As I exit church on Sunday morning, gazing off into the distance like a soldier back from the front, a (normally older) parishioner will tell me how well-behaved my children are. This happens every week, but I’m always a little surprised.
The behavior being complimented was right next to me, and my perspective is a bit different. I felt like the foreman at a nuclear power plant managing five volatile reactors on the verge of meltdown. Apparently, everyone else saw the von Trapp children.
Children’s behavior is always graded on a curve based on the worst. If every child is behaving like they took a vow of silence, a sneeze will cause embarrassment. On the other hand, if some children are actively setting fire to pews and yours starts singing Guns and Roses’ “Paradise City,” it will be overlooked. Maybe it’s pride, maybe piety, maybe you just don’t want to be hated by everyone in the church, but taking young children to Mass can be a stressful evolution.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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You know what else was stressful? The Normandy Invasion. But that didn’t stop those brave soldiers, and it shouldn’t stop you either. With a sound strategy, discipline, and a little luck, you will win a decisive victory for the souls of your children, albeit after suffering severe casualties in the first waves (this analogy really holds up). So, suit up, grab your weapon, and let’s get this invasion underway by following these simple steps.
Step One: Decide who’s in charge of the children’s behavior. It’s Dad. It’s always Dad (unless Dad is actually invading Normandy). Some believe Mom is better suited for this task due to her natural empathy and understanding. No. Mom doesn’t have nearly enough skin in the game. Do you think she cares about bragging rights? Not one mother is going to compare score cards after Mass. Mom’s empathy will blind her to all but the most egregious acts. She might even give a hungry child food instead of explaining that Mass is significantly shorter than our Lord’s fast in the desert.
Step Two: Assume you will fail and reap total embarrassment. There are two reasons for this. First, you probably will fail; and having accepted that permits you to have numerous contingency plans (numerous because most of these will also fail). Second, just like a combat soldier whose only hope for survival is to accept probability of death, your only hope is to assume failure. It’s a paradox: when you accept that the worst possible situation will develop, you will have the calmness to prevent it (and sometimes it happens anyway).
Step Three: Have ridiculously high standards. How high? They should be high enough that if convicted felons were subject to them, lawsuits would allege cruel and unusual punishment. To succeed, your standards need to be high enough that behavior never gets worse than that of a typical nun.
Step Four: Be consistent. You have to do this all the time. Like at least every week. But that is not all you have to be consistent about. For example, I have to endlessly remind my children to stand, sit, and kneel at the appropriate time. This must be done constantly. My children won’t hear anything (ice cream trucks excluded) without a thousand repetitions.
Step Five: Pay attention. To clarify, pay attention to your children. At any point, your child could start hitting parishioners with a lightsaber. You say you don’t let your children bring toys to church? Ha! A bored child can procure a toy from thin air, or, just as likely, turn something mundane, like a kneeler, into a toy.
Sure, it can be stressful, even scary, to take young children to church. But really, what’s the worst that can happen? Worst case scenario: your 4-year-old starts wetting his pants (he went to the bathroom five minutes ago). As you rush him to the bathroom, your 2-year-old gets past your wife, who is cradling the newborn. He bolts for the sanctuary, which, fortunately, has a rail; but, unfortunately, it has not yet been shut.
Disentangling your 2-year-old from the priest’s vestments as your 4-year-old continues to wet his pants, you hear your 5-year-old announce, “Emergency poop!” at a volume more appropriate when talking to someone operating a jackhammer. Your wife whisks the 5-year-old from the pew as the newborn regurgitates breakfast on her shoulder. Your 8-year-old (the responsible one), realizing she is now unsupervised with a captive audience, utilizes the kneeler to conduct a surprisingly complex rendition of Mary Lou Retton’s Olympic balance beam routine.
Sure, that’s the worst case, but let me assure you that this almost never happens (we’re talking once a month max). So don’t worry, it’s not a big deal. Sure, occasionally you’ll be horrifically embarrassed, but next week it’s all forgotten when someone else is horrifically embarrassed. We’ve all been there. Anyway, it’s not like if your kids misbehave in church you go straight to Hell. As I understand it, it’s a three-strikes deal.