Ok, I’ve been googling around and found that everybody and their brother has created a list of “tried and true tips for taking kids to mass”. I’m going to tell you that more than half of them wouldn’t work with Little Scribbler. I know. I’ve tried.
‘Sit in the front row’, they said. ‘The kids will be interested and watch’, they said. Anybody remember Little Scribbler’s front row forward roll of Ash Wednesday 2009? Yeah. Don’t sit in the front row. Sit in the back. On the end. Don’t move to the middle when others try to join your pew– get up and make them slide into the middle instead. Trust me on this one– egress routes are invaluable.
So anyway, if you’ve got a kid that’s tricky (you know who you are!), feel free to try out some of the following tips. Many of them are adapted for sensory kids– if you’ve GOT a sensory kid, you know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t have a sensory kid, well, you can google it or search through some of my previous posts :) Some tips may not be appropriate for typically developing children.
My philosophy about kids at mass is this: They are entitled to be there, even if they can’t get their acts together. They need to learn, about a million things, about mass. For young children, I think we should be thinking about them “collecting” good “Mass Behaviors”, one at a time. Genuflecting respectfully– that’s one mass behavior. Making the sign of the cross– another mass behavior. Sitting quietly during the readings– yet ANOTHER mass behavior. You’re not going to collect them all at once, and you’re not going to collect them in chronological order. Build on the skills your child has, one tidbit at a time. Praise him where he does well.
1. Teach your child to participate in the physical parts of the mass– genuflecting, handshakes, etc– no matter if they’re only 2 years old. If really young, they may just be going through the motion for the first few years, but that’s ok. (Don’t forget to go back and explain WHY we genuflect, when they’re developmentally ready to understand!). The goal is form a good, simple habit, that is easy to do successfully. Little Scribbler always appreciated when we acknowledged her genuflect in those early years. It was a small accomplishment for her. The motion of genuflecting will become a habit– a ‘church behavior’, to add to their growing repetoire of Church Behaviors. You’ll be surprised the flourish and sincerity young children sometimes invest in their genuflect! Going through the motions, phsyically, is a GREAT jumping off point for kids who aren’t able to be successful in other areas….thing, ‘sitting quietly’, for example.
2. Teach your child some of the mass prayers at home. Little Scribbler frequently tunes out during mass, but I’ll never forget the moment she heard the Our Father. All of the sudden she was saying the words along with the congregation and then she looked at me. “HEY! I KNOW this one!” Delighted! It never occurred to her that what we do at home is related to what we do at mass. She’s just not a lineaer thinker that way.
2a. Don’t expect kids to tune in a pay attention to the whole mass at too early an age. YES you should have high expectations for their behavior, but for their participation, temper your expectations with their age and ability. Now, I know that many of you are going to disagree with me– particularly those amongst you with typically developing children– but hear me out on this one. Expect your children to be respectful in the house of the Lord. Expect them to engage at an age appropriate or developmentally appropriate level— but start small. Start with saying the parts of the mass that they know. Or maybe with standing, sitting, kneeling when the congregation is doing it. If you’ve got a REALLY tricky kiddo, start with sitting upright for the whole hour! (more on that later!) Once you get one GOOD “Mass Behavior” under your belt, build on it with another one. Accumulate behaviors in the same way you accumulate skills in a classroom– one at a time. You’ll find yourself less frustrated, but you’ll still be teaching your child in a proactive way.
3. Does your kiddo slide all around the pew like a wet fish? Start with this one rule– “You are NEVER allowed to lay down on the pew. It is disrespectful”. If you can keep your child from really stretching out and getting the flailing started, consider it a victory for YOU. Little Scribbler is never, and has NEVER been (at any age) allowed to lay down on a pew. Neither is she allowed to sit on the floor. She may sit, she may stand, or she may kneel. I do not yet expect her to do as the congregation is doing– we have a little way to go before that is expected of her. But she is expected to sit upright and respectfully in God’s house. We went through a heck of a time with this, between ages 2 and 4, but we made it through! There were plenty of times I had to take her out. I STILL occasionally have to take her out! So how can you help yourself acccomplish this?
3b. Cuddle Time! This one isnt limited to special needs kiddos. Mass has always been a special time for Little Scribbler and I to sit together and cuddle. She needs some sort of physical stimulation to sit still, so I typically have her sit cuddled on my lap and bounce her– sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, provided she stay quiet, because it’s not romper room after all!– while we either listen, or I explain what is happening. She has internalized SO MUCH of what is happening at mass with this cuddle time! The deep pressure of the cuddle and the bouncing of my knees help her to tune in an focus on the words being spoken– either by me or by the priest. This is not unlike a bumpy cushion or sensory ball being used in place of a chair in a special ed classroom. The theory is that when the physical and proprioceptive senses are satisfied, it is easier for her auditory sense to “tune in”. This goes for the standing portions of the mass as well. Although LS is almost 6 years old, and about 48 pounds, either The Auditor or I pick her up during many “standing” parts of the mass. As she ages, and learns more, and acquires those good “Church Behaviors”, this is lessening. She’s forming, albeit slowly, the habits of standing on her own. If you take nothing away from this blog post– take this tip!
