So, Your Toddler is Terrible in Mass . . .

by | Jul 15, 2014 | Catholic Living, From the Trenches, Parenting With Authority | 32 comments

I shared this image on the Catholic All Year Facebook page over the weekend:

I love this quote from Pope Benedict XVI. It comes from a question and answer session he had in St. Peter’s Square in 2005 with some children who had just had their First Communion.

Some folks loved it, and found it inspirational. But for others, it touched a nerve a bit.

Kaitlin from More Like Mary – More Like Me wrote me an email:

Help! I just saw your meme about going to Mass as a family and it made me so sad. For the past month or so, we’ve been putting our son in the nursery for Mass. He’s 16 months old. Our daughter (3) stays with us. I miss him so much when we’re at Mass and he’s not with us. However, his behavior is awful. . . . 

Let me esplain . . . No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I. I’m so sorry! That’s absolutely the hardest age. One year olds are hard. They are hard in Mass. And on airplanes. And when you’re trying to cook dinner. THEY ARE HARD. And if you had an abnormally easy one to start with (which I did NOT) well, God bless ya, a regular one year old must be quite a thing to get used to.

II. I think we all, as moms and as Catholics, think that somehow our children should desire things like Mass and prayers. We want them to pray out of love for God and it feels wrong to “force” them to do it. The problem is, that we are all fallen creatures, even our beautiful children, and we don’t naturally desire what’s good for us.

Behaving properly for Mass isn’t a religion issue, it’s just a general behavior and obedience issue.

III. Whether or not to discipline a one year old is a parenting decision. You can choose to do it, or you can choose to wait. We do discipline one year olds, with success. But I know plenty of lovely people who don’t. 
I can’t quite tell from the question (which was longer, but excerpted above) whether your preference would be to keep putting him in the nursery for the time being, or have him with you in Mass, or whether you don’t even know what your preference is. So, I will address all three options.

1. If putting him in the nursery works, go for it. Three year olds are much more able to understand consequences and follow instructions than one year olds. If you choose to wait, it DOES NOT mean he’ll never learn to behave and you’ll never be able to attend Mass together.

In my experience, one year old is the hardest age. Infants can nurse or sleep, two year olds have their own things going on, but are a lot easier in a lot of ways, (I kind of love two, actually) three year olds have the drama thing, but can usually keep it in check during Mass for the promise of a donut.

If you choose to put off the instruction for a bit, you can be more conversational and less authoritarian about it. Maybe. Some kids are always going to respond better to a more authoritarian approach. But in any case, if you have an option for a place to put him, and that’s working for your family, DO IT and don’t fret about it.

