20 Things You Can Do to Help Your Toddler Behave at Mass

20 Things You Can Do to Help Your Toddler Behave at Mass

Thoughts inspired by Kate Wicker’s recent column at Inside Catholic: Why Children Belong at Mass. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time; but Kate’s piece inspired me to gather them into a coherent reflection.

Many comments on the post have said something to the effect that it’s all very well and fine if your kids are well behaved but what about that family with the kids who behave terribly? And many parents say they have opted to wait to bring their children to Mass until they are four or six or some other target age because until that point they can’t be expected to sit still and be quiet and anyway they don’t understand what is going on.

Yet I have been amazed in the past three years to discover how much my children are capable of participating in Mass, of spontaneously praying, and how much they really want to be in church and to go to Mass. Hardly a morning goes by that Bella doesn’t ask me if we’re going to Mass today.

I know every child is different and we may have just been blessed with very calm girls. (Actually, I know we have. So very blessed!) Still, I suspect many parents who have written off taking their children to Mass just don’t know what positive steps they can take to help their children engage with the Mass so that they aren’t bored and disruptive but find that Mass actually feeds their little souls. This isn’t a magic formula and not all my suggestions will work for every family. These are just some of the things we have done that I think might help other parents. And no, I don’t do all of these perfectly. I’m a work in progress and so are my children. We do have to take them out sometimes and some Sundays are better than others. Still, even on days when I feel run ragged by constantly redirecting my restless daughters, strangers will approach me and compliment their behavior so I feel like we’re at least on the right track.

(And to head off any objections about thoughtless parents who impose their misbehaving offspring on poor beleaguered worshipers, let me state that of course we take them out as soon as they cry or make loud disturbances.)

    1. Help babies and toddlers to bless themselves with holy water upon entering the church. From the time they are babies dip their hands into the holy water font and help them to make the sign of the cross, saying audibly so the child can hear, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Also, be sure that they see you blessing yourself.

    The sign of the cross is a reminder of our baptism and an entirely appropriate prayer for you to help your baptized baby to make. Infants and small children respond very well to physical stimuli, to physical gestures and love the feel of the water. (Just don’t let it turn into a splashing game!) Also, by making this a habit, you set the mood for the rest of their time in the church. You signal to them that they are entering into a sacred space, a place for ritual and prayer, not for play. It becomes a part of a habit, a pattern of behavior.

    2.Help babies and toddlers to make the sign of the cross whenever you do so during Mass (and also during family prayers such as at bedtime and meal times). Children are very physical and this is the kind of prayer they really get. I’ve found that from about one year my children have started to attempt to cross themselves spontaneously whenever they see me, my husband or other people doing so. Children naturally imitate the behaviors they see. Be consistent and praise and encourage them when you see them make an attempt. Don’t worry too much about their being correct, though do feel free to guide their hands even after they have started to try to do it themselves.

    3. Genuflect. As soon as they are physically able, help toddlers to kneel down in front of the tabernacle and help them to make the sign of the cross while you genuflect. You can explain they are “Saying hi to Jesus” or “Saying bye to Jesus”.  I’ve noticed that 3 year old Bella has recently started to sometimes imitate my posture and goes down on one knee. Now I am starting to tell her that she is kneeling before Jesus in the tabernacle.

    4. Sit near the front where your child can see the altar, which is very important for their ability to concentrate on what is going on at Mass. On the few occasions where we arrive late to a crowded mass or can’t sit near the front because of First Communions etc I notice much more restlessness, wandering, fussiness and “bad” behavior.

    5. Direct their attention to the altar at the consecration. I begin when we first kneel for the Eucharistic prayer, saying, “Jesus is coming!” At the moment of consecration I whisper into their ear, “Look, Jesus is here!” and point to the consecrated host. This works! They often smile and clap and wave and point. They do get it. Of course many days they also ignore it and are busy looking over my shoulder at the people behind me, playing with the back of the pew or being taken out because they are fussy. But I persist and do this every time, even when I don’t get a reaction because I know children learn through repetition.

    6. Participate. Recite the prayers of the Mass. Sing. Kneel. Bow your head. As much as possible direct your gaze toward the altar. Model the behaviors you want your children to emulate, consistently giving them guidance not leaving them to their own devices. Direct their attention and teach them so they aren’t bored and restless. Children will do as you do, not as you say.

    7. Don’t do the things you don’t want your children to do. Don’t talk to others—except, of course to quietly correct or redirect your children when they need you to. Don’t look around, don’t pay attention to what other people are doing. Stay calm and focus on God as much as you can; but don’t get upset when your child acts like a child. Just calmly deal with their needs and then return your attention to Mass when you are able. Remember that children learn most of all by imitating you. If you are distracted and bored or talking and not paying attention, how can you expect your child to be otherwise?