4. Quiet distractables. Lots of mass tip lists will include something about quiet distractable items for young children. Many people recommend having a “mass bag”, with special toys and books that are quiet, for mass time only. This a great idea– but when do you phase it out? The Auditor and I really struggled over the years with what is appropriate in mass for kids of different ages, and then we changed our mindset from “age” to “ability”. The fact is, sometimes older kids are not able to sit quietly. This is not a reflection of their behavior or their parents, but simply a reflection of the way God wired them! LS has autism. Her nervous system does not allow her body to rest unless she is sleeping, hence the bouncing and deep pressure cuddling aforementioned. So we know she can not, on her own, sit still, even at almost six years old. Well, what CAN she do? She can sit quietly for extended periods of time. I know this, because she does it at home, when she is drawing. Part of her is sitll moving (her hands), but her mouth and most of her body are quiet. So we go to mass every week with a fresh notebook and a pen. For probably half the mass, LS sits, cross legged, in her seat and draws. Want to know what blows us away? She draws the mass!
Not always, but frequently, Little Scribbler draws the priest at the altar. She draws Jesus on the cross (or “lower case t”, as she calls it). She draws the backs of the heads of people sitting in front of her. She draws stick figures lining up for Communion.
I will tell you that a lot of people have made a lot of snide comments about Little Scribbler being too old to draw during mass. (POO ON YOU, red haired lady who’s name I don’t know, and all your redheaded children too, for loudly pointing us out as an example of what NOT to do in mass! Mine might be drawing, but yours are hitting each other– so THERE! HA!) A big part of the problem is that Little Scribbler’s disabilities are “hidden”, meaning, you can not tell by her physical features that she has autism, nor that she has sensory processing disorder, nor that she is trying as hard as she can to be cooperative! You gotta be prepared for some snarkiness, which is really sad to experience in a church, but it is what it is. If you can tough it out without getting angry, well, then you’re a stronger person than I am, because I usually explode all over my poor clueless husband as soon as we get into the car! :)
For a lot of sensory kids, another great quiet distractible might be a “fidgit” item. Modeling beeswax words GREAT for this! If you don’t already know, a “fidgit” item is frequently used in special ed classrooms. It’s an item that children can manipulate with their hands, without having to look at it or engage with it (which is what makes it different than a toy, although sometimes toys are GREAT fidgits). Little Scribbler has a squishy rubber fish that she frequently takes to mass. She can squish it while she’s listening. Her nervous system gets the satisfaction of physical stimuli, but she’s not engaging in imaginative play with it. If she were, it would be a toy, and I would argue, not appropriate for her at this stage of her ability.
So long story short– use quiet distractables past the toddler years, if you think they might help your child be successful.
5. Using the Bathroom. If you can get to mass early enough, use the potty first thing when you arrive. That being said, your kid is going to, at some point, ask you to go to the bathroom. If your kid is anything like LS and her little classroom buddy, they will wail about their need to relieve themselves any time they’re feeling the need for a change of scenery– which is about 100 times a day. I recommend picking a time during the mass that it is OK for your child to use the bathroom. Personally, I pick the Offeratory. Now, I have not TOLD LIttle Scribbler that she may use the bathroom during the offeratory, but I know in my head that Offeratory time is, in my opinion, the best time for me to take LS to the potty. We go when we get there. If she’s especially wiggly, or if she asks me to go, ONLY at the Offeratory will I take her. Sometimes a quick trip to the potty is all she needs to settle back down afterwards (whether or not she actually did anything while we were in there). If you’re sitting towards the back (on the end, which you may recall I recommend anyway!), it’s no problem to occasionally take your kiddo to the bathroom.
You know, the point of all these “tips” is not just to get your kid through mass without incident. Yes, it’s better for your sanity if you dont have to drag a screaming five year old out of mass, but it’s not really teaching your kid anything. That’s probably the main reason I don’t advocate snacks for older special needs kids in mass. Yeah, you might make it through the whole hour quietly, but all you’ve ended up doing is pacifying– not teaching them anything. So often, we, The Parent Of Children Who Are Difficult In Public, fall in to that trap! But it IS a trap– because there’s no progression forward. No acquisition of new skills. No magical moment of change.
I DO think that for differently abled kids, you sometimes need to take the slow, circuitous route to learning. You’ll get there eventually– just not at the same speed, nor in the same linear fashion, that others will. We are definitely on a slow, circuitous route at the Casa de Scribbler. If you’d asked me three years ago how we were doing I’d have melted down all over you in a puddle of stinking desperation! I didn’t know then that insisting Little Scribble sit up in the pew would pay off– it just felt disrespectful to allow her to lay down. I didnt know that her tantrums would EVER end. I certainly didnt know that there would ever be a time she would say the Our Father along with the congregation, of her own volition!
We’re at the point now we’re Little Scribbler tunes in for genuflecting, the greeting, most of the singing, the Our Father, the sign of peace, the bells ringing to signify that “now it’s Jesus-bread” (her words), etc. She occasionally kneels when people are kneeling. Three years ago she was doing forward rolls on the pew on Ash Wednesday. Two years ago she was still crawling under neath the pew in front of us any time I let my guard down. (Bonus Tip– the quickest way to force a flailing child to stand up? Shove your finger in their armpit while you’re pulling them up. They’ll put their feet down faster than you can ask them to do it! They’re not gonna be happy about it though, so prepare to be embarassed if they’re verbal enough to call you out on it :) As you may remember, I don’t advocate spanking, particularly a differently abled child, but a well placed armpit-jab to stop a mass meltdown is something I’m not ashamed to say I’ve done. Use it sparingly– like ONLY during mass.)
I hope you’ve found at least SOME of this helpful! Please feel free to post your own tips or perspective in the comments section of this post. I’m always looking for new things to try!