I am the father of five children, aged 10 years to 3 years. My wife and I have always taken all of our children to Mass. Here are some things we have learned over the years:
1. Never "split" (spouses attend different Masses) in order to keep the children at home no matter what their ages. Sometimes it's difficult to get them all ready to go; but, if they see you are willing to make the effort week after week, they will know it must be important.
2. Go to an early Mass or eat breakfast before you come so hunger won't be a problem. For toddlers (and only for toddlers), you might bring some cereal in a plastic bag. Never feed them anything with sugar--toddler jet fuel. Also, don't let them see it until they start to squirm. Be sure to pick up any leftovers before you leave.
3. Dress up for Church. Children know that you always dress up when you go to something important. Whenever you have important visitors to your home you dress up. When you go to your boss' house for dinner, you dress up. When you go to the House of God, you wear shorts and a tee-shirt. Unless your children are incredibly stupid, they are going to attach the appropriate level of importance to God. Church is a special place.
4. Bathroom break for everyone before you leave for church.
5. Always get to Mass a little early. Never, never come late and try not to come too early (more than 10 minutes early and you are asking for trouble). Coming late forces you to hurry and "hypes up" the kids.
6. Try to sit in the front pew. (Your first inclination is to find a back pew near the escape door.) From the front pew, children of all sizes can see what is going on instead of the back of some ten-foot giant. When they see, they can become interested; when they can't, they become bored. Do you want them interested in Mass or bored with it?
7. Always, always, always genuflect and remind each child as they enter the pew to genuflect to the tabernacle. If you genuflect and they genuflect, even when no one else is doing it, they will feel less self-conscious about it as they get older.
8. If you want your children to behave at Mass, then you must behave. If you are going to socialize in the pews, they are going to socialize in the pews. If they socialize in the pews, you will have greater difficulty settling them down for Mass.
9. Some parishes offer a children's Liturgy of the Word separate from the "adult" version. We shy away from this for several reasons. The "children's version" (Bible Stories and elementary explanations) ought to be taken care of in the home where you can better answer questions and encourage discussion. Secondly, these days, unfortunately, you have to maintain a watchful eye on what is being taught in Religious Education. Finally, nothing "hypes up" kids more than assembling with their buddies. While they may have been calm on the way out; you may find them "Hell on Wheels" when they return.
9. Do NOT bring toys except for religious books. The children need to know this is a special time to be with God and not an extension of play time. Infants may want something quiet to chew on (Not a book.)
10. Do not be concerned if your toddler occasionally (or even more often) sits on the floor making faces or sulking or fidgeting. For the most part you are the only one who can see what goes on below the level of the pew. If they are not making noise or bothering anyone, you're better off not making an issue of it.
11. Help your children become interested through explanation. I have found the best way is to keep your faces at the same level and speak in a very low, reverential tone into their ear. Most of the time, they will listen; they love the attention.
a. Start when your child is learning to understand words. "Where's the priest?" "Who's talking?" "Where are the candles?" "Who rang the bell?" "Where is Jesus?" (this is a good one--my children have invariably pointed to the crucifix, the Host, the tabernacle or the priest--all of which to varying degrees are true and point to some understanding.)
b. As the child gets older, speak the responses and sing the hymns into the child's ear. Encourage them to respond when they can. Usually this starts with "Lord, hear our prayer." and the Great Amen and moves to the Our Father and finally, the Creed. Tell them about the church and its furnishings especially "Jesus' House" (the tabernacle).
c. As the child approaches school age, begin to explain what is happening. Let them know what the priest is doing. If you yourself are not sure, you need to find out.
12. Do not let disruptions get out of hand. When a situation begins to develop--take immediate action to defuse it. If it continues, remove the offender from the church until he calms down and then return. You may miss a portion of the Mass, but your first duty is to be a parent. (I remember one youngster in our parish was being removed and as he was carried out by his father, he shouted to the congregation, "You all pray for me!")
13. It is necessary to remove an excessively noisy child from church; not so much because of the annoyance of others but primarily to reinforce to the offender the need for quiet in church. Incidentally, do not remove him to the playground. Use your imagination to make wherever your take him decidedly less pleasant than remaining in church. (This does not apply to infants, of course.)
14. In special situations, allow the children to participate. Our pastor encourages new parents to have their children baptized during the Sunday Mass. On occasion, you may be able to take up the offertory gifts. Let the children in on it.
15. When you leave the church, allow the children to meet and talk to the priest. Give them a chance to get to know the priests and become comfortable around them. They need to know that he is someone who will not bite off their heads, someone in whom they can confide if they have a problem and, if you are fortunate, someone whom they can emulate when they grow up. By knowing the priests, it makes it easier to get them to pay attention to the activity at the altar during Mass.
16.Remember, that Mass is not the only time we go to Church. Children are fascinated by such devotions as the Stations of the Cross and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Recently, I was waiting in line for confession. I was astonished that my six-year-old son could describe the events in every one of the fourteen stations.
17. There are days when it just doesn't work. All five kids are out-of-hand. My wife and I are frazzled. I say to myself, "I am getting nothing out of this Mass." When you have one of those days, just remember that you are at Mass to give something; not primarily to get something. If this is what it takes to give God five new saints, it's worth every minute.
Keep up the good work! Rob Stout