Yesterday at mass, in the pew directly beside me was a toddler, with her yaya (nanny) and her mom alongside some other people. I don’t know how old she was exactly, but she struck me as someone who had just turned two (thereabouts).
The reason why they — she– caught my attention was because this cute little toddler with bangs and a very chic outfit, was letting out ear-piercing shrieks, THROUGHOUT the entire hour. And it didn’t just happen once or twice; it was constant; like she timed herself — approximately every 3 minutes Her shrieks would echo through the church (as churches have such good acoustics!), and people would turn and stare. And I was right beside it all when it would happen each time, so my eardrums couldn’t recover before the next shriek was released. All throughout, her mom and nanny only did something about it once (and it didn’t even work — in fact it resulted in louder cries). Somewhere in the middle I realized that the man at the end of the pew was also her dad, who was totally ignoring this little scene for the entire hour.
I relay this anecdote not to pass judgement. As God (and so many other members of various congregations!) is (are) my witness, I have had my own fair share of disruptive, unruly toddlers to handle while at Church. In fact I was doing my best not to stare because I know it’s the last thing any mom needs. I sympathized, and empathized, and I felt the best way I could help was to pay-it-forward relay my own attempts at getting my kids to behave when I bring them with me to Church.
The first thing that rings in my head are Coach Pia’s wise words: Don’t put toddlers in a situation where they will fail you. Children are children. They will run around, want to make noise and laugh out loud — without really meaning to be disruptive. It might be a little too much to expect them to sit still for an hour and keep their mouths closed the whole time. Even adults struggle with that too, so how can we expect that from five-year olds and three-year olds? Hence, I don’t (yet) force my girls to come to Church with me.
When they do, there’s a lot of preparation involved. I’ve found that asking them and involving them as to what the expected proper behavior is in “Brother Jesus'” house, helps instill it in their brains and thoughts more. Instead of making it sound like a lecture, I have them participate. “We need to be quiet,” says one. “We have to sit down,” says another, “we don’t bother other people”. Sometimes I get the question of “can we bring toys?” — or snacks — and occasionally I’ve allowed it, for as long as they’re “quiet toys”, like Bunny. As Sam got older though I’ve told her to eat before leaving, out of respect. She learns about the proper behavior in her school and I reinforce that as much as I can. I explain that Jamie is younger and her stomach is smaller, and she will eventually learn. The rule will apply to her later on.
Yet even then, I still adjust my expectations. I don’t expect them to remember and sit still the whole time. I don’t expect the consistency. We’ve started doing things — and expecting things — in baby steps. There are times that we only stay in church for 20 minutes because that’s all the girls can handle. Sometimes it’s longer. There are times they are quiet, but they will not sit still. The best outcomes are when they’re well rested, well fed, and have made a trip to the potty. The gentle reminders still have to come in, but they are not harsh and stern (this is me applying my #betterme lessons on Disciplining with Love).
Sometimes, it’s just one thing at a time. One objective at a time. They are quiet but walking in the side aisles near me, I let them. For as long as they don’t bother, I give them a little room to move. Too many restrictions won’t help us, I’ve learned.
Rather than pointing out the things that they cannot do, I’ve begun pointing out the things they can do, such as putting money in the Offertory basket. Or light a candle after the ceremony. And even singing — our church has TV screens and the words of each song come out when they’re being sung. Since my girls can read, I tell them to look at the words and sing them along. Jamie doesn’t have all her words down yet but because she loves music and she picks up on tunes and melodies so quickly, she mouths along. I also let them say their own prayers out loud after communion. If they use their speaking voices and say it close to my ear, then they aren’t really being that loud.
The girls also know some of the songs because we learn them at home. Sometimes at night, they are in our prayers. So when the girls hear them sung in Church, there is some form of recognition, and confidence to sing along.
The article from The Domestic Fringe on getting kids to sit still in Church, had tips which also helped in teaching the kids to sit still. Start teaching them at home. And if in Church they need to go outside, don’t let them run free. Hold them still because it’s still part of the hour when they do need to sit still (this was an AHA moment for me! It’s not a punishment to sit still inside, it’s just something that needs to be done).
Now I know that with everything I’ve said, it doesn’t sound like I get to “hear mass” much. We’re physically present but not always mentally there. But as I’ve explained to the girls, it is an important part of my week to go to Sunday Mass, and I want it to be the same for them eventually. I feel that they understand that and are slowly coming to appreciate it as part of our weekly routine. At the same time, I’ve come to accept that these are the learning years, and they only way they’ll really learn is if we do it over and over again. In that sense, I’ve had to adjust my expectations about going to mass when I bring them along.
After each visit to Church, I’ve found the girls respond positively when I recognize the good things that they were able to accomplish while we were there. And I say thank you too, because by doing so they let me have the time I needed to pray.
I do have to say this too though: As a mom I fully understand that there are days when you can’t leave the kids at home and you still want to go to Church. I also understand that when there, you want some time to think and pray and just be free of the constant needs of the kids. But as it is a house of prayer, it’s also not the time and place to execute a teaching moment when children are rowdy or disruptive. And if it means having to step out and cut your time short, so that the other people can pray in peace then it’s something I would encourage. I believe we don’t do God any injustice if we attend to the needs of our children first, even when it happens in His house.
So to the parents and yaya of the little girl yesterday, I can’t imagine yesterday was easy. I said a prayer for you, and for all of us with aching eardrums. Maybe next week if we run into each other again, it will be much easier on us all. Amen. 🙂