Prayer aware: Five ideas to help your children become more attentive at family prayer time

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Many people ask me how I get my children to pay attention during family prayer time. They admit that their own children drift off during family prayers even after a minute or two. They wonder how they can encourage their own children (without the aid of doughnuts) to pay attention longer during prayers.

I’m assuming “drift off” refers to their heads, not their bodies. If a child wanders off physically, it’s not likely his brain will stay put, unless he can bilocate. And if so, I don’t think you need be too concerned about the quality of his prayer life at this point.

G.K. Chesterton, the Catholic philosopher and author, said, “Anything worth praying is worth praying poorly.” Meaning that in itself prayer is worthwhile, so even if it isn’t always perfect, you should still pray. Even when the mind isn’t one with the words, the heart can be well aimed.

Remember that if your children aren’t always one with you in prayer, it is not necessarily a sign of poor praying. Their distraction may be more due to age than disposition. The relationship is pretty basic: Younger years equal less prayer perseverance. However, the opposite isn’t necessarily true: Older years don’t automatically equal more prayer perseverance. The human mind, even the most disciplined, retains its proclivity to meander.

Over my older years I’ve prayed many Rosaries, most after I married my wife, whose prayerfulness has pulled me along. Were I to gather all my “good” Rosary prayers, I think I could total maybe 10 or 12 full Rosaries. All right, I exaggerate (sort of). I could have 20 or more, and I’ve been older than your kids for a long time now.

When our 10 children were under the age of 13, most anytime — not just prayer time — was marked by chaos. I used to crave quiet distraction. During our family Rosary, we sat in a circle — albeit one that kept shifting — as each of us took a turn to pray one prayer. More times than I care to count, when my turn came, I wasn’t sure exactly where we were. Did I need to say another “Hail Mary” or was it a “Glory Be?” Whereupon five or six children and one wife would snicker and compete to correct me. How suddenly they all became so “prayer aware”!

It’s tempting to interpret a youngster’s sloppy attention as irreverence, or worse, a flimsy conscience. Often it’s neither. It’s sloppy attention. Further, a child can be childish in prayer yet beyond his years in morals. Be consoled that maturity should bring better prayer perseverance. Better yet, keep praying that your children all find prayerful spouses.

Given the realities of kids and prayer, what steps can you take to expand their prayer consciousness? Here are some ideas:

Start with seating. You know which children make a combustible mix. If the six- and nine-year-old distract, agitate, or just plain amuse one another, put some distance between them. Don’t risk seating them on the same couch. Can you sit between them, or would that ruin your concentration (as well as any remaining sense of piety)?

Stop the action. Cease praying until the kids hear the quiet as their signal to refocus. Silence can speak loudly to regain attention. And if it doesn’t? Go audible: clear your throat; snap your fingers, call the child by name; pray a little louder; set off the smoke alarm. Whatever you do, avoid multiple words or lengthy reminders. Too much talk can pull everybody off track, even more so than the kids do.

Rotate turns. Structured devotions — such as the Rosary, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and litanies — lend themselves naturally to a one child-one prayer rhythm. It’s much harder to drift off while speaking than while listening.

Go back to school. Learn from my 11th-grade government teacher, Mrs. Houser. She called on those students who looked most mentally distant. For months I heard my name so often I thought I was her pet. Ask the daydreaming or disruptive child to pray, even if it’s “out of turn.” This could nudge him back into the flow. It could also arouse his sister to complain, “How come he gets more prayers than me?” Kids become hyper-alert at any sound of personal injustice.

(As an aside, by March in Mrs. Houser’s class, I had mastered the ability to simultaneously look attentive yet be inattentive. My wife caught on to me by our second date.)

Know when to quit. Prolonging prayer sessions to compensate for weak cooperation often only leads to weaker cooperation. Longer is not necessarily better or holier. Even in prayer, the law of diminishing returns can apply. Decide when to reserve some prayers for another time.

Are you still with me on all this?

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