2. If you would really prefer NOT to put him in the nursery, or for folks who WOULD put their toddler in a nursery, but that’s not an option, you CAN do this. You can get a toddler to behave in a way that all but the very grumpiest church ladies should be comfortable with, and we really can’t worry about those types anyway. So let’s just not.
Here’s how we accomplish Mass with a one year old:
We start small, with reasonable, age-appropriate expectations, clearly articulated in a way a toddler can understand, and backed up by set consequences and rewards.
Stay In the Pew
Quiet Voice
No Banging
We make sure our toddler understands what’s expected of him ahead of time. We tell him that we expect the above behavior in Mass. We remind him the day before and the night before and in the car on the way over. And he knows that we Always Mean What We Say.
We bring quiet, tidy snacks for kids less than two, like fruit snacks or Cheerios, that get held and distributed by a grownup. No sippy cups, no books, no toys for one to two year olds, because in our experience books and toys make it really likely that our toddlers will violate expectations two and three above.
We sit up front. One year olds are allowed to sit in the pew or on the kneeler, they can stand on the ground or on the kneeler or even on the pew if it’s a standing up time. They can go from one end of the family to the other (on the ground). The can go from one parent to the other. They just have to stay in the pew.
They can talk and ask questions, they just need to do it in a quiet voice. Even if it’s not a very GOOD quiet voice. But they need to attempt it. Over two, we work on not talking.
No banging. Using the kneeler is okay. Banging the kneeler is not okay. Looking at the books is fine. Banging the books is not fine, etc.
All throughout Mass, I give whispered reminders and warnings and encouragement and information. The husband is great about holding a one year old and very quietly telling him what the priest is doing or what are the pictures in the windows etc.
If the toddler doesn’t meet expectations, he gets a warning. “You must speak in a quiet voice in Mass. If you speak in a loud voice again we will have to take you out of Mass.” Then, if we have to, we do. And we make sure that being taken out is no fun. I find it very effective to sit a one year old in a corner outside of the church, remind him of which expectation he wasn’t meeting, and give him a quick little hand spanking. (For more on that topic, see here.) Then, once he’s settled down, we come right back in.
We do it as often as behavior warrants. But as soon as they believe that I mean it, it becomes a lot less frequent. It still happens, but infrequently.
Then, after Mass, overall behavior is rewarded or punished, usually with donuts or no-donuts. There is a reason donuts have been available after Mass since time immemorial. They are a great motivator. If the toddler had to get taken out of Mass he DOES NOT get a donut. And the sadder he is about that fact the better.
In our house, being taken out of Mass also means you go straight to bed for your nap as soon as we get home from church. But again, once they believe we mean it, consequences become more infrequent.
That’s what we do. It has worked for us with easy toddlers and hard toddlers. Calm but firm. Always mean what you say. Reasonable and age-appropriate expectations. Consistent, consistent, consistent. Same ‘ol. Same ‘ol. Same ‘ol.
3. What if you don’t know WHAT you want? What if part of you wants your family together in Mass, but part of you just doesn’t want to deal with the back and forth and the looks from other parishioners who maybe are trying to be supportive but maybe are being judgey? And you just don’t know. And the nursery or the cry room is very tempting. What then?
If that’s where you are, I’d really, really encourage you to stick it out in the main church. That’s what we do. I feel confident that my noisy toddler and I have just as much of a right to be in the main church as any of the other sinners in there. I’m going to make every effort to teach him right behavior in Mass, but I think the best place to do that is IN Mass.

Some weeks my kid is going to be the one acting up. Some weeks it’s going to be your kid. It’s okay.

And, REALLY, almost everyone is NOT mad that your kids are there, even if they are less than perfectly behaved. Some of the people craning their necks to get a look at you, just want to see your cute kid. Most of my early stress over how people were reacting to my children was coming from my own insecurities, not actually from other people. 

If we just all stayed in the main church with our kids, took them out as necessary, and did just our best with them, perhaps we could finish off once and for all that climate of baby shushing that seems to have snuck in from someplace. I think Pope Francis would agree. (And Pope Benedict. And St. JPII.)

That said, I’m not here to try to make you do something you’re not comfortable with. This doesn’t have to be YOUR crusade. All of my suggestions are gleaned from my own personal experience with my own personal children. Your children may vary. And, of course, special needs kids are going to need special expectations and concessions. You know what your child is ready for. If you or your kid can’t do it right now, then don’t. But don’t give up. And don’t be chased off by the shushers.


  1. Theresa @ OrdinaryLovely

    Sorry about the deleted comment… had to make some edits 🙂
    Sounds like we pretty much handle Mass the same ways you guys do. We've never attended a church with child care or a cry room, so making it work in the pews is important 🙂 I was happy to read that you're a doughnut family 🙂 We stopped bringing food to Mass with our second child and switched to doughnuts afterward, and although they're tasty, I've always had some reservations about rewards for proper behavior and good participation in Mass. I'm over it 🙂 It's a great way to celebrate Sunday (and a helpful motivator!)

  2. Amelia Bentrup

    I have a one-year old (22 months). 6 months ago she was pretty horrible in Mass. We had to take her out, almost every time. Now, she is pretty good and most of the time she makes it all through Mass. What changed? Not really sure.. I think she just got older. We didn't really enforce any consequences or do anything other than it was always my husband who took her out (not me). That was "sorta' a punishment since she doesn't like being separated from me (even though she loves Daddy).

    We also don't bring anything special for the 1-year to Mass. No snacks, no books, no toys. We do let them walk around the pew (but not past strangers) and climb on the kneeler or stand on the pew (if it's standing time).

    All four of my kids have been basically the same. They were pretty hard at 13-20 months or so…but as they approached 2, they got much better.

