Autumn is a good time to inventory the prayer life of our children. Do we pray with our kids? How often? Why or why not? Prayer is more than an extracurricular activity. Just as nutritious food, sleep, and fresh air are essential for our children’s physical development, prayer is essential for growing healthy souls.
There are many ways to nurture the prayer life of children. Here are tips from three families:
Talk about God in positive ways. Mary Wurster, a mother of four from Granite Bay, California, suggests bringing up Jesus in ordinary conversation. For example, a parent can ask a young child, “Did you know that Jesus had a mommy and daddy just like you?” Jesus, she observes, is easier for most children to comprehend than the vaguer notion of God.
Start simple. A father of four children ages 9 to 16, Bart Tesoriero of Phoenix, advises parents: “Don’t try to pray a whole Rosary with your children or take them to an hour of Adoration. Depending on their ages, pray simply.” Gradually build from one Hail Mary to one decade of the Rosary per night.
Use the five senses. Catholics like to pray using sacramentals, that is, objects like candles, holy water, sacred images, and music. Lita Friesen of Minneapolis, mother of two young children, told me that using the hands-on approach is especially important. Lita and her husband, Mickey, have various seasonal prayer activities for their family. Each night during Advent, when the children are in their pajamas, they light a candle and cuddle while listening to the song “Night of Silence.” (The parents seemed a little tired of this, but not the kids!) On Holy Thursday, they wash each other’s feet, including the dog’s paws. In autumn, they write their hopes for the future on leaves, bury them, and plant bulbs that will appear in spring.
Make prayer part of the daily routine. Mealtime and bedtime seem to be the best times for families to pray together. Wurster recounts that she sang a simple blessing song to her infants just before laying them down in their cribs. This made bedtime a natural time for prayer as the children grew older.
Give them “wiggle room.” Although you want to teach your children attitudes proper to prayer, it is also important to remember that they are still learning. Better to have them “hang over a couch or lie down on the floor and pray, than to kneel up straight and resist [the genuine spirit of] prayer — especially in the teen years,” suggests Tesoriero.
Allowing for wiggle room may boost creativity, too. One day, Mickey Friesen walked into a room and saw his young daughter, Chloe, dancing. When he asked her why she was dancing, she responded enthusiastically, “That’s the way I pray!”
Take advantage of “prayerful moments.” The parents I consulted encourage spontaneous prayers in the midst of everyday living. Wurster mentioned praying together briefly when the family hears an ambulance, or praying for a child who is scared (so he or she will realize that Jesus is with them when Mom or Dad can’t be).
Mickey Friesen said parents can comment aloud, “What a beautiful day — thank you, God!” while walking a child outdoors. Include prayer in sad times, too, when you visit a grandparent’s grave, see someone hurt on TV, or find a dead rabbit in the backyard. This helps children realize God is with them even in hard times.
Nurture the right kind of quiet and solitude. Parents agreed that children need a bit of quiet and solitude in order to develop spiritually. This is not easy to foster in a culture that values noise and constant activity. Additionally, there is the legitimate concern that children might confuse healthy silence with the silent treatment or with being punished (as in “time out”).
Parents suggested turning off the TV, using candles, soft music, or quiet spiritual reading together as ways to develop skills for solitude. Keeping “time out” places in the house separate from prayer places is another way to keep the two distinct, notes Wurster.
Pray yourself. “Like the Apostles who watched Jesus pray, our children learn from our example. Don’t pray to be noticed, but do pray,” insists Tesoriero. When your kids see you going to Mass, reading Scripture on the couch, or asking God for forgiveness, they naturally will gravitate toward praying on their own. CD
From the syndicated column, “The Prayerful Heart,” which formerly appeared in St. Paul and Minneapolis’s The Catholic Spirit and other diocesan newspapers. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Where to learn more
To read more about praying with children, try “Praying with Your Children: A Guide for Families” by Pat Fosarelli ($4.95 from Resource Publications. Call 888-273-7782 or visit rpinet.com).
The Five Finger Prayer
You can pray this as a family, or use it to help kids pray on their own:
- Your thumb is nearest to you. So begin your prayers by praying for those closest to you. They are the easiest to remember. To pray for our loved ones is, as C.S. Lewis once said, a “sweet duty.”
- The next finger is the pointing finger. Pray for those who teach, instruct, and heal. This includes teachers, doctors, and ministers. They need support and wisdom in pointing others in the right direction. Keep them in your prayers.
- The next finger is the tallest finger. It reminds us of our leaders. Pray for the president, leaders in business and industry, and administrators. These people shape our nation and guide public opinion. They need God’s guidance.
- The fourth finger is our ring finger. Surprising to many is the fact that this is our weakest finger; as any piano teacher will testify. It should remind us to pray for those who are weak, in trouble, or in pain. They need your prayers day and night. You cannot pray too much for them.
- Lastly comes our little finger; the smallest finger of all. This is where we should place ourselves in relation to God and others. As the Bible says, “The least shall be the greatest among you.” Your pinkie should remind you to pray for yourself. By the time you have prayed for the other four groups, your own needs will be put into proper perspective, and you will be able to pray for yourself more effectively.