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Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today.

The “Church Chest” {An Emergency Action Plan for Mommies Barely Surviving Mass with Little Ones}

on September 20, 2013
So I’d like to share with you An Emergency Action Plan for Mommies Barely Surviving Mass with Little Ones.
Also Known As – The Bribe Incentive that Saved My Sanity
Because I know I can’t possibly be the only one…
(cue crickets)
Can I?
Surely not.  If you can relate at all to what I’m talking about and you promise not to judge the next time you see my kids acting crazy at mass (because lets be honest there are still those days even if they are fewer and farer between than they used to be), feel free to read on.
It all began on Ash Wednesday when I had the grand idea to make daily Mass my lenten resolution.  I undoubtedly pictured peaceful prayer soaking in the early morning silence and meditating on the proclamation of God’s Living Word, leaving the Church refreshed, inspired and filled with joy and strength to go about my day.  I can almost feel myself sigh just remembering that lovely vision…
and that’s when I opened my eyes and saw Gabriel crawling at an unnatural speed under the pews – I grabbed for his foot and missed.  (I may or may not have barely managed to keep an explative from escaping my lips). Before I knew it, he was rows ahead of me and giggling heartily at the thrill of the chase as I dodged as quickly,discreetly and apologetically down the aisle as I could to grab my little ninja-child.
It’s safe to say that my reality came crashing down pretty quickly but I was determined to make it work.  A week or so in and each mass brought some unbelievably new frustration – gotta give the kids points for creativity I guess.  I was spending more time outside of the building monitoring my two year old’s time outs than I was in the church and I was wondering what in the world I was thinking trying to make it to daily Mass with such wonderfully active little boys in tow. I was seriously at my wits end.

“Desperate” is the word that comes to mind…

We needed an emergency action plan and we needed one fast because I was teetering dangerously close to the line of throwing out my lenten resolution altogether.  It seemed utterly impossible to go on.  God would surely understand!

It was out of that desperation that the “Church Chest” was born…


Oh the Church Chest, how I will sing its praise!


Call it what you want: positive reinforcement, bribery, incentive (my word of choice)
- my boys were 2.5 and 4.5 when we started this and it WORKED!

Oh, did it work.

I took them to the dollar store and got a fairly big plastic basket (ideally something that is clear or has big enough holes in the sides that they can see what is in it top to bottom) that sits on the center console in my van right next to the drivers seat where they can see it, stare at it, drool over it from their car seats  Then we walked around the toy and candy section of the dollar store and I let them fill it to the brim with anything their little hearts desired - Very Exciting. (All said and done it cost about $20.)

After that, I started keeping it fresh (something that is very important for ongoing motivation/excitement) and interesting by letting them pick a few things any time we are at the dollar section of Target – it seemed like the prizes were a bit more sturdy and I am at Target all the time anyway. (Who isn’t?) I have other friends that just use lollipops but I knew my little rascals were going to need something a bit more enticing at least initially to curb the crazy. (See update at bottom of post) That would be a much more cost effective solution that may work for your littles though. My boys do love ring pops though and you can get a bag of 4 at the dollar store so a .25 reward is not bad.  Money very well spent for a sane and happy mommy leaving church.  Because you know what they say, “if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”.  Isn’t that the truth!

So I realize this is not rocket science and you all have a pretty good sense of where I am going with all of this already but I am going to elaborate on every specific detail I have painstakingly come to for those of you who might find it helpful:

1. The pre-mass pep talk is crucial!!! (There were days that I skipped this step before I knew its importance and always regretted it. If I don’t do anything else, this step I think is the most important.) They need help transitioning, to be reminded of what acceptable behavior is and know we believe that they can do it! This means my husband and I can’t be distracted and just chat the whole way to mass. I cannot just listen to the radio or talk on the phone during the drive to church (which is a very quick 5 minute drive from our house) Oh no, we are giving them the pre big game, Rudy style, get on your chair and let them know they can win this thing, go out there and kill it motivational speech! We get in the car and I put that chest where they can see it. We talk about being excellent in God’s house. I involve them in the conversation so that it is not just me saying, “We do NOT run.  We do NOT flip over the pew.  We do NOT climb under the pew.  We do not Yell.  We do NOT use song books as weapons of blunt force!!!”  (I might have said a few of those things on occasion.) No, our conversation now went something more like this…

