My friend and I were chatting today over the roar of our 5 kids (combined) playing around us. How the heck do you get little kids to sit and pray? Mass is a struggle, we want family prayer to be more than meal time and bedtime prayers, but when it comes down to it kids are …. well, kids. They love to move, talk, throw, play, and in general be pretty loud creatures.
I’m not an expert on this, so take what you will, but here are some things I’ve found helpful to remember when it comes to praying with little kids. A sort of how-to guide, if you will, to make family prayer an awesome experience from their earliest memories.
- Don’t compare. Sure, you’ll want to pick up some general tips that might be helpful from friends or other families along the way if you’re new to it all, but don’t fall prey to comparison. Your little one is a unique and irreplaceable child of God with their own personality quirks and needs. What is possible for one family may not be possible for yours. What’s more, what God is calling one family to do, He may not be calling your family to do. My only warning here is to not let this be an excuse – God is definitely calling your family to pray together and to become saints. That’s not debatable since that’s the general call of every Catholic family. But the specific details of how that looks will ultimately be up to you, your spouse, God and your children’s needs. Whether you’re the 12-kids-that-never-move-during-a-2-hour-homily family or the my-kid-practices-his-pterodactyl-scream-during-the-consecration family, the end goal is the same: union with Christ.
- Keep it developmentally appropriate. It helps to determine what kids normally enjoy at each age and to engage that during prayer time. Most three year olds have a three minute or less attention span. So unless they have older siblings to imitate, most won’t be able to sit still during a full Rosary. But since they are easily attracted to things that look shiny, lighting a candle during family prayer time could just be the trick to help them enter into prayer. What do two year olds like? To touch stuff. So you might try pulling out a special box of toys they only see during family prayer time. It will keep them in the room and they will pick up on what’s going on around them naturally while staying occupied (disclaimer: prayer time with littles sometimes lasts two minutes. Don’t over think this too much.)
- Involve all the senses. While you might not be able to achieve deep contemplative prayer with a young child in the room, you can use their natural inclination to stand in awe and wonder before mystery to your advantage. When kids see something set apart that seems special, they are usually drawn to it. What helps draw us in at a Catholic church? The smells and the bells. The architecture is historically large, ornate, with an upward movement to help naturally raise our thoughts toward heaven. The incense is a physical sign of offering our prayers and selves up to God up to heaven as the smoke ascends. We hear the bells and call our attention to the most important parts of the Mass. We can follow this same model at home. While they might not recite prayers perfectly yet or have perfect prayer posture, experiencing the way we do prayer differently than other family gatherings will leave an impression that the time is set apart for something holy. So pull out the candles (battery operated if needed for safety), dim the lights, put up sacred art work, let them hold and touch rosaries, and involve all their little senses when it’s time to pray.
- Prepare them for prayer time. Depending on the age, it might be helpful to slowly detach them from the previous activity. Have them march around the house following you as you chant out loud “onto prayer time 1-2-3!”. When they get near the living room (or wherever you pray), march slower and count softer and slowly welcome them to sit down silently. Think of how teachers get preschoolers to calm down and use some of their methods here.
- Relax a little. Kids are a joy. But sometimes they have hard days, too. Respect them and relax if things don’t go as planned. Smile and enjoy the odd little things they do during prayer. Kids being wild isn’t a new thing to man. They are naturally wiry and impulsive. And the same wiry kids we see now were beckoned by Jesus when others thought they were a distraction. Follow the Lord’s example and take an inviting approach when praying with little kids.
- Be a living witness. The great and scary thing about kids is that they can see right through us if we aren’t being authentic. If you’re snapping at them to pray more reverently while you scowl during your prayers, the prayer example isn’t going to go far. The most inviting thing in the world is genuine, authentic love of God. As Bl. Mother Teresa said, “a joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love…joy is a net of love by which we can catch souls.”
- Ignore the negative. Whether it’s a rogue commenter from a difficult Mass with the kids last week replaying in your mind or a family member disapproving of your method, leave the negative at the feet of Jesus and keep moving. Your job is to share the life giving good news of the Gospel with your children – not to live up to an arbitrary standard by someone that hasn’t been called to raise your unique child.
- Be consistent. During the first several years of life, children really thrive on routine and consistency. This can take any form that works for your family – but keep things consistent so they can generally know what to expect. It might take a couple weeks of a new prayer routine to stick, but just like the first weeks of school or a new home, once you settle into your routine things will become second nature. So if you decide that you want to gather in the living room every Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday night for a decade of the Rosary as a family, be sure to write it in your calendar and make it happen. Kids may find it confusing if you’re constantly changing method and times of family prayer and find it more difficult to be patient and attentive.
- Know your individual child and work around their needs. If you have a child that has sensory integration issues, it might help to let them sit under a heavy blanket to stay calm during prayer. Or if you have an early riser, doing family prayer right before dinner may be better than after dinner when they are fighting off sleepiness. This goes right along with the first point – it’s more important to get to know your own child and form a plan based on that than on what you’ve heard others do.
- Form sentences in the positive. Imagine someone told you to sit down when you really just wanted to go hang out with friends. Then when you were a little agitated, imagine them saying “Stop being so grumpy – you can’t go anywhere right now. Don’t move from that seat! You aren’t moving until we’re done.” I’d likely tell them to shut it and I’d leave the room. Instead, what if you heard something like this: “I’m so glad you’re here! We get to pray and as soon as it’s done you’re welcome to leave. There are so many places to sit while you’re here – the couch, the floor, or the stool. Which do you choose? I can’t wait to begin with you!” The difference is drastic and it’s just a change of how we say things. Your kids will likely be much more cooperative if everything comes across as an exciting and respectful invitation rather than demeaning commands. Practice beforehand if this doesn’t come naturally to you.
- Be flexible. Sometimes, the best remedy is just to laugh. If they are going nuts and being crazy, say a prayer of thanksgiving out loud that they have so much energy. Maybe even change prayer time to a fun song like Father Abraham for one night. Sometimes, kids just need to sit on the floor and play at this age while the praying goes on around them, too. And sometimes, you just have to let go of your plans and adjust to what’s happening in front of you.
Prayer is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give our children – even if it seems difficult at first, don’t ever give up. People train for marathons every day and never count the cost because the pay off of finishing such a feat is an incredibly rewarding experience. Think of these small moments as the marathon training and look forward to seeing the reward in heaven as you celebrate with your children around you. And one more thought – find other families with the same goal – support each other, pray together, and encourage each other on the journey. We’re in this together.
Do you have kids under 5? What have you found to be most helpful getting them to participate in prayer time?