Donuts, Mass bags, and how to survive (and thrive) with kids in the pew

You know what ain’t easy like Sunday morning, Adam Levine?

Church with small children.

The struggle is real, whether or not the deep-fried carrot of K of C donuts can be dangled in front of your sugar-seeking angels, because if there is one thing little kids are not, it’s predisposed to prolonged periods of contemplative silence and focused attention.

Though, then again, neither are many adults…

We’ve taken our kids to Mass in 3 different countries and maybe a dozen other states, and the one constant has always been, there is no constant. From week to week, from kid to kid, on any given Sunday there’s bound to be somebody feeling bad, acting worse, and dumping and projecting the entirety of mommy’s purse. (Like that rhyme?)

Some of our best and worst masses were during our stint in bella Roma, because while the churches were peerlessly beautiful (and therefore highly sensorily engaging to kids) and the liturgies high and fine, sometimes the homily would be in Italian, sometimes the Pope would be there and therefore, 4 hours long, and sometimes there would just be no air conditioning. (Okay, that was all the time.)

Now that we’re comfortably ensconced in our beloved local parish, we’ve had about 2 years of hardcore practice in one particular building, and we’ve discovered some tricks of the trade to help – not guarantee, but help – the hour between 9:30 and 10:30 pass a little more peacefully.

(Keep in mind this is what works for us right now with kids ages 4.75, 3, and 1.5 (plus an 8 month bump). So it’s all subject to change. And I know other parents who swear by various and different practices, so, here’s the salt shaker. Take as many grains as you care to.)

1. We go to Mass at the same time and in the same place every Sunday, as long as we’re in town. This has the twofold effect of giving the kids some predictability and stability of routine because this is what we do and where we do it on this day, and it has also helped us to bond and connect to other families in our parish, along with our pastors. Also, we know we’re hitting the loudest, most, ahem, dynamically fruitful Mass of the weekend. So if we have a pterodactyl on board (which Genevieve has proven again and again to be the terrible avian reptile queen of), we know we aren’t going to be traumatizing a greying congregation used to serene silences and occasional organ music.

(And, duh, if our kids are being abnormally loud or are disrupting the liturgy, we take them out. Nursing babies occasionally need a few seconds longer than is comfortable to settle down in slurping silence, but when the toddler starts tantruming we bounce, for everybody’s sake, the misbehaver’s included.)

2. Be prepared. We take a little canvas bag filled with religious cards (you know the endless amounts you get in the mail/from work/from various ministry events? Now they have a purpose. You’re welcome.), medals, a rosary or two, and lots and lots of books. Ignatius Press sent along three beauties to review a few weeks back, Let’s Pray the Rosary, A Missal for Little Onesand Catholic Saints for Childrenand they’ve quickly become house favorites.

I love Ignatius’ children’s line because the content is rock solid and, almost as importantly, the illustrations are gorgeous, particularly their Magnificat series. Since none of my little snowflakes can read yet, that’s a big ‘un for us.

Of the three titles, I was most excited to get my hands on Catholic Saints for Children, because it was the very first book I’d ever seen that had something on St. Genevieve! (The boys are still scratching their heads as to how “Evie got her own saint!” so I guess we did a bang up job explaining her name to them. Ha.) It also has stories and prayers about St. Joseph, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Francis, St. John Paul II, and St. Therese. Boom. Entire family canon, right thur.

We tend to rotate 4-5 books every few weeks so they don’t get stale, and we try (try, being the operative) to have them religiously themed. I’m not going to pretend JP wasn’t reading Spot the Fire Dog last week though. But, these beauties from Ignatius make it a lot easier to fill the bag. I can heartily recommend them for ages 3 and up, with “Let’s Pray the Rosary” being applicable for much older kids, too.

Oh, and Evie gives her gummy, page-ripping approval of any and all dust jackets. Lovely girl.


3. Bribery. I mean, whatever works, right? I know I’d sit still for an hour for donuts. (And I’d go 90 minutes, easy, for an order of Eggs Jennifer at Lucille’s.) We tell the kids up front what our terms are and what the targeted reward is: lighting a candle, stopping for donuts, a trip to the park across the street afterwards, etc. Choose your own diabetic adventure, but don’t be afraid to connect good behavior + a sweet reward in their pliable little brains. It’s good for their sacramental imaginations, too. Dave vividly remembers his dad taking them out for donuts or ice cream after Saturday afternoon confessions, because “the Father’s forgiveness is sweet.”

And how sweet is that?

4. If it works for your family, then it works for your family. And if it doesn’t? Don’t sweat it.

Some of my friends swear by the front row strategy. We’ve tried (and failed) again and again, and I’m ready to concede that at this point, the walk of shame is simply lengthened by our immediate proximity to the liturgical action. So we sit midway back, always on the aisle for maximum procession-viewing ease, and we are prepared and willing to pull the eject button if and when it becomes necessary. Some people like the crying room (though our parish doesn’t have one) and others rock the cheerios. No shame, parents. You’re already well ahead in the game of life simply for taking those precious little souls you’ve been entrusted with to God’s house every week. So do what works.