    Honestly, my kids are shy. So, for us, sitting in the pew so we are "blocked' in by strangers on both sides is enough to keep them from wanting to run in the aisles (as they aren't going to climb past strangers). Banging hasn't been a problem as we don't have any bang-able things. Talking in a loud voice is also not a problem for my 1-year olds …probably the whole shy thing again, but they rarely wanted to talk in public with a bunch of strangers around anyway. It was just never an issue. In fact talking in church has never been an issue with any of my kids. Probably they are just naturally too shy. (of course that also means they were way too shy to go into a nursery or anything like that, so we've always had to keep them with us as they would just scream and be terrified if they were suddenly left in a room with strangers).

  3. Lindsay

    Excellent advice, all of it. So now I'll ask for some more. I have three kids (5 (boy), 3 (boy), and 1 (girl) and my husband does not come to Mass with us. So, when the baby or (sadly) the 3-year-old melts down, I have to grab all three kids, head past the legs and the coats and the kneelers, apologize to everyone, shush the offender, and move the whole parade to the back of the church or outside (or to the dreaded cry room, but don't let's get started on that.) I often feel like this production is a bigger distraction than the rioting child. The one time I left the 5-year-old alone in the pew while I dealt with the little ones, he freaked and started yelling for me. Also, apparently, distracting. I suppose I could sit by some friends and enlist their help when the shenanigans start – any other suggestions? Thank you!

    • Kendra

      Lindsay, I used to take my only little kids to daily Mass by myself pretty regularly, and, ugh, I have had that exact same experience. It feels like the whole world is spinning out of control.

      It's no biggie now with older kids. But what I did when I had all littles was just stop taking them up to the communion line with me as soon as that was possible. For us, it's usually two or two and a half that they can handle it. Then they get used to sitting there by themselves for a few minutes in a non-crisis situation, and can usually also then handle it if I need to run out with a melting down baby or toddler.

  4. Joanne Kibbe

    Oh man… Sometimes I wish our church would have a nursery but mostly I'm glad it doesn't. The mobile age of 12-24 months is super rough. I think my 2.5 yr old is finally getting with the program – if I could only get her to keep her shoes on. Our church does not have pews – we have chairs which makes things even more interesting because chairs can be pushed and moved.

    I will say that I gave her a wipe during Palm Sunday Mass (when it was longer-ish and CROWDED) and she seriously sat there occupied from the homily through Communion. I have not done a repeat because my 4 yr old was not with us and if she would have been then each one would 'NEED' a wipe.

    We don't do snacks or toys. We did icon cards for a while but then they just got to be a distraction.

    Since my (deacon) hubby is serving each Sunday I really only get a break during the homily (when he is not preaching) and sometimes I have gotten to the van and
    A. decided I really need to go to confession
    B. wanted to cry
    C. made me doubt EVER bringing kids to Liturgy EVER again (but then I do because I'm Catholic and I 'offer it up', right??? : )

    I think all of the above is worse when I'm pregnant because the toddler is in the prime of church-behavior-terror. Fortunately I can commiserate with the other moms in the back as my child is laid out on the (dirty) floor of the narthex having a screaming fit. Also, makes me super grateful for our priest's wife or (other) deacon's wife who will take one of the well behaving children for a portion of Liturgy. I got some major debts to repay!

    • Kendra

      We have occasionally done the wipe thing too! They'll just wipe and wipe and wipe the pew. 🙂 But I always figure it must be worrisome to the people behind us who probably wonder what else might be on that wipe.

    • Katherine Broberg

      OMG. Solidarity!

      But do you find that kids are better behaved in churches with pews or without pews? My toddler spent his first year in a pewless church and since we moved has had to adjust to pews. I think it might be a contributing factor to the insane bad behavior he has developed. He likes to run up and kiss the tetrapod every five minutes, and then runs to the back trying to leave the building. Fr. Insists on keeping the doors open, which makes corralling him impossible. I can't hold him and nurse the baby at the same time and my husband has the older kids. I hate pews!