    8. Dress up. Wearing nice clothes helps both you and your child to feel that going to Mass is a special event. Let your child have special clothes and shoes that are only worn to Mass and let them see you making an effort to dress up as well. Again, this emphasizes that Mass is a special occasion that requires special behaviors, that it’s prayer time not play time. I usually make a habit of changing the girls out of their special Mass dresses when we return home before I allow them to eat or play, reinforcing the idea that Mass is different.

    9. Don’t bring distracting toys and food. I know many parents disagree with me on this one; but here’s my reasoning: If you begin when they are young and reinforce the behaviors you want them to have when they are older, they won’t have to unlearn habits that are not appropriate for older children. The problem with bringing toys and food to Mass as I see it is that you set a precedent that some day you are going to have to break. At some point you will not want them to have toys and food, so why even start?

    I don’t expect babies and toddlers to be able to pay attention to all of the Mass. However, I do want avoid establishing patterns of behavior that they will later have to unlearn. So I only let them bring objects to church that would be acceptable for an older child to bring.  Babies can play with a plastic rosary, or a stack of laminated holy cards, or flip through board books about the Mass or saints or prayers. I want them to learn that Mass is not a time for play but prayer. About food, my children regularly go without food for an hour or two at other times during the week, why should Mass be the exception? I make sure to give them time to eat, make sure they are full before Mass and we always feed them immediately afterwards so they know they’ll be getting pancakes or donuts as soon as Mass is over. Unless there are other health issues, most children should be able to last an hour without food. (We do bring cups of water, though.)

    10. Do bring helpful tools to redirect a child with a short attention span. I keep a stash of knotted cord and plastic rosaries and laminated holy cards and board books in our diaper bag because children do need something to occupy their hands and it is acceptable for older children and adults to bring rosaries, holy cards and missals and other prayer books to Mass with them. Some of the board books we bring to Mass: We Go to Mass by George Brundage (see my review here), Mary’s Prayer, Baby Come to Church!. We also have a bunch of lovely books by Heidi Bratton (see my review here).

Things You Can Do At Home to Prepare for Mass

    11. Bring a small bottle to church and fill it with holy water to bring home with you. Use it to bless your children and teach them how to bless themselves. Part of our bedtime ritual is to bless each other with holy water, each person making a small sign of the cross on the forehead of every other family member. (The kids don’t actually trace a cross, they just dab the water.) Toddlers love this. 15 month-old Sophie will try to bless Dom a dozen times, saying “Dada” over and over again.

    12. Get some coloring books and picture books about the Mass and read them frequently with your toddlers. Bring the books to Mass with you to give restless children something to look at and to remind them and reinforce the lessons they have learned at home.

    I’ve especially liked the Holy Mass Coloring & Activity Book. It goes through the Mass part by part with good pictures and explanations at a child’s level.  It doesn’t have all the Mass prayers in it; but I ad lib and recite them when we get to the appropriate page. Also Magnifikids is a great weekly publication for children, our former parish used to subscribe to it and we still have a few issues laying about the house. It contains the weekly Mass readings as well as the order of the Mass and some activities and prayers. It’s aimed at older children; but Isabella loves paging through it.

    13. Memorize and recite some of the Mass prayers to familiarize your child with them: the Creed, the Gloria, the Lamb of God, and the Holy, Holy, Holy, etc. If you can, sing them to your child using the settings most commonly used at your parish. Three-year old Bella knows many of these prayers by heart now and while she doesn’t always try to say them at Mass, she does sometimes pray along with the congregation and I do think that knowing them helps her follow along and be more engaged. (She also sings and prays them on her own at home, playing church, which I think also helps her be comfortable at Mass on Sundays.)

    14. Pray with your child daily.
    Spend time praying at home so they get used to sitting still and spending time with God. Bedtime prayers don’t have to be long and elaborate. An Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be combined with a God bless mommy and daddy and other family and friends. Maybe add “thank you God” for various things they did that day and invocations to patron saints: “St Melanie, pray for us; St Isabella, pray for us; St Sophia, pray for us….”

    Our 3 year old has been able to make the sign of the cross and recite the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for almost a year now because we say them with her every day. Children learn by repetition and once they have learned to speak toddlers are very good at memorizing their favorite books and songs and nursery rhymes. So it isn’t surprising they can learn prayers too, so long as they hear them often enough. Once a week isn’t enough, they need to pray daily and they will start to get it.

