Mass with a Difficult Child

I knew it was going to be a bad evening as soon as I saw them.  The mom and her 3 ~ 4 year old came up the aisle.  She moved to the right, but he decided he wanted to go left.  They went left.

We’re in the parish hall, on folding chairs.  The small church is getting crowded, and the last remaining Mass there is the Saturday Vigil Mass.  Tonight and next weekend, it had been relocated to the parish hall as well – perhaps because of out-of-town holiday guests.

The mom and her son sat in the front row.  The procession started, and three altar servers (two were mine) and the priest came down the aisle and went up on the platform.  As the priest did the opening prayers, the little boy left his mother and crossed in front of the platform toward the right, teasing his mother: will you chase me, or won’t you?  How far can I go?  The mom stayed put, not wanting to make a scene, not wanting to interrupt the priest.  The priest finished the prayer and then said, “Aiden, go back to mommy.  Now!”

I died of embarrassment for her.

I’ve seen her before, at the daily Mass.  I had started to go on Fridays in the spring, and through the summer.  I wanted to keep it up, but haven’t been able to.  I think she has a younger child, and she likely attended Mass after dropping this one off at preschool.

Mom retrieved Aiden, and kept a firm grip on him for a bit.  But little children being little children, he was squirmy and heavy and restless and active.  She had her hands full.  At one point, he had to go to the bathroom.  The ladies’ room is on the right side.  That’s where I always sit, because I had to go there twice myself during Mass, with Mary.  Since she was on the left, and not wanting to cross during the readings, she went all the way down one side and up the other.  I’ve had to do that, too.  That’s why I always sit on the right.  After the potty break, they had to retrace their steps.

I watched her take him out the side door at least once.  My heart ached.  I’ve been right there, too many times.  Mary was some trouble tonight during Mass – the biggest problem was that she desperately wanted to fall asleep, and that just doesn’t work for us later on in the night.  She did some dancing in the side aisle, too.  And climbing on the folding chairs, and bumping the lady in front of us.  But it’s so different now.  Now, I have perspective.  Now, I have two (mostly) well behaved boys on the altar serving Mass.  Now I have two (mostly) well behaved girls sitting nicely in the pews (folding chairs).  Now I have a 6 year old, who sometimes can be difficult, but who is still 6, and not 3.

Nothing compares to a three year old boy.  Nothing.

The last straw was when I heard the flapping of little feet running up the right side aisle.  I should have known it was him, but I was actually more focused on praying right then.  Had I been paying attention (to what I should not have been paying attention to), I could have looked back, seen him far outpacing his mother and stopped him when he got to me.  Instead, he streaked past me, rounded the corner and crossed in front of the altar, just as the priest said, “… fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.” 

NOBODY did the response.  We were all so distracted by this little boy, who kept on running over to the left aisle and down, where a woman did stop him and engage him until his mother could get to him.  And she did exactly what most mothers would do at that point: she quit.  She scooped him up, got her purse and left. 

I almost chased after her.  Had I been on the left side for once.  Had I not had Mary and Peter to worry about.  I prayed so hard that she had only retreated, that she had gone to the back and that I would see her again during communion.  That I could give her a hug after Mass and tell her it was going to be OK, that she’s a good mom, that he will mature, eventually.

But she was gone.

And so I tell you, whoever is reading this and needs to hear it.  Don’t quit.  Retreat, yes.  Surrender, never.

I have spent countless hours in the backs of churches, in vestibules and hallways, even outside if the child was really noisy.  I have endured thousands of unkind looks, thoughtless words, and unhelpful suggestions.  I have had to leave Mass before it was even begun, and spend the entire time straining to hear what was gong on in an attempt to participate.  It is so easy to convince yourself that’s it’s not worth it.  What’s the point of going?  I heard nothing, you think.  My only prayer was that God would prevent me from murdering my child.  I committed all sorts of sins against charity while dealing with this tyrant.  Better to just go home and go to bed.

But God doesn’t expect miracles.  We are required to attend Mass and to participate to the best of our ability.  God knows what we can and cannot do.  God wants us to offer Him our obedience.  No prayer of ours, no matter how devoutly said, can equal an act of obedience, especially when that obedience requires supreme fortitude.

Don’t get me wrong.  The goal is to participate fully in the Mass.  The goal is to not be distracted by the antics of your little guy – or anyone else’s for that matter.  The goal is to have antic-free children.  We call them mature adults.  And don’t think I look down on families who choose to leave little ones in the nursery or at home instead of suffering through Mass.  I’m not demanding all mothers be super-heroic every Sunday.  But no matter what arrangements you have, at some point, you will be stuck with a difficult child during Mass.  And what will you do then?

