Originally published in The Remnant, October 15, 2007.
You pretend not to notice, but you see them.
All those families. Some with well-behaved children, some with, shall we say, issues.
You try to focus on Sunday morning Mass, but your own kids are distracting and perhaps you are aware of families in the pews around you with similar travails. Every family has children who misbehave at some point or another, but some parents seem to struggle every week. Are there simple changes parents can make that will immediately improve their children's behavior?
Parents with misbehaved children never position them correctly in the pew. On the other hand, parents with well-behaved children almost always position them well. Here are two examples:
[end of pew] Dad, Mom, boy, boy, boy, boy, girl, [end of pew]
The kids in this pew are naughty, unfocused, turn around in their seat, and generally distract everyone.
[end of pew] boy, Dad, boy, boy, Mom, girl, boy, [end of pew]
The kids in this pew are much better behaved. They usually don't turn around, and they kneel when they are supposed to.
If you change your seating arrangement in the pew, that strategy alone will make your children behave better. How is the father supposed to keep an eye on his sons if they are out of reach? The best seating arrangement is done by knowing your children and placing them strategically by their temperaments and their ages.
You might ask, what's the difference between temperament and personality? Temperament is what someone is inclined to do because of how they are wired. Personality combines temperament with the learned habits of a person. So, temperament is how you were born, but personality is what you became. Since children--especially small children--do not yet have fully developed personalities, let's take a closer look at temperament.
It is somewhat rare that a person is purely one temperament. Most people have a mixed temperament, but one temperament tends to dominate the other (especially in childhood!). Thus, you may have a sanguine-choleric child and a choleric-melancholic child. Here is a quick snapshot of the four temperaments from Greek antiquity:
|Sanguine||Optimistic, flirty, shallow, sociable, prefers group activities.|
|Choleric||Ambitious, argumentative, insensitive, self-confident, active.|
|Melancholic||Introspective, avoids groups, prefers to work and play alone, lacks self-confidence, moody, frets and worries.|
|Phlegmatic||Slow, lazy, distant, mood is constant, indifferent to external affairs, sluggish, passive.|
Here are a couple of seating arrangements I recommend when attending Mass with your family. They take both age and the classical four temperaments into consideration:
[end of pew] Melancholic-Phlegmatic older child, Sanguine younger child, Father, toddler, Melancholic-Phlegmatic older child, Sanguine older child, Mother, baby, [end of pew]
In the above arrangement, the mother needs to sit on the end so she can make a hasty exit if the baby starts to make noise.
The next seating arrangement is for a family with a father who tends to discipline more than the mother.
[end of pew] Sanguine-choleric teen, Melancholic-Phlegmatic younger child, toddler, Father, toddler, Choleric older child or teen, Melancholic-Phlegmatic older child or teen, Mother, older child (any temperament), [end of pew]
Notice that in the above example, the toddlers sit next to Dad. This works well in a family with a calm mother and a somewhat high-strung father. Why? Because the calm mother is soft. While this works well during the week because of her natural tenderness, she'll put up with too much from them during Sunday Mass. They need to be on either side of Dad, who should have the endurance to keep focusing them on the Mass. Some fathers have a tendency to sit away from children who irritate them the most. They should do the exact opposite. The young child will be motivated to behave well, and the father will naturally correct the child every now and then.
This may seem like a lot of work, and the last thing you need at Mass is more distractions. Yes, it may be difficult to correct one of your children sitting next to you the first Sunday or two. But it gets easier as time goes by. God never denies graces to parents who keep trying; even if you must discipline a child and don't hear part of the Mass, you can unite that sacrifice to the liturgical sacrifice of our Lord on the cross.
In the above examples, the father disciplines, the mother is laid-back (or is easily overwhelmed). One spouse in most marriages tends to be more laid-back about child discipline, and the other spouse tends to be the active disciplinarian. What about your marriage? Who tends to have a lower tolerance of misbehavior from the kids? Sit the younger ones next to that parent. The older children can sit next to the calmer parent.
Notice also, in the recommended seating arrangements, that the gender of the children has nothing to do with where they are seated. It doesn't matter if your child is a boy or a girl. What really matters is their temperament. Who clashes with whom? Children who tend to have a lot of friction shouldn't sit together. Oftentimes, it is because their temperaments clash. If you have a large family, you can also use their age ranges to your advantage. Place older children next to younger children. Have the older children help the younger ones focus on the Mass.
In both recommended seating scenarios, the mother and father are strategically placed (especially the father) so they can reach the "highest maintenance" children easily.
What if you have a small family, or there is only one parent at Mass? Try this arrangement:
[end of pew] Sanguine child, Melancholic child, Mother, Choleric child, [end of pew]
The sanguine child has the end seat, so he can see the altar better. Sanguines tend to have focusing issues, so this seat may help. Having the choleric child next to the parent will help curtail the child's natural bossiness from irritating the other children. Or, depending upon the age of the child, you may want to put an older choleric child next to a much younger child--the older choleric could help the younger child follow a prayer book.
Before you go to Mass next Sunday, plan with your spouse how you will position your children in the pew. Then, Sunday morning before you enter the church, have them line up in the vestibule in their proper seating order. That way, they won't have to climb all over each other getting into the proper position when they get into the pew.
Everyone in your family will be better off in their new positions. Your children will behave better and there will be more peace. This is a relatively easy change you can make as a Catholic parent. Once the children adjust to their new seats, it will make an often hectic Sunday morning smoother for you.
When my wife and I began to separate our children in the pew according to their temperaments, we noticed improvements in their behaviors right away. Of course, we still need to correct their posture periodically throughout Mass (especially Low Mass, for which the younger ones seem to have a low tolerance). Having a strategy really helped, instead of simply showing up without a seating and discipline plan. After all, if Holy Mass is important, shouldn't we plan for it?