  5. Elizabeth@SuperSwellTimes

    I actually had this discussion with my aunt over the weekend. I love seeing kids at Mass because I think it's important that my parish welcomes families at all ages and stages (oh look! The marketing language dominates everything I do!), but I'm also a little bit terrified. I've seen how some people at my parish (and in my family!) react to babies making normal happy baby noises so it can be a little daunting to imagine having a more boisterous kid along for the ride.


  6. Mia Jude

    Just read your post about disciplining a one year and spankings. **huge sigh of relief** We do pretty much the same thing you do. No other mom around me (or at least that's how I perceive it) does spankings. I feel like I can't tell my coworkers I spank because they might judge and think "yea, real Christian Miss Christian pants." We do time outs, but even though my toddler stays in the corner when I punish him, I think he likes it. He always runs to the corner when I tell him "No" like its a game or something and he laughs and dances around in his corner. (stinker). Yes he does stay in his corner until I tell him to leave, but it should not be fun for him! Anyways..thanks for these posts! I have a question. How do you feel about giving your kids snacks in Mass? I wrote a post on it here:

    Would love to know what you think! 🙂

    • Kendra

      Great post Mia, and it's pretty much just our reasoning for snacks in Mass. Our older toddlers and kids don't need them, so we don't do them for older kids, but they are helpful to us in keeping one year olds quiet and occupied.

      One year olds are just a particular challenge. Infants can nurse and/or sleep, or chew on a teether and be happy. Two and ups can understand rules and be motivated by treats or loss of privileges. One year olds have to just kind of be contained. For us, snacks have been helpful in the containment.

  7. Jenny

    yesssssssss, love that last quote you made into a graphic. Our parish is wonderful and filled with noisy babies (who are trying hard, or whose parents are, at least) but there is very minimal baby shushing. It helps that our parish mission this year is "the family is the heart of the church, building a culture of life with the family at the center" or something like that. I have so much respect for all toddler-bearing mass goers. It's like trying to force hyenas into worship mode. And it's usually the #1 motivator for my trips to the Confessional.

  8. Tall Girl on a Short Budget

    This is so timely! We've been having an awful Mass experience the past couple weeks thanks to our almost two year old. Up until now she's been ok – sitting still, quietly playing with toys or eating the cheerios we hand her one at a time. Lately she's wanted to eat like it's a buffet, scream when you don't feed her fast enough, scream because she doesn't want the toy or book offered to her, etc. This is really helpful for a place to start as my husband and I haven't figured out where to begin. Thank you thank you THANK YOU!!!! 🙂

  9. Athena Carson

    I really like your advice – I personally haven't done the 13-month-old at Mass thing without utter disaster. I can keep him calm and engaged up until the Consecration, at which point he decides on screaming. Not the readings, not the homily, not the Prayer of the Faithful – he waits until "This is My Body" to melt down. Great. At that point we usually just do our best to hang on until Communion and then leave right after.

    In my experience, once they get to be 2 years old, encouraging good behavior is MUCH more effective. There's enough changing of activity at Mass that I can keep them engaged. Like you, we sit up front so we can see what's happening. I help them with transitions, like – "Now it's time to sit and listen. Now it's time to stand. Now it's time to sing. Now it's time to kneel. Now it's time to pray." And I bend over and enunciate the prayers near their little ears so they can hear the words and learn to say them.

  10. Hafsa

    I had something longer but decided it was too long. Just wanted to say I agree with most everything. Except we do carry a mass bag with us that contains catholic children's board books and teething toys for the baby.

    • Kendra

      Well, I liked both comments. The only reason we don't do Mass bags is because, for my kids, they make things worse not better. But we've certainly tried them, and if it worked for us, we'd still be doing it.