    15. Practice kneeling down to say prayers at home. Lead by example, not by requiring the child to kneel. I generally kneel when I say a prayer; but don’t require her to follow suit. Still, because she wants to be like me, she often joins me and kneels to.

    We do this so it’s not a foreign activity when we suddenly kneel at Mass. Though Bella doesn’t like to kneel at Mass because she can’t see the altar, she does do it sometimes. She frequently kneels spontaneously at home to say a quick prayer.

    16. Introduce your children to your parish priests and then pray for your priests by name every night during your bedtime prayers. This has the added benefit of dispelling confusion about who that man in front is. (We pray for Pope Benedict and our bishop as well.) Because she knows our priest, when the 3 year old starts to wander off, I can gently redirect her to, “look at Father R.”

    17. Introduce your children to Jesus. I hang a crucifix over the baby’s bed—not a cross with a cute kneeling child but an image of Jesus on the cross. (I really like the San Damiano crucifix, it’s sturdy painted wood that the child can handle without risk of breaking off the corpus and you can get them pretty cheap.) At bedtime I take the cross off the wall and kiss it, saying: “I love you, Jesus!” or ” Goodnight, Jesus,” or “Jesus, I trust in you.” I then invite the baby to kiss the crucifix too and allow her to hold it as long as she acts respectfully. If she throws it or hits with it, I express sorrow “That’s not nice.”—not anger—and then hang it back on the wall out of reach.

    Whenever we see a crucifix or a statue or an image of Jesus, I take the time to stop and point to it, and say a short prayer, even a Hi Jesus or Jesus I trust in you. When we drive past a Catholic church we say hi to Jesus, present in the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle, and make the sign of the cross (and sometimes say a brief prayer to the patron of the church: “St Joseph, pray for us.”). Again, this emphasizes to your child that the church is a special place, that Jesus is there. It reminds them about church and builds excitement and anticipation for going to church.

    18. Introduce your child to Mary, the saints and the angels. Use holy cards, statues, picture books and small pamphlets with pictures. My girls have especially loved rosary booklets and novena booklets. (Aquinas and More is a great online source for all of these articles.)

    I’ve been surprised at how my children have latched onto some of these devotional objects on their own and evidenced devotions to saints with no urging from me except by indirectly having the objects around and being willing to name them and explain them when asked.

    A couple of anecdotes:

    When Bella was younger she loved to play with the holy cards I kept in my prayer book and my missal. Some of them were quite special to me and many were flimsy paper and she was really destroying them, so I went and bought her a few of the sturdier laminated holy cards. I think I got about a dozen, picking some of my favorite saints. It became a game during my prayer time for me to give her the cards. When I handed them to her, I’d give them out one at a time, naming each saint for her and adding, “Pray for us”. And the same again as we were putting them away. So the act of getting them out and putting them away became an impromptu litany of saints. She always seemed very drawn to cards of Pope John Paul II (with whom she shares a birthday, coincidentally) and to images of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

    When Bella was about 20 months old she fell in love the novena to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta that I received from the Missionaries of Charity. One day she noticed the pamphlet on the top of the bookshelf when I picked her up and recognizing Mother Teresa wanted to hold it. She sat down on the floor immediately and began “reading” it to herself, turning the pages and chattering. When we went to go settle for her nap she was still carrying the pamphlet and rejected all other book offers I made. So I began reading the prayers and eventually she fell asleep, perfectly content at her choice of bedtime “story”. And I got some unplanned prayer time, a little peaceful interlude in my afternoon. we returned to it again and again. It was a frequently requested “bedtime story” for months and months.

    Recently 15 month old Sophie has spontaneously latched onto a little plastic statue of Mary I keep on my kitchen windowsill. When she’s upset she reaches for it and cries until I give it to her. She toddles around the house, clutching Mary to her, sometimes even using Mary as a teething object. I wouldn’t make so much of it except that it seems to fit a pattern. She is very drawn to all the various pictures of Mary we have about the house. One day she even climbed into my lap, pointed at a picture of Mary, and folded her hands and whispered something that sounded like “Hail Mary.” She was very very excited when I began to recite the Hail Mary for her and whispered along.

    19. Introduce your children to the names of objects in the church. A good picture book is a great aid in this. (Catholic Books Publishing Coloring Book of the Mass happens to be the one we have.) I start when they get to the stage where they point and want to know the names of things. Small children are drawn to candles, especially, I’ve found. They can learn what the altar is, the chalice and paten, the tabernacle, etc. When paging through a child’s picture book of the Mass, I point to the various objects and name them. I try especially to mention that the bread becomes the body of Jesus that the chalice is the cup that hold the wine that becomes the blood of Jesus and the tabernacle is where Jesus is. It’s never to early to begin teaching them about the Real Presence.

