How to Teach Children to Pray
The following audio is from an interview I conducted with Fr. John Ignatius:
The information from the interview has been transcribed and organized below:
What is the best age to begin talking to children about prayer?
It is never too early to begin praying with, for, and around children (even while they are growing in the womb). We are all thirsting for relationship and love. God wishes to shower every one of us with His love.
What are the main components for teaching children how to pray?
Children learn by the models of their parents. They follow the modeling that their parents provide for them, so that modeling is probably the most important thing early on – praying for any kind of needs, praying over children, grace before meals, the Mass, etc. By the time they start conversation, invite them to converse with God who loves them.
Children frequently learn by the gift of repetition. Just as you would teach the alphabet, numbers, or vocabulary by repetition – teaching prayers by repetition is such a natural way for a child to learn. Teach them early conversation with God via the Our Father, the Hail Mary, etc.
3. Biblical Role Models
Children are also quite inspired by stories and our Bible is full of stories of people who addressed God, who asked God for things, who praised God, and God responds to them. Giving children age-appropriate stories from Scripture that model that conversation. Some of the dramatic stories how God intervenes in a powerful way – how God answers when Samuel the child prays “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” God speaks to Samuel. Show children that God is real, God is here, God is in relationship with His people. Then, from those stories, as you would with any story, ask children how they might enter into that story (how they might apply that story). Then, the parents talk to God about it and invite the child to talk to God about these issues or these applications of the story.
4. Saintly Role Models
The stories of the Saints and their conversation with God. Our Catholic tradition is rich with Saints who have addressed God, who have heard God, who have experienced God. Those role models of the biblical heroes and those role models of the Saints of our tradition can really inspire and show children that a relationship with God is not only something that we remember, but also something that we enter into right now.
These ingredients are the foundation for a child’s growing relationship with the Lord.
How can I best ensure that my children are being rooted in a real, living relationship with God?
1. Parental Example
The parent’s relationship with God is the root of the child’s relationship with God. If the parents have a living prayer life, a mature, adult prayer life, the child will not only know that mom has her responsibilities and dad has responsibilities, but mom and dad both have a living relationship with the Lord for themselves (ex. they take their personal prayer time, they prepare for Mass, etc.).
2. Providing Relationships with Other Faithful Adults
This is where parents also want to have other adults around who have a living relationship with the Lord, that the child can hear about, hear from, and have good counsel and advice from. These other adults are speaking into the faith life of the child in confidence with the living tradition that the parents are raising within the child.
3. Retreats, Effective Youth Ministry, Eucharistic Adoration, and Fostering Personal Decision
Extraordinary opportunities like retreats and youth ministry nights where apart from the family they are being fed not only with the truths of the faith, but also with opportunities for the young person to encounter the Lord personally themselves. You need evangelically formed youth ministers who are prepared to take a child from an intellectual faith, across that threshold of asking the Lord into their lives personally. Youth Adoration, and sometimes youth praise and worship, can arouse something in a young person’s heart where they’re desiring to reach out to Jesus, as the disciples were invited to reach out and establish a personal relationship with Christ. “I have a lot of information about God, and I have a childhood relationship with God, but I really haven’t asked God to be God for myself.” A youth minister, a mentor, a peer leader, can invite a child to ask the Lord into their life and become the Lord of their life.
The Lord has been Lord since Baptism, but it is so fruitful when one takes a full responsibility for who God is going to be in their life. As God has chosen them, so they choose Jesus to be their God. When they have experienced that personal conversion, they find the principle within themselves to be one of desire, rather than one of obligation. Desire becomes the impetus from within, rather than obligation as the duty from without. They begin to hunger for the Word of God, prayer, growth in faith, etc.
Parents are to be the primary educators, and also are to provide that educational environment within which the child will have additional opportunities to not just be informed, but to be formed to make decisions about how they’re going to live in a personal relationship with the same God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – that their parents have been raising them in from their childhood.
What are the visible fruits of a child truly advancing in a relationship with God?
1. Evidence of Desire (Joyful Enthusiasm)
Where are the child’s desires in relationship with God? Is the child expressing a desire for more, from within? Desire is a tricky thing. You cannot force it or obligate it, it can only come from within, but we would look for a kind of joyful enthusiasm. Young people are enthusiastic about so many things. Is there an enthusiasm for the things of God?
2. Sincere Thanksgiving and Praise
Is there a realization that I am dependent on God in such a way that every good and perfect gift comes from Him? Does the child have an attitude of thanksgiving, of turning to the Lord and thanking God for the gift? Does the child seek to praise God for who He is, an acknowledgment of who God is and how great God is?
3. Moral Growth as a Response of Love
A decision to be moral, not just because of bad consequences, but a desire to live according to God’s law because they love God. A desire even to sacrifice some pleasures in order to be more faithful to what God has asked. We look for moral growth, not moral perfection.