I remember those days, sitting on the cold, hard floor of a vestibule, unable to hear what was going on, lamenting my situation, wanting just to leave, thinking it was not worth anything for me to be sitting there, pinning down my naughty little tot, getting angrier by the minute.  And there was one thought I clung to: I will not let this child deprive me of the Eucharist!  I needed those graces, more than anyone else in that church, I promise you.  And so I stayed.  I hunkered down, I waited for the communion hymn, I stole peeks through the door to see when the line was winding down, and I made my (often) grand entrance, rushing quickly down the aisle before my kid could even realize what was going on and start screaming about it.

Don’t give up.  It does get easier, generally by the time they’re 10.  God wants you, as you are.  Go to Him.  Receive the Eucharist.

And realize that there are probably many mothers right there who feel your pain and wish they could take it away, even just for that once.

33 thoughts on “Mass with a Difficult Child

  1. As the mom of a currently 3 year old boy, thank you.

  2. I ache for that mom right now. I hope you run into her again someplace and are able to give her some words of encouragement!

  3. I remember sitting in the cry room with my son for many a Mass. I think it is called the cry room because that is what I did!

    I, too, say a prayer for the mom's of difficult little ones during Mass, hoping that when it is my turn (and it will be some days), someone is praying for me.

  4. What a great post! Thank you!
    My heart goes out to that mom and her boy. I have been there…and am still there some days with my youngest (5yo). It is also a good reminder to refrain from judging…or at least refrain from thinking of all the things I would advise her to do to fix her kid. 🙂

  5. oh God bless you Michelle for this today. today as i wrangled the 13 month old (thank goodness for extended breastfeeding as a distraction) and the never ending corrections of my 3.5 year old – both boys – i just despaired and despaired of children who will EVER BEHAVE IN CHURCH.

    i'm so thankful you posted this today 🙂

  6. also i'm too spiteful to quit – i'm going to Mass dangnabit, and everyone else with their stink eyes and their moving seats (really?!? in a catholic military church? full of women with deployed husbands, as mine is? really?!?) can offer it up, because i need the grace DARN IT :-p

  7. Well said! I have so been there, too. And even though my youngest is 7, we STILL have correction in Mass. It's a good reminder for those of us in a different season to offer encouragement when we see that happening. As the previous poster mentioned about those with frowns and head shaking. We are Catholic, we promote families, and we need to support them when they bring their little children to Jesus.

  8. Amen! (You knew I'd agree with everything you wrote here.) I recently wanted to give up on All Saints' Day because of a very active and noisy 2-year-old girl. We don't have a parish hall, so I ended up outside straining to hear everything. I kept telling myself that I needed the Eucharist now more than ever perhaps because I was having venomous thoughts about my little one. I'm so thankful I stuck it out. We survived somehow, amd I went home with a taste of peace. Don't give up. Those are such wise words!

    Also, I can't reiterate the need for us to support other parents who are bringing difficult children to Mass (or just to plain encourage any mom braving the public elements with a child acting out or a child just being his or her age-appropriate self). A few Sundays ago I walked into church, and Thomas was wailing. I knew I'd be able to settle him down in just a minute because he's a very easy-going little baby (I'd just woken him up from a nap, so he was a little angry), but all these eyes were on me. A visiting priest was standing near me at the back of the church, and he must have noticed my frazzled expression and my concern over the soundtrack we were adding because he looked at me and kindly said, “Don't worry. That's how he prays.” I could have hugged that holy man!

    I know how good it feels to be encouraged when you're having a rough time, so I hope to make it my mission to minister to other parents.

    Anyway, great post (as always!).

  9. Tears, tears and more tears. “Nothing compares to a three year old boy. Nothing.” So very, very true. So often we reflect the behavior of our children back on ourselves, and when we feel we are giving it all we've got, it can be SO discouraging. It's nice to know there is hope of mostly well behaved children in Mass one day. 🙂

  10. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! God bless!

  11. Sometimes, no matter what tricks you use or what you do, your children will misbehave…and that's okay because you are trying! I wish someone would have told me this sooner, it would have saved countless hours of feeling guilty or feeling like I was the worst mom ever.

  12. I hate to be the downer here, but what I'm about to say doesn't get said enough in mommy circles.
    So I'll be the meanie: Her first mistake was going left when that's what he wanted. You're right… no reason to quit. But always a reason to try harder and do better! Yes, ALL kids have days… but that kid was out of control, and he knew he could get away with it. If you see her again would encourage her to set some boundaries with him, probably starting at home, and I think that would help tremendously. Motherhood does not have to mean misery!

  13. Beautiful, wise words! It is so true, and we've all been there. But being there, in that moment, it is so hard to see past it sometimes. Moms need more encouragement like this that nothing should stop us from receiving the Bread of Life that we need so much. Awesome post, Michelle.

  14. I have 3 kids, 5, 3, and 1, and Sunday Mass has become so difficult. I have felt like such a horrible mom; also as an introvert, the stares and judging looks have been almost too much for me to bear.