“Okay boys, we are going to visit Jesus. How do excellent boys behave in God’s house? Ummm, we are quiet? Yes, we have quiet lips.,, what else? No running. Right, we have quiet feet.  So what do you think that means, do you think we should stomp our feet? NOoooo! do you think we should jump on the air conditioning grates? Noooo! Right, respectful feet move slowly and quietly in God’s house. Okay, so we have quiet lips and quiet feet. How about our hands? We keep our hands to ourselves. What do you do if mommy is standing? We stand! What if mommy is sitting? We sit! What do you do if mommy is kneeling? We stand or kneel (kneeling when all you see is pew in front of you is tough. I let them stand on the kneeler to see what is going on but they know that it is disrespectful to sit at that time). What if mommy is singing? We SING!! How about our ears? Listen! Our ears are for listening to prayers, and Scripture, and Jesus talking to us in our hearts. If we want to hear Jesus, we have to be very quiet and listen very carefully. This is our special time with God to help us be happy and holy and healthy so that I can be a good mommy and you can be good boys. I am so glad we get to go to Church today!

This may sound a bit over the top but very specific and clear expectations have helped us so much. It’s not just this vague “we expect best behavior” and then frustration on their part when we say they weren’t good and they don’t know exactly what they did wrong and feel helpless to do better. This way if/when they are doing something that we have talked about, that follow up conversation is so much more effective because they know. It is usually an, “I’m sorry I forgot” instead of being/acting clueless.

Okay, so pep talk on the way in?


2. Tangible Incentives: I tried to make their incentive as tangible as possible so I let them actually pick the treasure that they wanted for the day if they were excellent in the parking lot before we went in. This was super exciting for them. They would dig all through, find their favorite thing, actually have it in their hand. I would say how cool it is and how much fun they would have playing with it that day or what a yummy treat it would be and then they would give it back to me. I put it on the drivers seat and left it in the car while went in. So here is the thing with this. It has to be a reward they are excited about. They are smart, if it is something they are kind of “meh” about, could take it or leave it, there just isn’t enough pull initially.(why I decided at first to go with more than just a lollipop) Also, the reward had to be fairly immediate for my guys anyway. In the past I had tried saying if they were good, maybe we could go to Dunkin Donuts or something but it was still kind of abstract and removed and wasn’t very effective if at all. They weren’t seeing and smelling the donut in front of them… Now, they have already picked their treasure and anticipated it, they really want it. Then when Gabriel inevitably started climbing on me like a jungle gym or rolling on the floor all I had to do was whisper (“play dough” or “dinosaur”) and he straightened right up because the memory of the toy in his hand was fresh and he didn’t want to ruin that.

3. Transition time is a bit harder to achieve and I honestly need to work on this but the days I arrive early enough for them to walk in and stop by the prayer candles, visit the statue of Our Lady on the way in, go to the bathroom, get a drink from the water fountain etc. on the way to our pew go smoother. Inevitably, they have to go to the bathroom the second we walk in the door even if they went right before we left the house five minutes ago. If the opening prayers have already started and we need to take that necessary pit stop, I am rushing them the whole time and we are all frustrated before we even sit down. Same thing for running late in general, the “hurry hurry hurry, get unbuckled, walk faster, no we don’t have time to go through the Mary Garden we are late, come on, walk a little faster p.le.e.e.a.s.e.!” thing is not a peaceful way to begin!  I am and have been guilty of this way too often! That is not setting any of us up for success and it is my fault, not theirs. They are little, they move slowly, they need to explore and see everything as they travel in a way that adults don’t. I know that. Any time we go anywhere, it goes better if I move at their pace instead of expecting them to rush at mine. They are little people with little feet and little legs. They are excited and curious about their world. Knowing going into it that everything will take four times longer than it would on my own and being okay with that, planning for that, I am far less frustrated and put out in general. I remind myself of this daily, many times a day and fail at it daily, many times a day.

4. Consistency is huge too.  Practice makes progress for all of us. (I first heard that phrase from Michelle Duggar and loved it. So much better than practice makes perfect don’t you think?)  The more consistently we make it to mass, the better they do. If we fall off the band wagon for even a few days, it shows and there is a learning curve all over again to get the behavior bar raised back up to where it had been.  This is frustrating because I know they are capable of better behavior but thats just the way it is. I need to remind myself of this and slightly adjust my expectations going in if we haven’t been to daily mass in awhile. They regain ground quickly but usually not the first day.  Interestingly enough, where we sat seemed to make a difference too.  We are all creatures of habit and having a routine for what we did when we came in and going to the exact same place seemed to help their behavior be more consistent too.

