Life with Lots of Littles: Going to Mass as a Family

This post is part of a series.  For a list of other topics covered, please click on the image below.

Just about every week, after Mass, at least one older lady will come up to me and comment on how well my children behave in Mass.  It is encouraging to hear, but it always take me back a bit.  I think they behave at ages 5, 4, 2 & 2 simply because they know what is expected of them.

Recently, a friend of mine struggling to make it through Mass with her 3 under 3 asked me if age 1 was too young to begin disciplining children during Mass.  The same weekend, another friend with 5 kids aged 5-14 shared her frustrations about her youngest’s behavior, and the thin line between too much discipline and the child hating Mass versus letting your child do what they want during Mass and being a distraction at too old of an age.

I am not weighing in on which is more important, instilling respect during Mass or instilling freedom in young children.  You will need to pray about that balance and discern what is best for your children with your spouse.  I will simply share what we do; since we get so many comments about it from strangers, I think it sort of works!

For babies, it is simple.  Once a baby is old enough to go a couple hours without food, we stop allowing milk during Mass.  I make sure the baby is fed before, then they have to wait until after Mass for more food.  I know there are feed-on-demand philosophies out there, and that’s great, but once the kid is a few months old and does not have any health or digestive issues requiring frequent feedings, they really can handle an hour without milk.  So, from an early age, my children learn that Mass is not a place for food; that there is something special and different about Mass.  Our kids have certainly never had a snack during Mass, nor have they expected one, so it is not a fight we have to go through with our toddlers or kids.

As for how to behave, we begin disciplining behavior during Mass sometime shortly after their first birthday.  We require the following, introduced one by one:
  1. no running around and no crying out
  2. learning to whisper, not talking out or making loud noises
  3. sitting/standing at the right times and no longer having to be held constantly

From age 1-2, these three behavior modifications meant a few time-outs every Mass, usually in a side room in our parish building.  Some time between 2 1/4 and 2 3/4 the time-outs become more sporadic, and very often, just a look or few words will correct the behavior while still in the pew.  This process is very draining when going through it early on, but I can say it does pay off…  Eventually! My husband often notices our two-year-old twins acting better behaved than grade school children sitting around them.

There is one catch: my husband and I have found that discipline at Mass for toddlers comes better from Daddy.  I often handled time-outs when my older two were toddlers, but they were never half as effective as they were when Daddy would do them.  I don’t know why, but that’s just what has worked for our family.  When we had twins, we both had to carry out time-outs, but Daddy holds the primary responsibility for teaching how to behave during Mass.

We do not allow:

  • food, snacks, drinks
  • coloring books, pen/paper, art projects (we’ve even seen grade school kids PAINTING during Mass!)
  • toys, electronic devices

We have allowed books provided by our parish about the Mass (We Go to Mass; Children’s Missals), but the children have to leave them in their seat when it is time to stand or kneel.

I spoke to a lady after Mass recently who said she used to take turns going to Mass with her husband when her two were younger because it wasn’t worth it to try bringing her daughter to Mass as a toddler.  When our twins were born, my husband and I took turns going to Mass.  One of us would take the 1 and 2 year old kids with them in the morning and at night we would have a family member come help so that the other parent could go unattended while the four kids stayed at home with a parent and helper.  When the twins were a few months old and could go a little while without milk, we went as a family.  We usually did not succeed in remaining in the main sanctuary space, but over time, we were able to spend more and more time in it.  These days we are in our pews for almost all of Mass.

That’s it for our plan.  We know other families who do not discipline until much older – they just stay in a separate part of the church during Mass and let the kids do what they wanted as long as they weren’t hurting other kids, of course.  They say eventually the kid learns how to behave in the main room.  My hunch is the longer you wait, the harder it will be to train the child, as evidenced by my frustrated friend with the strong-willed almost 6 year old who sometimes does not want to stay in his seat or keep his shoes on during Mass.  Now that our oldest are 4 and 5, we are able to fine-tune a bit by working on things like not swaying back and forth and watching what is going on at the altar, but I think that is only because we expected more of them as toddlers.


I am by no means judging you if you have not begun disciplining your kids during Mass; that is every parent’s decision.  I am simply sharing what has worked for us for anyone with a desire to instill good behavior at Mass at an earlier age, especially if you have several little ones close in age.


May God bless you and your families!