  11. Heather

    Due to my back issues I can no longer sit through church but I can sometimes manage to stay semi-comfortable in the cry room in the rocking chair. I love being in there because I get to chat with mothers who have just escaped from Worship Service with an unruly child who are slightly unhinged and embarrassed. I love being the first person they see and having the opportunity to say, "it gets easier" and "you were right to try" and "don't be embarrassed about teaching your child to worship" and other such things. It seems really odd to me that a faith that encourages natural family planning and large families would be anything less than accepting and encouraging of mothers of little ones. In my mind, you girls are the heroes of your faith. I can't imagine seeing a mom struggling with many small children and not offering to cuddle a little one when she needs a hand. Having said all of that… my youngest has autism and couldn't/wouldn't sit quietly through a church service. Once he was too old for the nursery and childrens church, I just stopped going to church for awhile. His meltdowns were so epic that I was humiliated almost every week. It got to be too much. Once he was a teenager we figured out that he was a lot of help in the sound booth and wasn't bothered by the crowds and the lights and the change in temperature that would set him off. I'm rambling… this was a great post and I think the best thing moms can do is encourage other moms. You do a great job of it!

    • Mariaa D

      Heather that is a lovely thing you do greeting parents in the crying room, I'm sure they appreciate it! Also I have a 4.5 year old with autism and I can totally relate to how hard it can be.

  12. Eva

    My 18-month old has always been very clingy and fussy (my son isn't this way so I don't think it has anything to do with my parenting style), and during Mass (as well as any other social situation) she feels she MUST sit on my lap. The problem is that she isn't a passive sitter; she twists, turns, arches her back, bangs her head against my chest, flings herself upside down off my lap, etc. An hour-long Mass feels like going 12 rounds with Mike Tyson and I walk out of Church feeling physically as well as mentally spent. If I try to gently restrain her she has a fit. She won't sit with Daddy or sit on her own without having a temper tantrum. I'm thinking of forbidding any lap-sitting by her or her brother while at Mass and hope that the tantrums stop eventually. Thoughts/recommendations?

    • Kendra

      This usually has sorted itself out for me by being pregnant with the next one, which means the one or two year old doesn't get to sit on/ thrash around on/ be carried about by me constantly.

      I'd just set the expectation for her that she's going to stay with Daddy for Mass. She'll resist, but if you really, really mean it, she'll probably settle down pretty quickly. Alternately, you could just explain, "You may sit on Mommy's lap, but no wiggling. If you wiggle, you have to get down." Then follow through. And if she throws a fir, she gets taken out.

      It's a bother, but it has always worked for us eventually, and it sounds like what you're doing now really isn't enjoyable.

  13. Laura

    I just wanted to say thank you- all of the posts you have written on the subject of kids in mass have been so helpful to me. I have been up for the challenge of wrangling my toddler, but I was so wishy-washy on whether it was acceptable to sit with him in the church or not. I really don't like sitting in cry rooms, but I couldn't decide if I was just being a poor sport. It's been so helpful to read your reasoning behind your own expectations.

  14. Tacy

    We have to be brave to discipline our children, otherwise they grow up to be Victoria's Secret models. We want them to be track stars and cross country runners.

  15. Amanda

    This post is encouraging for so many reasons. We're the family who had a first child with an incredibly easy termperment and now have our numero dos who has been back-arching like from birth. Mass up to one was fairly ok, but when he hit 15 months or so it's been a whole different ball game. For whatever reason, he asks to nurse at Mass (which is fine) if only he'd do it with a hint of patience or relief. Instead, I'm not fast enough, or he wants more, or, or, or… He has been teething, and nursing a toddler is uncharted territory for me (my oldest weaned himself at 13 months). It's comforting to see there are other back-arching toddlers at Mass because sometimes I feel like we're the only ones! Definitely going to start setting expectations the night before, morning of, in the car, during, etc. He's not the most verbal so that also gets frustrating for him too. Also, love that quote and image! It's great and made me smile. T-shirt idea? 😉

  16. Nanacamille

    A quote from Kendra's younger sister when she was 2 years old, "God says when you're not good in church you don't get a donut." She said this in a very loud voice during mass and everyone cracked up laughing and the priest said, "There you have it from heaven." I congratulate parents for bringing their babies and toddlers to mass and don't mind a little noise at all. Without then we would have no next generation of Catholics. Bring on the kids.

  17. Ashley Anderson

    I have a 4 yo boy and two 13 month boy twins. Sometimes I leave Mass and all but pat myself on the back.

