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Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me


Achieving world peace or teaching children to behave at Mass - which is tougher?


We should expect and welcome the full range of humanity at Mass. We expect and accept those who are tone-deaf, and those who spontaneously add a perfect harmony to a hymn. We expect and accept those who can afford to dress well, and those with clean but more modest apparel. And likewise, we should expect and accept both the elderly individual who might drift off during a long homily (and even snore), and the young child who can't restrain from expressing himself during the communion service ("This is too long . . . ").

A friend recounted to me a particularly splendid example of a child's involvement. In church on Good Friday, he was explaining to his 4-year-old son the ceremony in which the faithful touch or kiss the wood of the cross as a sign that they are ready to follow Christ. His son squirmed out of his arms to the floor, and with a determined look and the exuberance of a soldier before battle, shouted, "I'm ready!" But whether disturbances are delightful or not (the crying baby prior to being taken out), they are par for the course.

The Eucharistic liturgy is the "source and summit" of the Church's life, and the whole Church is welcome. One can develop the habit of focusing on the liturgical prayers, and not allowing every disturbance to be a distraction.

Instead, such "disturbances" serve to remind us that we are at prayer as a true community and as the mystical body of Christ, not as an aggregate of autonomous individuals.


The child who causes a disturbance at Mass should be a child who is in the process of being well-trained in good manners. This training process is at times arduous, but as long as it is in gear, no one should be bothered by the occasional slip-up. It is analogous to the moral life: we wish to see children in the process of being well-trained in moral virtue. The occasional sin in the midst of this process is to be expected and tolerated as part of the child's moral growth and development.

What is to be strongly discouraged is the allowance of children in church who are not in the process of being well-trained. Until this process has begun, parents should keep such children out of church. Too many parents today have been stymied in their attempts at raising well-mannered children stymied by a contemporary milieu that says "let children be children," and convinces parents they will destroy their children's self-esteem if they make them toe the line. "And besides, they're so cute . . . "

It's not cute at all, but rather a severe disservice to the child's real self-esteem. Self-esteem is a great good, and it comes as a result of being well-mannered and striving for virtue.


First, remember that if your child is already out of control to any degree, it will take a bit more time and patience, but it can be done it must be done.

Second, if the mother is going it alone, it can be done. But in the numerous cases where fathers are present, their involvement is critical. Fathers, you are the ones in charge of putting this method to work.

Third, this method is for children 2 1/2 years old and up. It really can be done this early. Until that time, a loud or obnoxious child simply needs to be taken out of church. If this happens constantly, consider a nursery or going to separate Masses so one parent can stay at home with the child.

Okay, let's get to the method itself:

List on paper the expectations you have of your children. Your list should include the following, with some variations of your own:

· When standing, stand straight, hands at side, or crossed in front, or crossed in back.
· Don't lean on the pew.
· Don't fiddle with your hands or face.
· When kneeling, fold your hands, and keep them away from your face.
· Don't aggravate your brother or sister.
· And a special item on the list for parents: Don't forget to bring the religious book bag. Leave out Dr. Seuss, and include good picture Bibles and lives of the saints. A set of holy cards for the young ones to look at works well, too.

Explain the list to your children a week before you intend to start having these expectations. Emphasize that this new behavior is a special gift they are giving to Christ. Go over the list every evening, at dinner or before bed. By the end of the week, the children should be able to recite most of the expectations on their own.

On Sunday, go over the list before leaving for Mass, and on the way to Mass. Tell the children that your choice here a) they will get a special prize if they succeed, such as an extra doughnut for Sunday breakfast, or b) they will lose something, like half of their Sunday doughnut, if they bomb out.

Here goes. Remember one important rule: You must be vigilant toward your kids during Mass. This will take away some (or most) of your vigilance toward the Eucharistic Christ, but He'll understand perfectly. Too many parents ignore the children "if she's not throwing a fit and making too much noise, let well enough alone kids are kids." Your children deserve, and are capable of, a lot more. Be vigilant.

If all goes well the first Sunday, consider it a special blessing. But let's assume things don't go so well, especially if bad habits are already formed. (My home parish church is called the "Chapel of the Incarnation" some kids are habituated to it being the "Playground of the Incarnation.") Don't blow your top, do say a prayer, and start again.

The second week, repeat everything from the first week with one addition. Explain that the only way to become good at something is to practice, so hold one, two or three (your choice again) very short practice sessions during the week. Have them practice sitting and standing properly. They'll get the point: You are dead serious about this new gift to Christ. Be sure to practice the night before (or in the morning if you are the rare well-organized family on Sunday mornings).

With the second try at Sunday Mass and don't forget to review your expectations with your kids on the way to church you'll be surprised at the improvement. But let's be realistic and assume there was a major or minor disaster. Plan for this, and be ready to have a practice session after Mass in church. If they didn't think you were serious before, they'll know you are now. Be vigilant.

You're on your way to having well-mannered children. Congratulations! Once the process is started, it will soon be all downhill. Bask in the compliments you will get from other parishioners you deserve them. And remember, if you have a number of children, it only gets easier with the little ones imitating the well-mannered behavior of the older ones.

Once children are well-mannered, it's easier and more enriching to teach them how to participate in the Mass. With the youngest ones, start with the gestures that are part of the Catholic liturgy. Children can easily latch on to these and look forward to them.

And by the way, this method I call it the method of the preemptive strike also works well in other areas of children's lives: in the car, at the table, birthdays, shopping at the mall, bedtime you name it.

Remember, keep at it, and you'll see results. Pray for patience, don't get discouraged, and we'll see you and your well-mannered children at Mass.



Mark Lowery "Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me." Envoy (Sept/Oct, 1997)

Reprinted courtesy of Envoy Magazine.

The Author

Mark Lowery is Associate professor in the Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. He is also a husband and the father of six children.

Copyright © 1997 Envoy
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