Perhaps the most important lesson we could teach our children is that God loves them. However, to truly teach our children about God’s love for them, we must teach them to have conversations with God. We must teach them to pray.
Praying with children can include various forms and circumstances, but there are some general principles regarding prayer that should be understood and communicated. One is that prayer is both talking and listening. In the book The Way of Prayer, Pope John Paul II states, “When we hold a conversation with someone, we not only speak, but we also listen. Prayer, therefore, is also listening.” Prayerful listening can include quiet time in meditation or reflection. It can also include attentiveness to God’s creation, teachers in the faith, or Holy Scripture. Some of these activities are not easy for young children. Nevertheless, children should be taught that God wants to speak to them and that, while they may not hear him in the same way they hear family members and friends, God does make himself known.
Another important principle of prayer is that talking to God can take many forms. St. Thérèse of Lisieux taught us that even the littlest, everyday things we do can be offered as prayer to God. In this way, we can make our daily lives a constant prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Still, it is useful and necessary to take special time for prayer. Prayer can, and should, occur naturally within the flow of family life. Blessings before meals and prayers in the morning and evening are natural opportunities. Other opportunities arise in the daily circumstances of families. For example, families often pray spontaneously when a loved one is hurt or ill.
With the understanding that prayer can, and should, occur anywhere, creating a prayer space in the home can be helpful for children because it serves as a constant reminder of God’s presence and our need to connect with him. A simple home altar may consist of an end table or decorative table with a religious statue, a Bible, and a candle. You may also want to place various sacramentals, such as the Rosary, in your prayer space.
The forms of prayer we utilize with children should depend in part on their age and interests. Very young children (e.g., toddlers and two year olds) will benefit a great deal from the use of pictures and statues. They may be encouraged to say “Hi” or “I love you” to Jesus depicted in a statue or painting. They can be taught to make the sign of the cross and can be taught to sing hymns. Older children should be taught both spontaneous and our traditional Catholic prayers. Traditional prayers are valuable because they enable us to pray together, in unison, as God’s people. They highlight our unity of faith and purpose. Traditional prayers also give us a repertoire from which to choose when we are not sure what to pray. Traditional prayers should be introduced gradually as children are able to understand them. We should not ask children to pray what they cannot understand, because without understanding they can’t mean what they are praying.
Spontaneous prayer helps us to develop the unique relationship God desires with each of us. We should teach children to both thank God for what he has done (the blessings he has given us, etc.) and praise God for who he is (all powerful, almighty, loving and just). Other forms of prayer include petition (making our requests known to God) and intercession (praying on behalf of others). Prayers of sorrow and reconciliation are also useful for children to learn, especially when they are taught in the context of God’s unconditional love (“God always forgives us when we are sorry.”)
Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." May God richly bless your efforts to share his love with your little ones.