Kids at Mass: It doesn't have to be a struggle
Sit, stand, kneel, repeat. Strange stories and stranger names. A long talk. Lots and lots of strange prayers.
From a kid’s perspective, Mass is full of strange words, weird objects, and tons of rituals they don’t understand. This can make it seem long, boring, and very difficult to get through. Many kids, when they get bored or confused, become antsy and may misbehave or become distracted.
As the second of four children, I’ve seen my parents deal with this multiple times. They’ve mastered the art of getting kids to behave in church. While I don’t have kids of my own, my own experiences—both as that bored child and as the older sibling helping my parents deal with the bored child—have taught me quite a lot about how to help children learn to love going to Mass.
Following are several tips for how to keep your child entertained and well-behaved in Mass. They are all proven effective, used by my own parents with me and all three of my siblings.
Sit in the front
This encourages kids to behave during Mass—they don’t want Father to see them misbehaving! It also allows them to see what’s happening. The front pew is best for this—they have an unobstructed view. The second pew can also work, because kids can see in between the people in the front pew. The third pew and farther back is not a good idea—your kids won’t be able to see in between the people in front of them. Instead, they’ll have to spend the Mass looking at those people’s rear ends. Not an appealing prospect!
No food or electronics during Mass
Mass should be different from the normal weekly activities. While food and electronics can keep your kids behaved during Mass, these are things they get all the time, and so Mass becomes just another boring thing to ignore. They are too much of a distraction, not just for your kids, but for you and the people around you. Many times, I have sat behind kids on an electronic device during Mass and kept having to tear my eyes away from the screen.
Instead of food or electronics, have a “Mass bag” of Christian/religious books that kids only get during Mass
These could be simplified Bible stories, or simple books by Christian authors. My parents found most of ours at garage sales. They ranged from a kindergarten reading level up to third or fourth grade. I remember getting excited when I saw the Mass bag come out, because it meant I’d get to read the books I didn’t get any other time of the week. My mom recommends getting a kid’s-size backpack, about a foot tall, instead of a full-size backpack. A bigger bag just means more stuff to keep track of and clean up later.
At Christmas and Easter, replace some or all of the books with Christian/religious Christmas and Easter books. If you have enough books, whether for holidays or everyday use, you can rotate them more often. Changing the books in the bag adds excitement for your kids, because they have new books to read.
The homily is the hardest part of the Mass for kids, so you can read a book to them during that part. My siblings and I would sit on Mom’s lap while she read a book in a whisper in our ear. After reading one book, she would tell us she had to listen to the priest.
Start collecting prayer cards and keep them in the kids’ Mass bag
This is an opportunity for your kids to learn more about the saints. You may even learn more yourself!
Many churches will have prayer cards in the narthex (the lobby). Point them out, but let your kids choose which cards they want. My siblings and I knew what we had and were careful to avoid getting duplicates!
Young children can keep themselves occupied for a long time just lining up or sorting the prayer cards. As they get older, they may try to read the cards and start asking you questions about what words mean. Don’t answer the questions during Mass—instead, tell them you’ll answer after Mass, then do that! This is an opportunity for an educational discussion about their faith.
Keep a rosary in the kids’ Mass bag
They may not know how to pray it, but it’s another faith-related thing to entertain them, and it’s an educational opportunity. Get one that’s cheap plastic, so it’s not as big a deal if it breaks. Many churches may have a supply of plastic rosaries for parishioners to use.
Be aware, many kids may wear the rosary. This is probably not very respectful, but kids will be kids. For my siblings and me, this was our “church necklace.” Just make sure they take it off before you leave church.
If you allow them to bring a doll or stuffed animal, it should not make noise or become a distraction
My little sister’s favorite doll had an annoying, almost maniacal laugh, and it didn’t take much to set it off. If my sister insisted on bringing that doll to church with her, the doll spent Mass in the car while the rest of us went inside. If she brought a doll that didn’t make noise, or if I or my other siblings brought a small stuffed animal, the doll or stuffed animal could come in. However, it had to sit and behave along with us. We would read to the stuffed animal, or help it “participate” in Mass. If we played with it in ways that were too much of a distraction, Mom took it away until Mass was over.
If your kids are not using anything from their Mass bag, quietly point out things in the church or tell them what’s happening
Tell them what you remember. This is a chance to teach them more about their faith and help them understand what’s happening. My mom would tell us about the things the priest was using during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. She would point out the chalice and tell us how every priest has their own, and they’re all different.
Have your child drink water and go to the bathroom before Mass
Both of these things could become a way to get out of Mass for a while, so have them do both beforehand. During Mass, it’s okay to make them wait until after so they—and you—don’t miss Mass.
Once you’re no longer bottle-feeding them, don’t let your child bring cups into Mass. Banging them on the pew makes a “cool noise,” and they could become noisy toys.
Let them know before Mass if it’s hospitality weekend
“Donut Day” is a great motivator for good behavior. Once or twice when I was little, my siblings and I didn’t get to go because we had misbehaved too much. If I knew it was Donut Day, I would sit in the pew and not move, not even using anything from the Mass bag!
Get a Mass guide
Many churches have these already, probably in the narthex (the lobby), but you can also buy them or find them online. These guides include all the readings and prayers—both the congregation’s and the priest’s—for the entire liturgical year. They may also include extra prayers to say on your own, explanations of what is happening and why, or a small hymnal section. These books enable kids to follow along with the Mass, understand what is happening, practice reading, and learn to pray.