    Thank you so much for this – it was really exactly what I needed to hear. God bless you!

  15. I have 5 children. Ages 8,6,4,4 and 3. When the twins came along going to Mass together became impossible. Right now we still go at different times each of us taking 1 of the older children. We try going together every few months, but it is always awful…

  16. Thank you so much for this! I'm the mother of a VERY active two-year-old boy, and Mass can be such a challenge. These are wonderful words of encouragement.

  17. Wise wors and much needed. Thank you for that!

  18. Thank you for posting this!! I just had myself a good little cry. This is such a good reminder.

  19. I have four sons ages 21 down to 6 and they have all been difficult at one time or another. Today at daily Mass my 6yo insisted on wearing his army cap. However, he's pretty good most of the time and tries to follow along with singing and praying now, even though he can barely read. Do try to encourage that mom to continue coming to Mass and set some limits. Standing in the corner in the gathering space was our answer to squirminess….and after about 30 times, it worked! One of my favorite Mass stories is about my now 12 yo son who, when we were at a 7 pm Sunday Mass when he was 3 yo, screamed for the entire Liturgy of the Eucharist in a ladies' room stall because I could not calm him down. (My dh was singing in the choir and was no help.) I actually missed Holy Communion that day. Today, he's a very reverant altar server….so there's always hope! Yes, keep trying and never give up!

  20. And I wondered why my previously well behaved 2yr old boy has turned into a misbehaving 3yr old! I still think about the age they learn to walk is the hardest. They think they can do anything they want, don't have the understanding to be quiet in church, and don't have verbal skills other than screaming!

  21. What a well written blog. I am in that stage now with a 3.5 yr, 20 month old and pregnant. My husband is in the military and I often end up going to Mass on my own with the kids. The kindest words I've ever been told was by an older mom, who came and took my 20 month old and told a crying me, “It's all right. God knows where your heart is and knows that you are doing the best you can. God would rather see you with 2 crying, misbehaving children then not see you and your wonderful kids at all.”

  22. Oh, and EVENING. Mass is difficult at any time with a 3 year old, but an evening Mass is the worst! We're very very blessed to go to Mass at the same parishes as our respective parents, and they help immeasurably with our 2.9 yr old and 15 month old, but STILL! Thankfully we also go to a parish with lots of large families, so there's not so much judgementalism. I think it's a terrible thing that people can get angry at an exhausted mom in church!

  23. Thank you.~Paula…Momma of 5 with a 3 yo boy who is the frustration of my days from morning till night…

  24. I was inspired by this blog, after a friend posted it on Facebook. So inspired that rather than taking turns at evening Mass tonight, my husband and I went together with two boys in tow. This will be good, so I thought. In the middle of the reading my three year old ran out in front of the altar. His dad tried to catch but to no avail. All anyone could see was a lanky three year old in yellow one piece footed pjs giggling, and his non impressed father chasing him. Wow. The irony; this has never happened before. He is typically well behaved.

    As I bounced my heavy eight month old, and hubby disciplined our son at the back, I had to chuckle. Everyone has their days, their moments – what consolation there is In encouraging one another! Despite all the boundaries and disciple – sometimes our children surprise us. But isn't it true that we want to raise children with obedient wills, not broken wills.

  25. Thank you so much for this wonderful article! I have three under 5 (4 1/2, almost 3, and a 4-month-old baby), and Mass is such a struggle for us, particularly because our oldest has some special needs.

    For a long time, we just didn't go at all. Now, we alternate going as a family with me going with one kid. (My husband isn't Catholic.) That gives us some family time, and also gives me some time to work one-on-one with the kids with good Mass behavior. It's not perfect, but it's bearable, and sometimes that's the best we can hope for! 🙂

    And Barbie, I know you may think her mistake was going left … but for some kids (particularly ones like my oldest), you just have to pick your battles. If my 4yo (who looks perfectly neurotypical to the casual observer but has sensory issues and is on the autism spectrum) wanted to go left and was in a cantankerous mood — well, I'd have had to choose if I wanted to go right enough to deal with a 20-minute tantrum about it. Sometimes it's an important enough issue. Plenty of other times, it's not.

  26. As a dad with 3 year old twin boys, and a daughter age 8 (scheduled to make her First Holy Communion next may), I found your post very encouraging.

  27. Oh well said! My girls could sometimes be a handful but now that I'm the mother of a two year-old boy, I'm beginning to see that boys are… different. Right now he's in a phase where he begins declaring on Saturday night: “I don't WANT to go to church!” And keeps it up all the way to the church and all through the Mass too. We were lucky on Sunday that we remembered his blankies and that he was pretty calm once we got to the church, having screamed his screams out in the car, and that his protests during Mass were mainly audible only to us.