And if you’re looking at the last chocolate frosted glazed donut in the box? Look around for any pregnant women lurking in the line before you snap it up. It may just save your life.

ignatius book review


  • Tracey

    Thank you for sharing! For years when our children younger, we would go to the same Mass each week. After Mass we would go to the same bakery. It worked like a charm. We didn’t have to tell them, they just knew, good behavior means a treat! After we faded out the bakery trips (it just happened to be timed with a transfer to another church) they still were behaving nicely and we would occasionally treat them to something sweet but we faded the weekly trips out and in turn we had a nice Sunday breakfast together at home (usually something I prepared the night before). I too packed a bag of books, no foods, just books. They were able to follow along in their books with their parents who had hymnals. Today, as teens they remember those days fondly (we all do as it goes by so quickly). We sat in the back for years, I was never brave enough to try the front pews. Time, consistency and modeling by example led to where we are today.

  • Diana

    I feel like any success we’ve had with our 2 year old at Mass (and he’s been really good lately although saying that probably brought an end to our streak…) is just pure luck. I feel like there is no good reason he’s been reasonably well behaved lately…maybe just the grace of God? Having just one kid probably helps too.

  • Michelle Sachs

    Oh thank you for this, Jenny! Solidarity from me up here in Canada! I joke frequently that by taking our 3 year old and 1 year old twin boys to mass every Sunday, we are surely shaving time off purgatory! Gosh. I hope I’m right. Wouldn’t that be great?! Love your blog… keep up the amazing work!

  • Kate L.

    We’ve tried sitting in the front as well but then my kiddos (5, 5, 3.5, 2, 1 month) forget that there are other people at Mass and are very disruptive. I find that a few rows back, maybe two or three, is still close enough for them to watch but keeps them aware of their surroundings. Also, I remind the older children that if they want to earn a donut after mass, they need to act like 5 year olds, and that the three year old needs to act like a three year old, ect. Because my expectations for behavior vary among the ages. Jenny, I really love reading your blog and hope you’re last month isn’t too uncomfortable. God bless all the work you do!

  • Cami

    Our first son, now 3.75 is great at mass. He is genuinely interested in it, understands something holy is happening, genuflects voluntarily… Possibly 3 different times in 3 different places before we sit. Future priest maybe? BUT his younger brother (2.75) is a WHOLE other kind of situation. Sometimes we wonder if his baptism really “took”. He is like an animal. Most.of.the.time. We are lucky if he makes it to the first reading before screeching with his genetically opera strength lungs and running off. Then the marathon begins. It’s pretty terrible. I like long masses with rich, rigorous homilies but when our Ben is on the run, it feels like torture. We do better in the front-ish rows. The mass bag helps sometimes. One of our issues was that we had a 2 year interruption of consistent family mass together. Hubby cantored at the cathedral in Denver but we lived 45+ min SE from there. So since I couldn’t wrangle both kids on my own for the long drive and mass at a church in a sketchy area, although beautiful structure, we didn’t go to Daddy’s mass. I ended up taking my own mass “shift” later in the weekend. And we occasionally went as a family if Daddy had the week off. So the routine went kind of south. And kid #2 really makes us not want to do the whole riggamarole. He’s really, really tough. But now we’ve moved and are starting back with “family Sundays” where we are all together. Praise God! One thing we are doing now is utilizing the nursery while we go to mass. It’s not ultimately what we want but helpful to get over the hump of our 2 year old’s ferrel behavior while we fill our spiritual tank to gear up for parenting him the rest of the day. I wish the treat incentive worked but this kid is completely unmoved by rewards and consequences. Completely. Thank you Jenny for the book ideas. We need some new ones. Good luck to everyone out there. I do think consistency helps but we’ve been without it for so long, it will take time to transition back into a good routine. I often reflect on the days when I was single and not a mother, and how I just loved to go to mass and quietly soak it all in. Sigh. Those were the days.

  • Katie

    Haha! I refer to the walk from up front with a screaming child “the walk of shame” too and my husband always tells me that there is no shame in it at all. With high heels on and a feisty little girl shrieking in my ear, it sure feel like it, though. We have school aged kids and an older toddler too, though, so we risk the front because they always ask for it and it seems to be helpful for them. I agree with all of this! And I love that our kids, while they don’t always love sitting through Mass, seem to look forward to our Sunday routine. We have been at the same parish since I was pregnant with our oldest and it is clearly someplace they feel a sense of belonging 🙂

  • Kris

    We also did the same Mass every week for years and years and years. Also the family-friendly one. Now that the kids are all older, we hit the evening Mass more and more. It’s nice to end the weekend with Mass as a family. I echo all your strategies. We also always sat in the same pew, with the same families around us – our kids felt more comfortable, the families knew us well and didn’t mind the occasional distraction and it felt like our kids settled more quickly in familiar surroundings. Although with 4 boys, I often wondered how many years I would have to go without needing to discipline some child for misbehaving. And I still do it, because teenagers and the distraction of annoying a little brother…!

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