Help them sing along with the music
Hold the hymnal where they can see it, and trace the lyrics with your finger. This encourages participation, and kids may look forward to it. In addition to that, art and music are highly beneficial!
When kids get bored, they’ll start asking how much longer they have to wait, or when Mass will be over. This was something my mom dealt with often with my little brother. She would answer by telling him how many songs were left. Then he’d have to pay more attention to the Mass so he could keep track of how many songs we had sung.
Let them sit on the floor or on the kneeler
When he was younger, my little brother would spend most of the Mass sitting on the kneeler or on the floor, lining up prayer cards on the pew seat. As long as he stayed in his spot between Mom and Dad and was quiet, there was no problem. Mom just reminded him to keep the prayer cards in his section of the pew. If they spread to her section when it was time to sit down, she would sit on them.
When everyone was standing, my siblings and I would sometimes walk around behind our parents and older siblings. As long as we were quiet and stayed in the pew by our family, it was okay. We were also allowed to wave at the people sitting behind us, even if it wasn’t time for the sign of peace. As long as we didn’t start talking to them, we were fine.
Don’t force your child to join a Mass ministry
Yes, it’s great to see your child in that altar server’s robe, but don’t you want them to be excited about it, too? Encourage your child to participate in Mass ministry, but don’t force it. Making them be an altar server or a part of the children’s Christmas choir when they don’t want to will not help them enjoy Mass. It may even cause them to dread going.
Instead, find out what options there are for kids to help at Mass or in the church, and see what your child is interested in. I was never an altar server—I didn’t want to be—but when the bulletin said they were looking for more lectors, I signed up because my high school didn’t have a forensic speech team like my middle school had. My first time as a lector was Palm Sunday my sophomore year of high school, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Have a copy of the readings for your child to follow along
You can get the readings from USCCB or find them in Mass guides. This turns the Liturgy of the Word into a “story time” and something to look forward to. It also gives them a chance to practice reading, and they’ll better understand what’s being read.
If your kids are the right age for Children’s Liturgy, have them go
Walk them over to the group if they’re nervous, or have an older sibling walk them over, but do not go with them unless you’re the one leading Children’s Liturgy. This encourages independence and confidence. Children’s Liturgy is a chance to have fun and meet other kids, and they’ll learn a lot!
Many times, kids will receive an activity sheet or booklet at the end of Children’s Liturgy. When they get back to your pew, have your kids put the sheet or booklet away in their Mass bag to work on later. Working on it during Mass could be too much of a distraction or, for younger kids, could lead to accidental drawing on the pews. Besides, they have their Mass bag full of books and prayer cards to keep them entertained—why not save the activity sheet or booklet for later?
Have your kids participate in the “group” prayers
They probably know or are learning the Our Father and the Creed, so have them join in. Have a written copy of the prayers if your child doesn’t know them yet, especially the Nicene Creed—that one can be a challenge! Make it fun to participate by holding hands during the Our Father. Just be careful it doesn’t turn into a game of swinging or squeezing Mom and Dad’s hands.
Make sure your kids know what they’re saying, and that they’re saying it correctly. Kids don’t know what consubstantial means, and they probably don’t know what trespasses are. They may also mishear it while they’re learning and say the wrong thing entirely (“Our Father, who does art in heaven…”).
Bring your kids up with you during distribution of Communion, even if they aren’t old enough to receive it themselves
Kids want to join in what you’re doing. You can use this as an opportunity to teach them about the Eucharist and why it’s important. Have them cross their arms over their chests in an X shape when they reach the front so they’ll receive a blessing.
Some kids will not want to wait until their First Communion to receive the Eucharist. They still have to wait, but it’s good that they are excited about it. There was a boy at my childhood parish who always put his hands out for the host when he went up with his parents and pouted when he didn’t get anything. Imagine how excited he must have been on his First Communion!
After you return to your pew, you have an opportunity to teach your kids how to pray. Tell them this is a time to sit quietly and pray—maybe describe it as talking to God.
Whatever your kids bring out, they have to put away after Mass
Do you really want to clean up if they unload the entire Mass bag? No, and neither do your kids. After Mass, your kids should put their things away themselves—it encourages responsibility. Only help if they can’t get it all to fit.
Have your child say goodbye to the priest after Mass
Ask your child to tell him what they liked and didn’t like.
For the bigger kids: If they're the right age for Confirmation but aren't ready, it's okay to wait
Being confirmed is a big deal. It’s not something you do just to “get it done” or because everyone else is doing it. It’s not a Catholic graduation ceremony. Kids need to be spiritually ready, and it’s okay if they aren’t ready at the same time as the rest of their class. Even if you don’t think they’re ready, have them participate in the prep classes with the other kids their age. That way, if they do think they’re ready, they’re able to be confirmed. If it turns out they’ll be better prepared by being confirmed in ninth grade instead of eighth grade, or sophomore year instead of freshman year, that’s okay. I was confirmed junior year.
Remember that they are kids!
Kids will goof around, misbehave, or get distracted. Full participation and understanding will come with time and practice. That’s why it’s important to make Mass something special, fun to participate in and pay attention to. If they can see and understand what’s happening, if they get things they don’t get any other time, they’re more likely to look forward to Mass instead of finding it boring. Most importantly, if they see you are enjoying Mass and participating, they will be encouraged to do the same!