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At what age should we encourage our children to pray on their own?

KIDS
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Praying with a child is an essential step to awaken faith, but at what age is a child capable of praying on his own?

A baby enters into a relationship with those who love them even before birth, and even before. And they enter into a relationship with God right from conception. If prayer were a question of know-how, the age for first prayers might, for example, be considered as when they learn to speak, or when they start catechism. Prayer is indeed entering into a relationship with God: to speak to Him, listen to Him. So it’s simple … as simple as speaking to a friend, especially when the Friend in question is always there for you, listening to you with the greatest attention and infinite love. But at the same time, it’s a bit difficult because we don’t see Him with our eyes or hear Him with our ears. Yet, He’s there. In all prayers, there’s what we do — our silence, our words, our gestures, our distractions and our fervor — and there’s what God does. And that’s what matters most: what God does.

How to pray with your child from birth

You don’t wait until your child learns to talk before telling him how much you love him. Well, God doesn’t either! So you can pray with your child right from birth. When you pray with (or in the presence of) your child, God truly acts: He looks upon your child, He loves him, He communicates himself to him.

The problem is that we tend to imagine prayer as something abstract or a kind of one-way street where all that counts is what we do. Many parents wonder, “Since a child can’t see God, how can they become aware of his presence?” The answer is simple: in seeing and hearing you pray, they become a witness to your prayers, they discover in a perfectly natural way that Someone is there, someone to whom you pray, who listens to you in the silence.

It’s a bit like when you talk to someone on the phone in front of them: even before they understand how to use a phone, they understand there’s someone at the other end of the call, that you’re not talking into a void. And that’s the first entry into prayer, and the most important, well before a child is able to speak or make a sign of the cross.

There’s no one “right” way to pray with a little one

Our words and our gestures have their importance; they’re what help us stand in the presence of God. It’s for this reason that apprenticeship in prayer is also communicated through words and gestures. Learning the language of prayer is like learning one’s mother tongue: it’s absorbed gradually, through hearing and repeating, at first awkwardly, without understanding everything, and then in a more assured, intelligent manner. A little one who hears you every evening reciting the Our Father and the Hail Mary won’t need to learn these prayers: over time, they will become engraved in their heart.

Never forget: the value of prayer can’t be measured by appearances. Some particularly docile and meditative children enter easily into what you ask of them at prayer time. Others will look at you totally bored, won’t sit still, and will burst into giggles at every other word. The latter won’t necessarily become less worshipful than the first. While you shouldn’t settle for fidgetiness, neither should you worry about it. The goal is not to turn them into model children, but to help them place themselves in the presence of God. In general, we teach them this better by remaining recollected and deep in prayer ourselves rather than telling them off. 

There’s no one right way to pray with a little one: there are as many ways as there are children. It’s not about copying what you see others do, but about finding, for each of your children, what helps them best grow in the love of God. Even if you manage to glean advice and tips left, right, and center, in the end, you’re the one best placed to decide what’s best for your child. And that will evolve over time. You may at times decide to replace family family by an individual prayer with each child, just before bedtime. Or, on the contrary, decide to suspend imposing any prayer on a rowdy little one for a while, and just saying a prayer in their presence. Or perhaps you’ve already been able to extend the period of silent adoration well beyond what you’d envisaged. Whatever the case, you will discover that along the paths of prayer it’s very often our children themselves who show us the way.

Christine Ponsard

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