5. Assist them in Prayer: There are many ways to do this but I have to remind myself that my role at mass with them is not just for my personal prayer time.  I need to actively be guiding them to Jesus’ feet throughout the liturgy and pointing their gaze back to Him to help them enter in. Teaching them about the mass at home, helping them know what we are doing, why we are doing it, expecting them to participate in the responses that they are able to helps. Something that has really helped Jack (4.5) is the beautiful missal put out by Catholic Icing.

It is gorgeous! and I love It. It has beautiful quality prints of classic religious artwork on every page.  The responses are all in red so even though Jack is not reading yet, we point to the red and he knows it is time to say something. It helps engage him. The other thing that is awesome even for my two year old is that there are illustrations of angels either sitting, standing or kneeling in the margins every time body posture changes. All I need to do is point to the picture of the angel and they know what comes next. They are able to anticipate that which they think is really cool. For daily mass, this is the only aid they have. On Sundays, they each also have a “Prayer Journal” that is an art journal I found at TJ Maxx that has plain white drawing paper and colored pencils all packaged together that folds up and closes with an elastic around it. They only get this during the homily! So they follow along with the missal during the rest of the mass just like during weekdays but when the homily begins, I get their journals out of my purse and let them draw. As the homily is ending, I tell them to pack up their pencils and get everything put away and I put it back in my purse as the rest of the mass resumes. This has been great because they are just too little be able to follow what is being said or just sit quietly for that long. I have very active little boys and I realized we needed to figure out something for them during this time or we would end up outside on time outs! We do try to do a mini homily at their level talking about the readings for the day on the drive home that fulfills this purpose much more effectively for them. I have been amazed too how this really can be a form of prayer for them. I try to guide their drawing so Jack draws a picture for Jesus. There have been lots of Crosses or pictures of Mary or pictures of him and Jesus together which just warms my heart so yeah, drawing is good. Colored pencils are good too because there is not the potential mess of crayons ground into the floor or markers on the pews.  Little damage is possible with a colored pencil. On Sundays I usually throw some prayer cards, maybe a rosary or other little religious item in my purse just in case they are restless, I have a back up distraction to pull out and buy us a little more time.

6. Stay Strong! So after all is said and done, do they get their reward or not. What I expect from my four year old is different than what I expect from my two year old. My expectations continually get higher as we are doing all of this longer. For Gabriel at first, if I had to physically remove him from the Church for a time out – no treasure. For Jack, if I had to correct him for the same minor thing a third time (laying on the pew instead of standing) or one major thing (running down the aisle during communion) – no treasure. I try to be fair but FIRM. When we first started this, I did not have the treasure/no treasure conversation until we were in the van! I wanted to avoid the possibility of the you don’t get your play dough talk and the ensuing/potential melt down tears on the side walk and have to carry melting child through the parking lot. If they asked, I would say we’ll talk about it in the car. They usually know if they were excellent or not. I don’t have to brow beat them with it or make a huge deal/lecture out of it which is part of why I love this so much. I ask how they thought that they did. If they act unsure, I ask follow up questions similar to our pep talk and ask how they thought they did. Did they have quiet lips?, etc. If the answer is no, I say okay so now we know that is what we have to work on tomorrow. If you have quiet lips tomorrow, then you can have your play dough. This is good because I can still be upbeat and encouraging just very matter of fact and they get a second, third chance for that same reward they really want. I say thank you for trying, I love you very much. I know that you can do better tomorrow! and I leave it at that.  No lecture, yelling, threatening necessary but they still know I mean business. I will never forget the first day we did this. Just the thought of the prize was enough for Jack and he was GREAT! Gabriel on the other hand was a horror. I think we had 4 time outs in the course of one daily mass, no joke! after all that, he rushed up to the drivers seat to claim his prize. oh no, no, no. You should have seen the look on his face when he realized I meant business and calmly told him he could try again tomorrow as his brother played with his prize. I braced myself for tears but he actually didn’t cry, just looked shocked the whole drive home. The very next day, he was an fantastic! I would have never believed it if I didn’t experience it first hand. Honestly, I did not think he was capable of such angelic behavior at mass. He did not get a single time out, not one! and happily claimed a dollar store helicopter day two of implementing our new game plan.

I was a believer.

