77 Ways to Pray with Your Kids (Hardcover)
By reason of their dignity and mission, Christian parents have the specific responsibility of educating their children in prayer, introducing them to gradual discovery of the mystery of God and to personal dialogue with Him. —Pope John Paul II, On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, 60
Prayer is essential to the Christian life, and parents are the primary people responsible for teaching their children to pray. But if you’ve ever tried to pray with a four-year-old who won’t stop jumping on the bed, or a resentful teenager who has better things to do, then your first reaction might just be, “Easier said than done!” And the task is doubly daunting for those of us whose prayer life isn’t what we’d like it to be (which is most of us).
This book aims to help you pray with your kids by offering you a wide variety of styles and strategies from the long tradition of Christian prayer. But before we begin to look at different ways of praying with our kids, it might be good to pause a moment to ask: Just what it is we’re trying to do here? What does it mean to “pray” with our kids?
What Is Prayer?
Whole libraries of books have been written in response to the questions, “What is prayer?” and “How do I pray?” But the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a simple enough definition at the beginning of its fourth part, “Christian Prayer.” Prayer, it says, is “a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (2558). We hear this definition echoed in Pope John Paul II’s statement, quoted above, that Christian parents should introduce their children “to gradual discovery of the mystery of God and to personal dialogue with Him” through prayer.
If prayer is a relationship and a dialogue with God, then teaching our children to pray isn’t like teaching them to ride a bike or to do calculus. It is much more like teaching them how to be friends with someone . . . except that in this case, the “someone” also happens to be the source and ground of their very being.
The experience of holy men and women throughout the ages offers other helpful insights into the nature of prayer. Consider the following reflections by these widely acknowledged masters of Christian prayer:
St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love.”
St. Theresa of Avila: “Mental prayer is, as I see it, simply a friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary conversation with Him who, as we know, loves us.”
Pope John XXIII: “Prayer is the raising of the mind to God. We must always remember this. The actual words matter less.”
St. Basil the Great: “The best form of prayer is one that . . . makes space for the presence of God within us.”
St. John Climacus: “Prayer is by nature a dialogue and a union of man with God; its effect is to hold the world together, for it achieves a reconciliation with God.”
St. Theophan the Recluse: “Whoever has passed through actions and thought to true feeling, will pray without words, for God is God of the heart.”
Clement of Alexandria: “Even if we speak with a low voice, even if we whisper without opening the lips, even if we call to him only from the depths of our heart, our unspoken word always reaches God, and God always listens.”
This, then, is the far horizon that we are aiming for when we pray with our kids. Helping our kids to memorize a handful of prayers and to recite those prayers at mealtime and bedtime is a great place to start, but it is not our kids’ ultimate destination. Ultimately, they are called to a life illuminated by the presence of God.
Leading Children to God through Prayer
If that description of prayer leaves you more daunted than encouraged, consider three points that might make the responsibility of educating your children in prayer a little less overwhelming.
1. The Holy Spirit Is Already at Work in Your Child
It is the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to pray (see Luke 11:13; Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit is already at work in your child, simply by virtue of his baptism. Even if your child hasn’t been baptized, as one created in the image of God, his deepest self longs for God. That longing may be hard to see, but it’s there; it’s a fundamental fact of human nature. And even if your child actively turns away from God, God will never stop seeking him out (CCC, 27, 30).
So while parents may be responsible for “introducing” their children to the mystery of God through prayer, it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately leads each person to God. As St. Paul says: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7).
As you pray with your kids, learn to recognize the Holy Spirit at work in them—and, when necessary, get out of the way.
2. The Holy Spirit Is at Work in You, Too
Besides trusting the work of the Holy Spirit in your child, you can also trust that the same Spirit is at work in you. Even if your own prayer life is far from perfect, God will use whatever you have to help your child grow in faith.
3. The Community of Believers Has Your Back
The main way that the Holy Spirit teaches people to pray is “through the believing and praying Church” (CCC, 2650). From the Israelites gathered with Moses at the base of Mount Sinai to the disciples gathered in the upper room and beyond, prayer has always been the work of the whole community of believers. And it is the whole community of believers that hands on the tradition of prayer.
In other words, teaching your child to pray isn’t something you have to do by yourself; you have the help of the whole Church. What does this mean, practically speaking? For starters, if you do nothing more than take your children to Mass, the sacraments, and other liturgical celebrations, you’ve already laid a solid foundation for a vibrant prayer life. The prayer of the community—what the Church calls liturgy—is one of the most important ways children learn to pray (see CCC, 1074–1075).
But it also means that the incredible wealth of the Church’s long tradition of prayer—the wisdom of the saints, the mystics, and the whole People of God (including lots of moms and dads just like you)—is at your disposal. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel!
Here are a few practical tips to consider as you begin exploring different ways of praying with your kids:
Start out small. Choose the simplest, easiest practices and work your way up to more involved ones. Want to dig deeper? Find these articles on pbgrace.com and follow the links to additional resources.
Try out one idea at a time. If it works, try making it a regular part of your family’s “prayer menu”; if it doesn’t, move on.
Try out a variety of different prayer styles. Even if a particular practice doesn’t suit your children now, they might return to that way of praying later in life.
Make a few prayer practices a family habit. If you manage to incorporate even a handful of these practices into your family life on a regular basis, you will be doing great.
“Unless You Become Like Children . . . ”
A final thought: Praying with our kids isn’t a one-way street. It isn’t only we, as parents, who introduce our kids to the mystery of God; if we are attentive, our kids can lead us deeper into the mystery of God, too.
When you pause in your busy life to pray with your kids, then, hold in your heart these words of Jesus:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1–5)