Teaching children how to pray can be a real challenge for parents. As a former Director of Religious Education in a Catholic parish I have often been asked for advice and suggestions as parents try to bring their honest desire that their children learn to pray to fruition. Even though teaching children how to pray is in many ways like teaching your children any other skill or craft, the fact that God is the central focus of your task can make some people uneasy or uncertain about how to proceed. Sometimes hearing a few helpful hints will be enough to support and motivate parents who want to begin teaching children how to pray.
Not a Lesson, a Way of Life. A gentle and effective way to begin introducing the practice of prayer to your children even at a young age is to frame it as a part of life, rather than as a lesson. If teaching your children how to pray is more about teaching and controlling then it is about prayer, you are likely to find resistance to praying as you might with any other “must do” proposition you make with your children. Prayer that is introduced as an order or sternly compelled is seldom well received.
What is a convincing way of introducing prayer to young children is to invite them into your own prayer life. And this is where teaching children how to pray can become quite challenging, especially for parents who may have left prayer by the side of the bed when they were nine or ten. As much as it seems like it would be so much easier to just “tell” your child what to do and then make sure he or she does it regularly, it can be much more effective to introduce prayer through example. Think of all the other things your child has learned sometimes totally accidentally just by watching and listening to your often unintentional example.
If prayer isn’t part of your life right now, perhaps teaching your children how to pray can also provide you with a road back to regular communication with God.
Establish a prayer pattern. Once you have decided in favor of teaching children how to pray by example and by inviting them in to share your prayer life, you will want to create a pattern for your shared prayer time. The important thing is that there is no magic involved in the selection of a time or place for prayer. What is important is that you find a time and place that works for you and your children and you stick with it.
Lots of people make prayer at bedtime a regular part of the going to bed routine. That has a lot to be said for it. After all you go to bed once a day and so it is easy to mark and remember the time when you should also pray. If that works for you fine, go with it. My own experience is that by placing prayer always at the end of the day when kids and parents have the least amount of patience and focus, prayer ends up not getting the kind of attention you really want to provide. Prayer can become important in the mind of the child as a tool for extending his or her awake time rather than a conversation with God. For the parent, prayer at bedtime can become a burden, one more thing to do between brushing teeth and having that third cup of water.
The point is in establishing your own prayer pattern do what works for you and your children. Maybe you will find that morning or a family meal time is more conducive to introducing prayer as a positive experience. Expanding that prayer to other times of the day according to your faith and/or your child’s prayer taste can come later.
Breaking the Pattern. As your child grows into your agreed upon pattern of prayer, you will discover the importance of introducing spontaneous prayer. It is far to simple for children who are learning to pray at a young age to attach prayer to a time of day. While you want the child to make that daily attachment so that days and weeks don’t slip by without prayer, you don’t want to also give the message that connecting with God is limited to right before bedtime or at the family dinner hour. Talking with God is an ongoing option.
It won’t be difficult for you to center on events in your daily lives that seem to require your prayerful response. Teaching your children how to pray means helping them to recognize the junctures in their lives when prayer can provide comfort and connection. A sick family member, the uncertainty of a new beginning, the challenge of friendships can all be used as focal points for shared prayer. The important thing is to help your child to recognize God’s ongoing love and concern for us and his willingness to hear and answer our prayers.
What words should they say – Talking to God is pretty heavy business for a five year old. It can be helpful to use short and simple prayer couplets found in the prayer books of your congregation. But if you are sharing your prayer time together it is also fine for your child to hear you speak to God in your own words as you give thanks, ask for help or give praise and glory to God for all creation. As time goes by you can encourage your children to add their own personally crafted words of prayer out loud or in the silence of their own thoughts and hearts.
Mostly you will want to impress on your child the deep love which God has for each person. This will make it easy for them to accept the idea that there are no magic prayer words that will get you what you want from God. Prayer just doesn’t work that way. Pray using a memorized prayer and/or pray in your own words. Both prayer methods are meant to help your children continue to develop their relationship with God.
Sometimes it is hard for children to understand why they should pray in the first place. If and when you come to that juncture all you need do is talk to them about their own friends. How did they get to become friends with this boy or girl? They will usually say by playing together and sharing things together. And so they answer their own question: we pray so that we can develop our relationship and connection with God. It’s hard to feel connected to someone you never talk to, but daily prayer keeps our faith and relationship on a positive path. Teaching your child how to pray is a wonderful gift and definitely one that keeps on giving.