    My heart aches for that mother. May God send her comfort and strength to persevere.

  28. My wife sent me a link to this post, with a note, “please read.”

    My two-year-old has been just like this for over a year, and he'll be three on St. Stephen's Day.

    Nothing compares to a three year old boy. Nothing.

    I clearly have much to look forward to.

    And it makes me crazy. Mass ceases to be about God. The readings are about keeping Mike quiet. The homily is about Mike. The Eucharistic Prayer isn't about the Last Supper or the miracle of transubstantiation. It's about Mike. “Be quiet,” I tell him, “the bells are going to ring.” “Look! Father is showing us Jesus!” The mass doesn't end with the Deacon proclaiming, “the mass is ended, go in peace,” but with Mike asking loudly, “is it over?” The only prayer I can offer is, “Lord, calm this child so I can attend to You,” which has never worked.

    Once the father in the pew behind us told him to “cut it out” when he was misbehaving. I apologized and took Mike out.

    (Once, with an older brother, I became so angry that I could only pray a litany asking every saint I could think of to pray for me.)

    He is my fifth child; he's been the worst of the lot, but he has a newborn younger brother in line behind him. I have much to look forward to.

    My patience often isn't up to sitting through mass with him. I've taken him out time and again, all the way out, because the vestibule is just a playground to him, the reward for misbehaving at mass. We wait on a bench outside, or even sometimes go and run errands until my wife comes out with the other kids.

    When I've spent the previous twenty minutes resisting by sheer force of will the temptation to murder my own child, I find myself unable to approach the altar for communion.

    Evening masses are right out; I don't know why, but all my kids go crazy every day from 5-6pm. At home, I just send them out to the back yard. But a 5:30 PM mass? Insanity.

    Recently we moved to a new area, and joined a new parish, and discovered that it sometimes has nursery services available. Although I generally prefer we go to mass as a family we tried it out. I had such high hopes that at last I could take in the liturgy. But then the two-month-old blew out his diaper, so I had to take him out to the car to change him (that being where the diaper bag had been left), and there was no much-needed change of clothes for him in the bag. So I brought him back in dressed in nothing but a diaper and a receiving blanket — I couldn't think what else to do. That mass turned to be about, not God, but Jamie.

    I appreciate the encouraging point of this post, but it's very, very hard sometimes to really see the point of going to mass to worship a toddler.

  29. Oh, Paul, I think it's worse for the dads who often have higher expectations of behavior than the mothers who spend all day with them and know how naughty they can be and who see so many other children and know that they are the same way. My husband, at least, only sees his own children's poor behavior and never that of other children. All other children are perfect – his children are the devil incarnate.

    For years it was I who insisted that we go as a family. It was my husband who wanted to split up and attend different masses. I was always the one who took the children out, because he could not handle them – they were better able to push his buttons than mine. Finally, I gave in to his request and we would go to separate masses some of the time, especially between the ages of walking and about 3 1/2. This wasn't a fabulous solution – especially since my husband's job meant I did Sunday Mass solo very often. But I did enjoy the occasional peaceful mass, and quickly stopped feeling guilty about it.

    Having a nursery is great if your child will go. Don't feel that it is a bad thing. Consider splitting mass attendance and going with only the older children or occasionally by yourself. Consider daily mass for the graces and the peace and to compensate for chaos on Sunday.

    And perhaps see if your wife can be the one to deal with children who need to leave. It is enough for my husband to deal with fidgety older children…sometimes even my 6 year old is too much for him. Maybe it's something about 5th children, because this kid is still giving us a hard time. He's not doing laps in the church, but he's a far cry from his older brothers.

  30. Oh, thank you for those wonderful words. We have all been there. It goes so quickly, but I remember those days of thinking I'd never be in a Liturgy from beginning to end again 🙂

    I hope you are able to tell her this.

  31. Wow. This is such an encouragement. My son is two and a half and it is not easy. I definitely feel like we must be doing something wrong…but could it possibly be we aren't and it really is his age and not us?? I do hope so…:)

  32. And you don't need to publish this comment but last spring the priest actually interrupted his homily and said to me that it would be better for everyone if I would take my son and go… I can not tell you how humiliating that was, I think I'm still recovering actually. 🙂

    That day was by no means his worst day so I was very very surprised but my brother was helping at the front and said that the priest told him he was having a bad day…

    Still, I cried and cried at home…it was awful.


  33. Colleen, I did publish this comment because I think other moms who experience the same thing need to know it doesn't just happen to them. It's proof that priests are human too and make mistakes, sinful hurtful mistakes against charity, just like everybody else. Just as he was having a bad day, so, too, were you. Dealing with this age requires massive amounts of patience and love and a certain amount of experience helps, too. Unfortunately, by the time you get really good at toddlers, they're on to the next age/stage…

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