (usually by 3 1/2 to 4 at the latest), they should not leave the pew for any reason other than sickness (or in the case that they need to be reprimanded).

* By 5, they should be able to fold their hands through Mass or quietly hold their children's missal, and try to follow, using the pictures. Reminding will usually be necessary at this age, but it shouldn't be met with resistance.
* By 6, they should not need to be reminded to follow their missals or to reverently participate in the rubrics along with the congregation.
* By 7, they should be able to follow the Mass in a simple missal, and should be relatively recollected.  If their minds wander, they should obediently refocus attention when reminded by Mom or Dad.
* By 10, they should no longer need to be reminded, but should be engaged throughout the Mass. They should know how to find and follow the daily prayers in their missals and should understand what's going on.  By this age, the little boys in our family have already studied to become acolytes, and our girls are joining the choir.

Ultimately, it's all about expectations
Children love to be in a place where they are loved.  They have an instinct to please and  can learn to respond to the most subtle of clues and teachings. But it requires diligence on our part to train them to behave appropriately to the proper cues.  They need to have a clear understanding of what we expect of them in Mass, and we need to help them develop a high expectation of themselves.  How we train our children in their daily routines will largely determine their aptitude and willingness to cooperate with us in this.  It's important that we build and hone our expectations throughout the week, not just spring them on the children on Sunday morning.   The more pleasant we make our children's experience with their Faith, the more lasting will be the result of our labor.    If a child's time spent at Mass is consistently filled with conflict and frowns and warnings, he's not likely to associate Mass with good things, or God with Love -- His or theirs or yours. On the contrary, he learns to expect a rotten time at Church, and he's likely to be rotten, too.  Thankfully, we have the tools as parents to prevent this, and the younger we start the better -- for their good, and ours, too. 

Our children are the dearest gifts that God gives us; and  He expects great things of us on their behalf.  We get to show Him our best work when we can face Him truly present on the altar, our children all around us, loving and honoring Him together, everyone trying their best to please.  Our Savior deserves no less -- and we should expect no less of ourselves and our children.


Laura said...

Please submit this to a Catholic Family Magazine.
My goodness you are sensible.
This is not the culture in which I teach.
I will not be able to teach much longer because of the "we don't want the kids to be bored" mentality.
Oh I could go on forever, but instead I will praise your diligent parenting and hope that you will consider publishing this somewhere else as well.
Good stuff, my dear.

GrandmaK said...

This indeed was magnificent...I started to add something more but it was much to cynical and perhaps not appropriate. My children all learned in an early age the importance and significance of their behavior in church. My grandchildren do as well. I amazes me that to some parents education is out of their realm of responsibility. Well, this is shorter, but is still a bit cynical. Sorry! This is a tremendous lesson and indeed someone should publish it and make it required reading!!! Cathy

Aubrey said...

Thank you so much! We match up well in the expectations department but it helps to know that we're being reasonable.

We expect the same things of our babies and toddlers--we take them out if they are making noise but we do not let them run around in the vestibule or the cry room. They are held in back of the church, looking through the windows to where mass continues without us.

There are no snacks for our children during mass. We eat breakfast ahead of time. Our parish is nearby (five minutes) so it is not necessary for us to get an early driving start. There is no climbing in the pew and wiggly worms must be held. No one leaves for the bathroom except maybe a newly potty trained toddler. Even then, only if I can tell it's an emergency. We bring the children's security blankets until they are a little past 3 and then they can have the soft bible for mass.

We don't have missals for the children yet but I think that I will head down to our Catholic store this week to pick up three of them. I'm glad that you suggested this. I've been trying to help Morgan (our 7 year old first communicant) follow along in the adult missal but it's a little complicated. I bet she would be must more interested in her own.

I think that we will try practicing at home. I hadn't thought to do that.

I also laughed at the part where you said that you'd spent much more time outside of the church proper than in. It seems that way! We call it alligator wrestling because that's what it feels like by the end. We head back to the vestibule with a noisy toddler and s/he squirms more because the other children back there are just running around. *sigh* Then they figure out that they're not getting down and eventually figure out that they're going to be taken out for making noise and that it's uncomfortable.

Now I've got a wiggly worm trying to crawl up on my lap and so I will quit "talking" your ear off.

Thank you for this post! I'm going to bookmark it! :)

Abbey said...

Excellent! My 3 grandchildren have accompanied my daughter and her husband, and us, to Mass since being born. Only a handful of times when they were infants did anyone need take them out of Mass. My daughter brought favorite hand toys, cheerios in a covered plastic dish, all kinds of things to occupy them. Now they are ages 7, 9 and 10. My 10-year old granddaughter is serving at Mass. One grandson brings a Star Trek man and the other follows the Missal and sings right along with the adults (he says he's going to be a pro-football player during the week and a priest on the weekends) ... yet we see children older than ours who still misbehave, cause distraction and the parents sit there chiding them in the pews instead of LEAVING and going the CRY ROOM. I have to close my eyes during the Homily or else I'll be completely pulled away from it.

My two cents and they aren't worth that much, but that's how it went with our little ones.