Fonticulus Fides

Thursday, September 15, 2005

On Toddlers and Mass

Lola is proving to be alternately the most eager to participate in Mass among my children — and the most difficult to take to Mass.

She definitely wants to dip her hand in the holy water font and bless herself, and then she immediately goes to the nearest pew to kneel down (a bit of an excessive genuflection, if you will). It’s adorable. You should see all the older folks completely charmed by the sight of this little 20-month-old in her blue gingham “church dress” who already has the affection of a saint for those two little rituals. Why, she’d do them six or seven times if we’d let her. And if we don’t let her, she howls at the top of her lungs.

I’ll tell you, she’s got some pretty big lungs.

Seriously, in the last month and a half, we’ve gotten through approximately 75 seconds or less of Mass before the howling begins and one of us must extradite her from the situation.

And yes, we must take her out. Our church is old and the acoustics are fabulous ñ made for days long before microphones and speakers. Her little voice can create an ear-splitting din that the priest cannot be heard over anywhere in the sanctuary.

At home, we just ignore these tantrums, operating under the principle that if the tantrums do not produce the desired effect she wants, she’ll soon stop wasting her energy on them. At Mass, we cannot compromise everybody else’s worship, so we move her out and ignore her elsewhere in the church ñ hopefully out of earshot for most of the parishioners.

Siiiigh. I don’t remember either of the other children being this difficult.

Edyn went through a wandering phase, when she just wanted to explore the church, but she was always very quiet. And in the last year, she’s just become too shy to do much other than sit on our laps, often with her face hidden in one of our shoulders. She’ll still do that for most of the Liturgy, all the way up to the last 10 minutes or so, when she finally gets comfortable. Her worst offense in all her 3+ years has been shouting “BYE-BYE” to people as they leave, which she did shortly after her first birthday for about three months. And Fr. W. used to like that, especially when we sat in the back right off the center aisle. It made people feel embarrassed when they tried to leave right after Communion instead of sticking around for the benediction and final hymn.

As for my son….well, there was that awful Sunday right after his first birthday, when we were still going to the tiny Anglican Church. Fr. Ray always preceded the liturgy by bringing up whomever had a birthday in the prior week for a blessing. My husband wasn’t there that day ñ he was filling in as worship leader at another church. I didn’t want Zooey to miss his first birthday blessing, though, so I packed the diaper bag, dressed him in a nice shirt and pants and took him solo to our church, rather than visiting the one that had hired my husband.

When Fr. Ray called Zooey up to the front, the little guy slid off my lap and trotted forward. He folded his hands and bowed his head for the blessing. How my heart swelled with pride at that dear little boy, so smart, so capable! He ran back to our seats and threw his arms around my neck, and all was right in the world.

For about a minute. As the processional began, Zooey started fussing in the diaper bag for something to play with. I had a few small, stuffed toys in there and several books. He dropped the books on the floor (soft thumps, thanks to the carpeting), and then to my horror, grabbed one of the stuffed toys and flung it with all his might toward the front, smacking a lady on the back of the head!

I snatched his hand and hurried up the side aisle to whisper mortified apologies and retrieve the toy. The victim ñ a mother herself ñ was gracious, even bemused, God bless her.

Back in our row, Zooey decided to try out his pitching arm again, but this time, I caught his elbow in time and the toy landed harmlessly at my feet. I angrily whispered “NO THROWING” in his ear, and he laughed at me. Laughed.

Time for time-out. Actually, time-in. At that age, we have always felt that having a child sit quietly on our lap for a short time, with discussion, is a better technique than expecting them to sit alone in a chair.

I picked him up and ducked out the side door, into the hall. A brief word of instruction, he was up on my lap -- no talking, no playing. Zooey remained quiet for the full minute. When I asked if he was ready to go back in, he said he was. When I asked if he remembered the rules, he did: “Be quiet, no throwing, look at books, stay with Mommy.”

Excellent! We returned to the sanctuary. Before we’d even sat down, Zooey shouted something (sorry, I’ve blocked it out of my memory, so I can’t tell you what it was). Half the congregation gasped in horror and the other half burst out laughing.

