How Reading Aloud Teaches Children To Behave At Mass

One question people ask me all the time is, “How do you get your children to behave so well at church?”

I’ve never had an answer for this. I’ve looked at these children and wondered, what one thing of all the things we do and believe as parents is the thing that causes them to sit still and quiet for an hour each week? Is there a single thing? Could it be only one thing? Or is it just the totality of our lifestyle and what we expect from them?

Someone happened to ask while my sister was visiting recently, and so I asked her what she thought. She had noticed that our children have very long attention spans, the ability to focus and work on one thing for an extended period of time, while hers tended to flit from activity to activity. “That’s something we need to work on,” she said.

And so I pondered some more. What is it that we do that has developed this quality in our children? It turns out to be something incredibly simple:

I read aloud to the children almost every day, for at least thirty minutes, but often as long as an hour, and I do not allow them to interrupt.

That last part is the key, and it’s something I’ve felt badly about when I hear other mothers’ happy children interjecting their remarks and thoughts into the narrative flow of a tale. But I’ve always disliked being interrupted, being pulled out of the world created by author and illustrator to hear a child’s sometimes relevant but often silly comments. Whatever she has to say can wait till the end of the chapter. If I hear so much as a whisper while I’m reading to them, the story is over, prayers are said, and children are put to bed.

This carries over to the rest of our lives, as well. If I am speaking to another adult, I expect the children to remain quiet, unless they need urgent medical attention or they have something relevant to add to the conversation, which does actually happen fairly often when children live in an adult-focused world, rather than a child-centered one. They do not interrupt or make undue noise during telephone conversations, either, even terribly long ones involving my sisters.  If they should need food or assistance during these calls, they indicate their needs by signs and pantomime.

By teaching them not to interrupt, using story-time as our training ground, they have learned that they are not the center around which the whole universe revolves, that other people have needs and rights, too, and that we sometimes must sacrifice our own desires for the good of the others around us. They have learned to wait, that questions don’t always need immediate answers, that anticipation is often half the fun, and that it’s okay to wonder and speculate until tomorrow’s chapter. They have learned to listen, closely and carefully, and for extended periods of time, lest they miss some key element of the tale – or be sent to bed early.

This is the one thing I do that happens, inadvertently, to teach my children the self control they need to sit quietly through an hour of Mass.  I told you it was simple. Read aloud to your children, but don’t let them interrupt.  

It’s just one of the many benefits of family story time.

An irrelevant photo of a very handsome rooster not in his coop, because all posts need a photo nowadays, right? :-)
An irrelevant photo of a very handsome rooster not in his coop, because all posts need a photo nowadays, right? 🙂

16 Comment

  1. Is Evie already included in the no interruptions? Curious of the age at which you expect them to obey this rule when reading a story.

    1. Evie is in the training stage. 🙂 She is routinely shushed, but at 18 months, she mostly follows everyone else’s lead. She’s really not very disruptive, and she also makes very little noise at Mass. If she does, she’s shushed there, too. Children learn what they live!

    2. I should say I begin teaching the habit of quiet when the children are nurslings, by nursing them whenever they cry and carrying on with the story, or the praying and attentiveness at Mass, or any other activity. I really don’t ever let babies cry.

    3. “I really don’t ever let babies cry”.

      Ben cried the entire first year of his life. I am not kidding. It didn’t matter if he was nursing, being held, whatever. He cried.

      Jack was slightly better, but still was a very fussy baby.

      You make it sound so easy, just love them and they will be happy and quiet. That just did not happen for me.

      You are very blessed to have happy babies!

    4. Yes, sometimes babies have underlying issues that make them uncomfortable. I know yours are prone to allergies, and maybe Ben’s epilepsy played a part, even in his infancy. That’s a separate issue, of course, and heartbreaking, I know, as a mother, to be unable to offer solace to your child. Mine have, fortunately, had only the usual needs for food, physical contact, cleanliness, and sleep. So, medical issues aside, my remarks apply to the “cry it out” crowd.

    5. Jenny, my Noah cried for his first year unless I was wearing or holding him. After the first year he was, and still is, a very moody child/man and very shy. He has terrible eczema and life-threatening allergies. I really think he’s been miserable a lot. When he was an infant I used to put him in the stroller to see how far we could get before he’d be screaming his head off. I don”t think we got 100 feet before he was six months old. And I often stopped the van to see if something was pinched in the car seat he’d scream so hard. But as soon as I’d pick him up he’d stop. Some children just are very, VERY sensitive.

  2. Hey this is a great insight! We also read aloud for long bouts of time, and our rule for interruptions has been to raise your hand to indicate you have something to say and wait until I get to a pausing place. However, I have one in particular who gets so caught up in the story and in his head, he sometimes forgets and begins blurting out what he wants to say. At which point, I begin to close the book, and he pleads sorrow for his interruption, and I usually go on. But I too hate being interrupted right in the flow of a story. I think I’m going to make a point to state out loud those benefits you shared: that questions can’t wait, anticipation is half the fun, etc.

