How can I teach my children to pray?
Q: Dear Father John, I have prayed for days and months for my son, who, thanks be to God, has finally begun rehabilitation from his drug addiction. I feel that many of my prayers have been answered, but I now feel a burden on my heart to teach him to pray. How can I do that?
A: Thank you for sharing this brief testimony, which reminds all of us that we live in a fallen world, but that God’s grace is active and powerful in redeeming that world. I can’t help whispering a “thank you” to our Lord for bringing your son back to a path of hope. It is not an easy path, but it is a good one. Keep praying for your son!
Your questions is a good one. How do we teach other people to pray, especially our children? In general, it is easier to do when the children are younger, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible when they are older. If your children are mature adults living on their own, the best way would probably be to invite them to parish activities where prayer would be happening, or to recommend some books on prayer – though they may not respond as generously as you would like to these invitations. In any case, I will offer three suggestions, which, I hope, can be adjusted to children of any age.
The Acorn Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree
By far, the most important factor in teaching your children to pray is your own example. By far. By far. Let me say it again: by far. This is common sense, but it is also supported by an abundant and still-accumulating amount of psychological research. The most influential factor in children’s development, even through and out of adolescence, is parental example. This is how we are made: to learn behavior from our parents. This is why the cultural attack on the natural structure family life is so threatening to our society. But I digress. If you pray regularly, and your children know this and see this, they will find it much easier to weave prayer into their own lives, and, what is even more important in the long run, to consider prayer an essential part of being human. This doesn’t mean that you should pray in order to be seen by your children. That can smack of Pharisaical hypocrisy. But it does mean that if you don’t have a regular, heartfelt, maturing life of prayer, it will be extremely difficult for you to teach your children to pray.
Along the same lines, your children need to see that your relationship with God affects positively your daily life. This doesn’t mean that they expect you to be perfect – even saints lose their tempers, fall into bad moods, and sometimes say the wrong thing. Certainly, as we grow spiritually and come closer to Christ, that will happen less frequently and less violently. But in the meantime, the way we show that our religion matters, that our prayer life is relevant, is by recovering quickly and humbly from our temper tantrums and self-pity parties. Apologize, make reparation if necessary, brush yourself off (spiritually speaking), and get back in the saddle. This example of humility and confidence in God is powerful, and it will build trust with your children.
The Relevance of Jesus
The mere fact that you pray, and that your prayer impacts your life (helping you gradually grow in virtue and wisdom), is the first and most essential way to teach your children to pray. But it doesn’t stop there. This example has to teach them not only the importance of prayer, but the method of prayer. Prayer is more than saying prayers. Prayer is a way of living out a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Your children need to see in you a living friendship with Jesus Christ. One effective way for you to model this for your children is by praying for them, out loud, in your own words. If your children are young, you can do this while you put them to bed. After you tuck them in, you can sit on the bedside with your hand on them, and ask God to bless them, guide them, and protect them. This teaches your children that God is not an abstract force that has to be propitiated by going to Church or rifling through the Rosary, but that he is a real person, caring and present, with whom we can speak about what matters to us. Another way to teach them that prayer is a living relationship with God is by going off to pray at moments of tension or conflict. Cut off the heated argument (if it’s getting heated it’s not going to do any good anyway) and let your children know that you feel a need to go and pray about this. The message? God is relevant, present, active in your life.
The Domestic Church
Finally, don’t be afraid to establish family traditions with regards to prayer. Pray together as a family on a regular basis. Even if your children are older, and you have never had these kinds of traditions, start them and invite your children to join in them. They don’t have to be complicated, but if you pray together, you are teaching your children to pray. Grace before meals, a short prayer when you start a trip or go out the door, prayers before bed or morning prayers – why not do these together, as a family, involving everyone? Every Catholic family is called to be a domestic church, an outpost of Christ’s Kingdom. By praying together as a family, you raise this awareness. Some families create a prayer room or prayer corner where they pray together, replete with candles, holy images, and even a small altar. Special prayer intentions for family members, relatives, or upcoming events can even be writing down and placed on the family altar… These kinds of traditions may strike us as exaggerated, but think about it for a minute: are they? Only if the normal thing in life is to exclude God from our daily lives – and the fact that practices such as these disorient us at first glance shows that our secularized society has contaminated our world view. Again, the point isn’t to turn every Catholic household into a monastery. Rather, the point is to make prayer as normal a family activity as eating – after all, it is as necessary for our soul’s health as food is for our body’s.
It may not be immediately clear how you can apply these ideas to your particular family situation. But don’t worry. God wants your son to learn how to pray even more than you do. He is already at work in your son’s heart. Whatever effort you make, however clumsy or small it may appear to you, will be turned to eternally good use by the Lord.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC
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