I’m grateful to my mom for many, many things she taught me growing up. But there is one experience that stands out as maybe the most formative of my whole childhood.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was. Maybe 11 or 12? But, one day my mom handed me a special journal and explained that it was a book for me to use to talk to Jesus in prayer. She then told me that I was old enough to walk to the church by myself, and gave me a set time every week when I could take a break from school work and go to the church to pray.
The church was only a few blocks away, and the door to a small chapel was unlocked during the day. I was thrilled! I felt so mature being allowed to walk there by myself, and with my journal in hand, I started having a consistent, personal prayer time that taught me how to pray more than anything else ever has.
My main goal for my own children is to teach them how to pray. If they can learn at a young age how to talk to God, then they can have that gift to guide them throughout the rest of their lives.
Prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary are important, but meditative prayer or silent prayer, where you communicate with God in your own words, is so important too. This silent prayer is harder to teach. So, I have looked around for resources. I have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old right now, and I want them to start learning meditative prayer from a young age.
The most practical guide I have found as far as teaching young children to pray is Chapter 12 in a book called Prayer Primer: Igniting a Fire Withinby Fr. Thomas Dubay. The rest of the book is geared for adults and teenagers (and is excellent), but the 12th chapter is on family prayer. Here are some thoughts and tips based on his examples.
Step 1: Prepare their hearts with wonder
Young children (toddlers especially!) are curious, and tend to be delighted and amazed at numerous things. Spend time marveling at things with them. Look at leaves, and bugs, and the night sky, and their fingers–and delight with them. Answer their “why?” questions to help them see how incredible the world around them is. Fr. Dubay writes that a spirit of wonder makes it easy to worship God our Creator in prayer.
Step 2: Set a time and place
We usually have prayer time as a family right before getting our kids ready for bed. In our living room, we have a small table with a painting of Jesus and some candles on it. It is helpful to have a place and time set for prayer so that we make prayer an ingrained part of our routine. If we don’t prioritize it as part of our routine, it is much less likely that we will make time to do it! If you have a holy image or a crucifix, try sitting with your child there and simply explain that we are going to talk to Jesus together.
Step 3: Lead them in a short meditation
Make the sign of the cross together. Fr. Dubay suggests you could say something like the following, with your child beside you: “Now close your eyes because we are going to think about God living inside us, and then talk quietly to him. He is everywhere, and he is in your heart. Right now. (Pause) And he loves you much, much more than you love yourself. (Pause) Lord, I love you too. (Pause) Wow, you are really something! (Pause) You made me, you love me so much (Pause) How can I thank you enough? (Pause) Help me to think of you more often. I adore you and praise you. You made the whole earth and every big and little flower. (Pause). I love you. Goodbye for now!”
Step 4: Persevere!
Continue to pray with your kids even if it feels strange at first, or if they don’t seem to understand. Keep your meditations short, especially the younger your kids are. As we approach Advent, you can help them imagine what Jesus’ birthday was like in prayer. Help them think about a little baby, about a little baby near where animals eat, about how wonderful and surprising it must have been for the shepherds to find the King of the world in a tiny baby.