Having disturbed worship for everyone, it was back to the hall for time-out. Zooey started sing-songing, “Time-out, time-out, time-out in the hallway.” I knew everybody could hear him, and desperate to snap him out of it, I clamped a hand over his mouth. He licked my hand (bleh!), and when I moved it away to wipe it off on my pants, he started singing again, louder. “TIME-OUT, MOMMY’S MAD, TIME-OUT, TIME-OUT!”

I saw the light switch was in reach and flipped it off, thinking that plunging Zooey into total darkness would do the trick. Now he was shrieking, ”TIME-OUT, TIME-OUT IN THE DAAA-ARK!”

Embarrassed, frustrated, I whipped Zoo around until we were nose to nose. “QUIET,” I seethed through clenched teeth.

“OWWWWWWWW!” he screamed. As if I had spanked him. Which I was actually thinking about doing, but a wailing child isn’t any less disruptive than one who is having too much fun, and anyway, I prefer not to spank my kids, but to correct them in other ways.

There wasn’t anything left to do. I threatened him into silence with the promise of his dad’s wrath (something I swore I would never do), snuck back into the sanctuary to grab the diaper bag and left.

After I strapped him into his car seat, I slumped down on the seat next to him and sobbed. I was just so embarrassed. And convinced that I was the World’s Worst Parent.

But that was it for Zooey. Maybe it was the crying that did the trick. He has never, ever been difficult in church from that day on. Oh, he has had fidgety moments, and he’s been distracted by other kids or tried to distract them by waving or whatnot. He’s laid on the pews, complained, kicked the kneelers — all the usual stuff, but a whisper of correction is generally enough to stop the poor behavior immediately.

But Lola — every week is a repeat performance with her, much to my chagrin. I’m a little less embarrassed, but only a little. We know we don’t give into her tantrums at home, and she’ll eventually stop trying to use that technique. We know we are doing our best to teach her how to participate in Mass, so she can become too busy to misbehave. It just seems to be taking her much longer to get the drift.

I am thankful I don’t get the horrified looks any more, like we used to get at the Anglican church (at one point, we were only going to worship once a month because most of the congregation made it clear that Zooey was not welcome there — very few kids in that group). In our Catholic parish, I’m more apt to get a sympathetic smile or an understanding nod. The ushers try to help distract Lola by making faces at her or waving (which, by the way, doesn’t help, but the dear fellows are doing their best).

And our new parish priest, Fr. D., has been very nice about it. He said to me, “My vocation is to be a priest, and if I were to leave the pulpit to tend to a crying child, I would not be fulfilling my vocation very well. But your vocation is to be a mother, and when you tend to a crying child, you’re being a good mom.”

He reminds me not to withhold myself from the Eucharist on these occasions when Iíve only been in the Sanctuary for 75 seconds or less. “God understands,” he tells me. “It’s only a phase.”

I just hope it’s a phase that doesn’t continue much longer.



  • Thanks! This makes me feel better about our up-and-downs of church attendance. My current problem is that we usually make it...until just before the Consecration, when dd (almost 3) gets very talkative and disruptive. It's good to hear mine isn't the only toddler in a phase :)

    By Blogger mandamum, at 3:58 PM  

  • Oh Sparki, it's so strange to imagine you ever thinking you were the Worst Parent in the World... (Not that I don't think you're modest, but that's obviously past modesty into just plain inaccuracy...)

    DS1 is 3.5 and has behaved pretty consistently well for probably over 6 months now. Which is good because I'm already handling DS2 in the foyer on a regular basis now. (I have started to shift over to sharing this duty with DH.) But DS1 used to have to be taken out very regularly, usually for happy chattiness. DS2 is still mostly at the complaining-about-being-restrained stage when it comes to why we remove him. DS1 seems to have gotten the message to be quiet in a big way, and he shushes his brother (he's shushed strangers too... embarrassing.) He's also quite interested in what the priest does! He did talk last time during the ... is "Consecration" not really a proper term?... but it was a whisper, "Fr. Soandso making something. What's he making?" I'm not sure whether I should have whispered back to him -- I would normally think not, but I'd heard about (faithful, orthodox, etc.)Catholics teaching their kids what's going on in Mass, and I ended up taking that moment of interest to reply that it was Jesus in the Eucharist. Although it's hard to believe it's right to say the priest "makes" Jesus in the Eucharist.

    This comment is some stream of consciousness, isn't it -- sorry, tired, not good at structure!

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