Do you see something that comes forth from the child in terms of generous service? Service in a church environment is good (ex. liturgical minister, helping with youth group, etc.), but there should also be generosity to those who are less fortunate. Jesus said, “whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” Frequently children and young people can be heroic in their generous service. Do you see this interior desire to go and love others as Jesus loved? This should be evident not only in spiritual ways, but also in material and corporal works of mercy.
Where does catechesis fit in?
As our Lord Jesus said, the truth sets us free. And it’s not a partial truth, it’s the whole truth and Jesus Himself is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Once one is in relationship with Jesus, or even before a child might have a conscious relationship, they need to learn mathematics and information about mathematics, they need to learn grammar and the rules of grammar, they need to learn the alphabet and the rules of spelling, and they need to learn religion and the rules of religion. The application of those rules will take some maturing, and some prudence in later life, but there are some absolutes like the Ten Commandments, the Eight Beatitudes, our biblical truths, and our catechetical truths.
Our children really do need to learn to support their faith intellectually. They may have an emotional experience, but they really need to have a grounding in truth that is going to last when the emotions are strong and when the emotions are weak. When they’re feeling great about their faith and when they’re feeling bored by their faith, they need to have a knowledge that this faith is true because of their biblical foundation and catechetical foundation in the Faith.
There are many good age-appropriate catechetical programs, but parents always do well to share the Word of God directly with their children. If Jewish children can learn the Hebrew alphabet by the age of 13, and learn their Old Testament in their religious language, it seems to me that Christian students can learn their own Bible in their own language (they don’t even have to learn their religious language like Latin). They should be schooled in the stories and truths of Sacred Scripture. The reading of the Catechism by parents, and the interpretation and application of the Catechism from parents to their children, in a thorough way and in a whole way, with no excuses and exceptions – this is the whole of our Faith and this is what Catholics do. Presenting it very naturally, very organically, and as an integral part of the family life. Children will absorb that, children will learn that, and then they’ll have questions about it and they’ll be ready for more and more. They’ll be ready for more Scripture, they’ll be ready for more theology, they’ll be ready for more catechetical formation, but they do need that solid information, that solid intellectual formation, that will ground them in truth above an beyond the passing emotion of their prayer experience – that their relationship is solid regardless of how they feel on a particular day about that relationship.
What can a parent or grandparent do if they notice that their child or grandchild is getting older and is not yet rooted and advancing in a living relationship with God?
It depends on the individual relationship and the distance or closeness to that child. A grandparent at a distance is going to have a different kind of influence than a grandparent that lives in the same town.
1. Prayer from a Distance
A parent or grandparent, like Saint Monica, offers prayers on behalf of their children. It’s never a bad thing to write a note to let the child know that “hey, I’m praying for you,” “I had Mass offered for you,” “I was praying for you during a Holy Hour and God inspired me to share this with you…” A child can’t really object to someone else praying for them and can’t really refuse a gift of prayer. It is a great blessing that any parent or grandparent can give, not just a prayer, but a notice, or note, or letter, saying “I’m praying for you.” Praying about certain events in their lives that are really crucial to the child can also be meaningful.
2. Prayer in the Child’s Physical Presence
When one is in the physical presence of the child, one can, at a mealtime or another time during conversation, let them know face to face that they’re praying, but one can also invite children into prayer – “Why don’t we pray for a bit?” “Would you like to pray about that issue that we’ve just been talking about?” “We’re going to have a meal now, why don’t we thank God for some things in our lives and then we’ll pray the prayer of blessing together.” Speak about prayer, model prayer, invite children into prayer, even if it is only occasional. Children know when an adult is being authentic and honest. Children know from the prayer of an adult, how that prayer is a gift from the adult to God in front of the child, but also how it is a gift to the child, inviting the child into the adult relationship.
3. Gifts that Inspire Prayer
Give gifts that inspire prayer. Perhaps a holy card for younger children, or a book on prayer for adolescents or high school students.
4. Sponsor the Child to Go on a Retreat
Sponsoring a child to go on a Steubenville weekend, if they’re a high school student, or offering to send a child to a Catholic camp, perhaps a LifeTeen Camp or something along those lines. Offering a child a gift to sponsor them and send them to something religious, may also be a great gift that they may or may not understand at the moment, but if they’re among their peers having a really constructively, healthy, fun time in a Christian environment where the Sacraments are available, it can be a catalyst for conversion and growing in a prayer life. Sometimes it is apart from the family where a child discovers the Faith that the family has been supporting all along.
Fr. John Ignatius is the Superior and Co-Founder of the Servants of Christ Jesus, founded in 2004 and inspired to live the Gospel through the evangelical poverty of St. Francis of Assisi and the apostolic formation of St. Ignatius Loyola.”We are a community of priests and brothers committed to advancing the new evangelization through the praise, reverence and service of God, our Lord.”