  18. Mandi

    One was actually a mostly easy age for us. Two is terrible. The past two weeks have been ok though, so I"m hoping she's settling down, though I think it was mostly because she was with older cousins who sat quietly. Our biggest issue at the moment is that she has to go to the bathroom every five minutes and while most of the time it's just to get out of the pew and walk around, sometimes she actually does go and I don't really know what to do about it. She's newly potty trained so I can't ignore her or we may have an accident.

  19. Rosie

    We're just gearing up to start going to Mass as a family again – our issue was that it got to the point where the twins would both act up and need to be taken out, and then the 2-year-old would need to be taken out, and we couldn't exactly leave the 4-year-old in the pew! And we have no cry room and the lobby has thick wooden doors so you can't see anything when you take kids out… But the twins are 20 months old and I've been taking them to Mass separately on the mornings when the older kids sleep in, and their only real problem is the need to talk talk TALK all the time, which I can deal with. It's embarrassing, yes, but not necessarily *naughty* because they're talking about Jesus nonstop! I can't help but thing that God gave me such "spirited" children to curb my pride a little bit – I totally used to look down on families that had to tag-team Mass because WE would never need to do that!!! And then I had twins. No judgment from me ever again.

  20. Dara

    The Dunking Donuts picture is so funny. I'm saving it on my computer

  21. Katie

    We had mass down to a science with our first three kids. Bring crayons and books, fruit gummy snacks (they ONLY got these at mass so a special treat), and a sippy cup of chocolate milk. Timing was VIP: break out crayons and books right away. When they are bored, hand them fruit snacks, which take awhile to eat. Then wait until the Alleluiah before the Gospel to hand out the chocolate milk, and almost every time it took them Gospel + Sermon to drink the whole thing. Then do crayons/books for last part of mass. This kept us pretty steady every week and I really got to hear everything and focus at Communion! Going to be introducing it to our fourth, our 15 month old soon…

  22. Leslie

    Hi there! I just happened upon your blog the other day, and couldn't resist reading this post. We have a four year old and a two year old. The (just now) two year old was so difficult for the first several months after turning one. I wish I'd seen your post back then! We spent a lot of time in the cry room. But since it's unfortunately stocked with plenty of loud toys it was miserable for everyone but the little kids who were playing the entire time. Now we're dealing with calming her down. Thankfully the church is full of young children, so a little bit of quiet noise is well tolerated. I'll definitely be implementing some of these tips this Sunday…thanks so much!

  23. Rosa Patterson

    We have an elderly lady who we've befriended at daily mass. She's always been very kind. She invited us over to her house and spent some of the time flat out ridiculing and complaining about some of the mothers with young children. I was just shocked. I honestly couldn't even respond because I didn't know what to say. Now I'm paranoid that the nice smiley people actually hate me lol.

  24. Janice Trinh

    Great post. At our parish, we have "Little Church" for kids age 4-6 that parents can sign their kids up for. The kids go to another building to learn about God's Word in a way that they woud understand. I find this helps our now 5 year old daughter. The 9 year old and the almost 3 year old stay with us in the pew. It's the toddler that makes it hard to concentrate during Mass. When I read that you said to make going outside not fun, I kinda had an aha moment. I think my husband and I need to implement that. He's mostly good inside, but he has his moments – especially since we don't allow our kids to eat anything during Mass. Just a sippy cup actually, because otherwise, he'd ask forever for a bottle. We try to sit in the "family area" but I don't really like to because I think the other kids are more of a distraction for my kids. It really irks me to see kids playing on tablets, phones, and video games during Mass. I'd rather not have my kids see those. Sitting in the pews in front of, but outside, the family area is my spot because it's still in the general are of the families with kids, but at least the kids seem to be more subdued.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble, but I really like this post. Thanks for bringing it up!

  25. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    Thank you for this Kendra! I was really hoping you had some magic answer that was going to solve my problem immediately. Sigh. I guess I should have known it's just practice. And consistency. And firm discipline. And while I DO believe that those things will eventually work, it's just hard in the meantime while we wait for Loud Paul to figure out that we mean business.

    We did try him in Mass again this past weekend and actually made it through the whole thing with only a few trips to the back. Progress!

    Great advice. As usual!


  1. How to be the Boss of a One Year Old - Catholic All Year - […] So, Your Toddler is Terrible in Mass . . . […]

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

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