    20. Read the Mass readings aloud to your children ahead of time, especially the responsorial psalm. If we have time, I try to read through the readings on Sunday morning at breakfast. If Sunday mornings are too rushed, Saturday afternoon might be a better time and then briefly go over the response to the psalm on Sunday morning. I’ve found that when I do this Bella will sometimes say the response with us at Mass. It gives her one more thing she can recognize and hold on to during the Mass.

A few final thoughts:

1. I can’t stress this enough: repetition, repetition, repetition. Children will learn most of all by your being consistent and firm, as well as by following your lead. Parenting can sometimes make you feel like a broken record. How many times do I have to say it?!? It can be discouraging, easier sometimes to just give up, give in. But the earlier you begin and the more consistent you are, the more easily your children will learn not only how to behave at Mass; but, more importantly, will learn to love God and draw close to Him. I believe bringing small children to Mass is important mostly because I believe I am working to plant in them the seeds of a lifetime’s relationship with God, who has entrusted them to my care to bring them up for Him and to prepare them for eternal life in His kingdom.

2. This article on Sunday obligation from Envoy magazine by Eric Scheske has really helped me as a parent who is constantly being distracted at Mass by my little ones. Though the entire article is worth a read, this is the passage that I found especially useful in seeing Sunday Mass from a slightly different perspective:

I have a suggestion for people who attend Mass out of obligation even though they doubt they’ll get much from attending (such as a person with small children). It’s difficult to explain because it requires an approach that is largely at odds with conventional thinking. I call it an “existentialist” approach to Mass in order to contrast it with an “essentialist” approach. An essentialist approach would concentrate on our essence (i.e., our souls) and think about the spiritual benefits bestowed on our souls by the liturgy and Mass.

This existentialist approach, on the other hand, does the opposite. It basically says, “I will go and take in what I can, but I won’t worry about it or think about what the Mass is doing for me. I will just be there, accepting what comes and not thinking about what could be coming if I could be more attentive.” The surroundings or circumstances don’t matter with this approach because the person is not at all concentrated on himself: He is simply looking outward and taking in what he can and not worrying if he can’t take it all in.

This type of approach played a large part in St. Therese of Lisieux’s Little Way. St. Therese would have been a saint in any time or any setting because she simply existed without reference to her separate soul, becoming, in her words, a drop of water in the mighty ocean of divinity.


A person with St. Therese’s mindset can pretty much accept anything that is thrown at him during the day or during the Mass. He does not grow irritated or overly distracted by any surroundings or circumstances, because he doesn’t think much about them. If his kids are unruly, he will attend to them, without thinking about the benefits of the Mass he’s missing, then return to the Mass, without thinking about the benefits he’s going to get. He just accepts his surroundings, allowing grace to work where it will, but with no thought of the grace.

It may seem awfully simple or even commonsensical, but it’s an approach that I suspect eludes most young parents. I know it eluded me for the first few years of fatherhood as I sweated through the Mass, trying to get as much out of it as I could and despairing when I was distracted for prolonged periods. I have found it a highly beneficial approach to worship under trying circumstances.

Since reading this I have found that distractions don’t cause me as much anxiety and I am able to feel much more at peace at Mass even when my children are being fussy or restless. I am not so concerned about what I’m getting out of Mass but trusting in God, my wise Father who gave me these children, to give me what I need even as I give my children what I think they need to the best of my limited ability.

3. I hesitate to include this last thought because it is one of those hot button parenting topics. However,  I do believe that one very important factor that does help our girls to be able to sit still, be calm, and pay attention is the fact that they don’t watch television at all. They aren’t constantly being stimulated in a passive sense by TV, accommodating their 10 second attention span. Thus they have developed the habit of entertaining themselves. Consequently, they don’t expect the Mass to entertain them or constantly need for me to entertain them.

I know every child is different, every family situation is different and some of the things that have worked for us might not work for you or your family. However, I encourage parents to try and see if they can’t engage their toddlers and small children more in the Mass before deciding to leave them at home or in the nursery because they won’t behave. Perhaps they just need to be helped to participate more.

cross posted at First Heralds, a blog dedicated to helping toddlers and preschoolers learn about the Catholic faith.

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1 comment
  • It definitely helps when both parents attend mass. My husband doesn’t attend mass and our son does not listen to his mother the way he does his father! I plan to keep trying though!