7. Last point I ALWAYS praise them for what they did well! (and I always give points I want them to work on for tomorrow. Even if they did great and I praise all of the things they did well I will say, tomorrow lets really work on …whatever.) I can’t emphasize this enough. Praise the heck out of them!!!  We call daddy on the phone and I let them hear me rave about them. “Daddy, you are going to be so proud!!! Jack was such a good boy in Church today! He was quiet! He prayed! etc, etc. So and so even commented on what little gentlemen they were!” Whenever we talk to Grammy or one of their aunts of uncles, I let them hear me talking about how great they were at church. The more they hear that they are excellent in church, the more they believe it, and want to live it. We talk about it again at the dinner table, Gabriel, tell daddy what treasure you picked today? so he can tell daddy he was a good boy and got a treasure and get showered with praise again. Even if it was a day maybe Gabriel didn’t get a prize, I say Gabriel did really well at ____ but we are going to work on ____ tomorrow. He will usually initiate telling his dad that he wasn’t a good boy at church and got a time out if that’s the way it went down without me even bringing it up. He is generally very repentant and looking for the inevitable encouragement that we know he is such a good boy at church, today was just a rough day but he is going to do great and get a prize tomorrow. yay! Does this make sense, we try to turn it quickly to praise even if it is just praise of potential virtue that we know they will do the next day on the bad days. We want our conversation and attitude surrounding church to be as positive as possible so there are pleasant associations with the whole experience.


An Update: Since we first implemented this plan last spring, the boys have improved dramatically to the point that I considered whether we needed the church chest at all anymore.  There were many weeks over the summer when we were out of town and I hadn’t accounted for bringing treasures and they did well anyway. While the tangible treasures became somewhat sporadic, the pep talk and follow up discussion/praise and points to work on have remained.  We also fell out of the daily mass routine for quite awhile this summer with the arrival of our newest little blessing in July.  I am finding that getting back into the routine of daily mass with three little boys is presenting its own learning curve.  Although far less dramatic, a little extra incentive might help bring us back to where I’d like us to be. This week I put together a modified “church chest”.  
It is just filled with organic lollipops with all natural fruit extracts and a daily serving of vitamin C.  So yeah, I’m basically making a sweet daily supplement that probably costs 5 cents a pop their reward.  mwahaha ;) I put a religious sticker from the dollar store on each one that they can take off and wear after mass which they think is really cool.  I kind of love it.

Every family is different and this may not be for you at all.  You may not be anywhere near the state of desperation that I was at (for your sake, I hope your not!).  You may have completely different views and methods of parenting.  That’s okay.  I am certainly no expert and don’t pretend to be.  My hope and reason for sharing all that I did is simply because this has really made such a huge difference for us – bordering on life changing I’d say.  So much so that I kind of want to shout it from the housetops for any and all mommies that feel like I felt.  It can get better!  You can go to mass and not just survive but thrive!  It can be an integral part of your life and that of your children and you can all grow closer to Jesus together.  This is just one way among many to effect change if change is needed.  I personally love it as you can see because I think I wrote a much longer post than I intended!  If it can help even one other momma out there the way it helped me, it will be a blog post well spent.


7 Responses to “The “Church Chest” {An Emergency Action Plan for Mommies Barely Surviving Mass with Little Ones}”

  1. Erin Charles says:

    Love It!

  2. Mandy Strickland says:

    The saint stickers attached to the lollipops are genius… absolutely love it!!! Great post Ali. Keep on writing I always look forward to your posts. However, they always make my heart hurt a little because I so wish we lived close to each other :):)

  3. Sarah K says:

    I know I’ve said this before, but I LOVE this idea. We will probably be breaking it out sometime soon.

  4. Cathleen says:

    Ali this is great! Keep the advice coming, my little one is such a super super active boy, and I am always looking for ways to get him to behave :)

  5. Erin says:

    I used to do this when my children were smaller. It didn’t take long before they realized how it worked. I also only allowed bible story books to be brought along. I never had a box of goodies, my children love Timbits, so 1-2 a piece, only after they had attended mass, worked wonderfully! The pep talk before and reinforcing talk after are SO important. I also always made sure to split the two biggest offenders up. We receive many graces from taking our babies to the foot of the cross. “Let the little children come to me”. JMJ

  6. Mary says:

    Hi Alison! I saw this on Facebook and it was an answer to prayer. I am on my own with my two little ones for a couple of weeks and I didn’t know how I was going to handle Mass. We stocked up on treasures and got two little “prayer journals” today!

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