Recognizing & Honoring My Toddler’s Capacity for Worship

I’m going to be completely honest. Bringing my 2 year-old daughter to Mass with me is NOT my favorite.* She’s in this phase where she names (very loudly and proudly) everything that she recognizes and refuses to sit still for longer than ten minutes. When we’re walking together, she almost never wants me to hold her hand and, for some reason, has associated being out of the house with snacking CONSTANTLY. In other words, she’s being a typical 2 year-old. And what this translates into is that Mass requires a lot more stamina from me than it ever has. Take this weekend for instance.

One of my daughter’s FAVORITE things about coming to Mass with me is hearing the bells ring before Mass. She sees them from afar, squats in the middle of the sidewalk, points up and exclaims, “BELLS! BELLS!” It’s very cute, actually. After a couple of minutes, I coax her into walking in the building with me and then she sees the baptismal font at the entrance of the church, points, and INSISTS (through her gesturing and loud exclaims of “WATER! WATER!) on putting her hand in the water and touching her forehead. (I go through the motions of telling her to only dip her fingers, but we all know how that rolls.)

Once we find our pew all the way in the back, towards the aisle (I prefer to use the Cry Room as a last resort since I feel so removed from the rest of the congregation whenever I’m in there), it’s that time right before Mass where we’re invited to “pause for a moment of silence and remember that we’re in God’s presence,” and, of course, she remembers the bells. And exclaims, “BELLS! BELLS!”

I remind her that it’s time to be quiet by holding my finger up to my lips, then it’s time to sing the opening song. So of course, she INSISTS on holding her own hymnal and then proceeds to hold her finger up to her lips and shush me when I start singing. I find myself laughing A LOT when she’s with me.

A lot of people (myself included) might wonder if it’s even worth it to bring a 2 year-old to Mass. We spend half the time standing at the back of the church and out in the lobby (whenever she’s eating goldfish, which is basically the whole time we’re there), and she’s definitely not old enough to sit still at Children’s Liturgy (trust me, we’ve tried). Then, when you take into account the fact that I have no chance of being fully present at Mass (at least in the way that I would prefer), it seems like having a child in tow at Mass is more of an obstacle than anything else, right?

All these thoughts were actually running through my head this past weekend as my daughter and I stood at the back of the church, right next to the Stations of the Cross carvings. (She pointed to these and said, “JESUS,” followed by another astute observation: “TOES.”) In that moment, I felt God point out to me that all these instances of my daughter naming what she sees, of engaging in her surroundings, is her way of being fully present at Mass — this was her at worship. And when I am able to experience all of it with her, by being present to God at work in her, then this is also my way of being at worship. And it may not be what I prefer, it may not be what I’m used to, but being a Mom at Mass also requires a shift in expectations, a recognition that God meets us exactly where we are and honors that.

One of my favorite (and probably most well-known) quotes comes from Francis de Sales: “Be who you are, and be that well.” As a mother, an adapted version of this has also become a mantra: Allow my daughter to be who she is, and be that well. And a lesson that I hope to eventually teach her is that we are also called to allow others to be who they are, and be that well.

Lately, so much of my energy at Mass is spent trying to create the ideal worship experience for myself (while at the same time, being the least distracting for the people around me), that I forget about my daughter’s worship experience (which is just as legitimate as my own and the others’ around me, by virtue of her baptism). What I’m beginning to understand is that worship looks different for people with different personalities, different needs, and in different seasons/stages of their faith lives.

My hope is that, by recognizing this (that everyone is different!), I’m able to spend more time tuning in to how the Spirit is moving in a particular context, instead of coming in with preconceived notions and unintentionally limiting my experience of God. In the end, if I can leave Mass knowing that my daughter feels at home and herself in God’s House, then I’ve participated in my own form of worship. If I am able to delight in God’s generosity in my life, in the form of my daughter, then that is the “sacrifice of praise” (cf. Psalm 50) that I am able to bring to the altar every week.

So how about you guys? Anyone else out there navigating the challenges of young children at church? Any tips for us novice moms/dads?

*A little background. My family (proudly!) belongs to two church communities: an inter-denominational Christian church, about 20 minutes away from us, and a nearby Catholic parish. My husband was raised in the Pentecostal church and I was raised in the Catholic Church, and from the beginning, we’ve been very intentional about honoring each other’s identity and doing our best to ensure that our family is being fed spiritually. As the years have gone by, the way we practice church has changed according to whatever season we’re in, and now that we have a 2 year-old, a lot of our decisions are based on where she’s at developmentally and really honoring that. The bottom line is that we want her to encounter Christ in a real and personal way, so that she might know the depth of God’s love for her, and for her to know it so well that this love overflows into the lives of others. 

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