    I just never thought how that practice flows over into their quiet (relative) stillness at mass. I always thought it was from the times my husband came to mass with us because he tolerates zero fidgeting during mass, but I bet it’s both!

    Another reason to read aloud (as if we needed more, right?!)!

    1. I know! The benefits are so numerous and so profound! Also, it sounds like you’re doing a great job. 🙂

  3. I wish I could say your lesson applied to all. Faith behaves very well in church and has since she was pretty young — the product of frequent daily Mass. Not so in the world outside of Mass, but hormones are really starting to show themselves, and I have absolutely no patience for drama. You could use another set of hands on the farm, couldn’t you (a sullen face at work)? 😉

    1. Moody workers just get extra work, so cheerfulness is definitely encouraged. 🙂

    2. You know, Barbara, I was thinking about when the girls first hit the moody teen years. There was eye rolling, heavy sighing, and silent stewing, and that was just so darned irritating! If you’ve got a problem, just say it straight out! I try to be aware of our issues. Mostly, it’s just them wanting to test their wings a little bit and feeling like I’m holding them back. So I try to give them a little leeway to try things their own way. I try to offer constructive feedback if needed and praise when warranted. We still have hard feelings from time to time, but mostly, we grant each other a little bit of grace and get along pretty well. They talk about moving out, but readily admit that they only consider it because other people think they ought to. They’re actually happy here, so I guess it’s working out okay!

  4. Brittany Mattingly says:

    What a wonderful idea. My kids are prone to interrupt but that’s my fault. I want to start teaching Connor to read so this might be our new routine. Colter could use the help with staying on one activity for more than a few mins.

    1. A daily habit of family read aloud time has so many benefits, you really just can’t go wrong with it. 🙂

  5. I have a question. How do you deal with reading across the ages? I started reading aloud chapter books to my oldest when the babies were in bed. I started with simple stories (Charlotte’s Web, James & the Giant Peach, Mouse & the Motorcycle); stories where there was only one main characters or set of characters and only one story line. Very easy to follow.

    My second child made the leap from following picture books to complicated chapter books without any trouble. I’m remembering one of the Redwalls as the first chapter book she really shared with us where there are multiple groups of characters all sort of following different storylines that get wrapped up at the end.

    Now I read aloud often while everyone is awake and around, but I can tell that my third has mostly learned to tune out many of the stories. I think she might be doing this simply because the stuff the older two and I enjoy reading can be hard to follow if that skill hasn’t been developed.

    So I’m wondering do you alternate between easy chapter books and more complicated ones to everybody? Do you ever take time to read to the younger ones separately? I’m thinking I might just have to start over with Claire and read to her alone for 10 minutes each day to make sure she’s following the story. Start her on Charlotte’s Web like I did my oldest. Thoughts?

    1. I don’t have a lot of time through out the day to have separate reading sessions, to have one for the very young, and one for the middles, and one for the older kids. I only have that one, last hour of the day to read to them. Often, I begin with a picture book or two, and then we move on to our chapter book. Chapter books are usually chosen for the benefit of a specific child, but I do alternate between more and less mature material. I revisit books and series on a regular basis, too. Charlotte’s Web makes frequent appearances in the summer, the Little House series in the winter, and we’ve read through the Chronicles of Narnia several times, too. We read novels related to their history studies, and novels related to nothing at all. Sometimes, the younger ones are captivated, and other times, they hardly pay attention. That’s okay with me, as long as they aren’t disruptive, and there isn’t anything my eight year old doesn’t enjoy at this point. Which is all to say, they grow into it. Don’t stress too much. Just read and enjoy.

  6. I see how reading time listening skills should carryover into other events. It makes perfect sense, though I’d never actually drawn the specific connection before. Unfortunately, I’m sad to say we’ve not met this ideal goal. I tried to do a LOT of reading last year which was so very frustrated by my 3 at the time) second son, aka the tyrant. He will continue to talk no matter what. He can’t be quiet. And he’s loud. I’m at a loss on finding ways to keep him quiet. It’s impossible! It might be genetic as his oldest siblings are hopeless when it comes to not interrupting adult conversations. I’ve been keenly aware of it for quite a long time, have discussed it with them numerous times…but they can’t seem to stop themselves. I’ve been making the two big kids take turns with the reading, which gives them a chance to run their mouths, but frequently leads to a less than comprehendable narrative. They find it annoying when the younger siblings interrupt, but haven’t internalized the lesson entirely themselves. Still, I’m not giving up… I just have to keep trying.

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