I am not an expert on helping young children to pray. Quite the opposite! Visitors to our house, especially those who do not have children, might be shocked by the chaos surrounding the recitation of our daily family rosary. They would be even more surprised that I am offering advice on the topic.
I believe it is absolutely essential that a family pray together, and, in desperation, I have tested countless different methods to help our children pray with us and bring some resemblance of order out of the chaos. It is from this long process of trial and error that we found some methods that work, and that’s what I would like to share with you.
Amy Olsen holds her 1-year-old daughter, Piper, as she lights a candle in St. Louis late last year. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston)
1) Clean the room
First, we clean the living room and make sure it is a presentable and suitable place for prayer, leaving a few toys out for the baby. It removes distractions for the older children, and much like having a guest over, it demonstrates that we are inviting Jesus, Mary, the saints and angels to join us in our prayers.
2) Use a small altar
We have a small altar on top of a short bookshelf in the living room, which has a few statues and images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. It also has a small flipbook of the mysteries of the rosary. It serves as a focal point for our prayers.
3) Light a candle
I am not sure why, but children love candles. We light a candle in front of the statues, and it draws their attention to images. We also allow the children to blow out the candle, if they are well behaved, which they make into a much bigger deal than it is.
4) Find a place for every child
After dinner, our two older boys are pretty wound up. They are jumping around and touching (hitting) each other. We decided that the two boys needed to find a place and stay there for the duration of the rosary, marked by a square on the couch or loveseat.
If the boys are still running around, we begin by singing a song. We use this time to teach the various sung parts of the Mass—the Gloria, Alleluia, for example. During particular liturgical seasons, we’ll sing an appropriate song. During the rosary, we’ll also sing a short refrain from a song, usually the Ave Maria from Immaculate Mary. Our three year old, who often refuses to pray, will at least join in on the sung parts of our prayer time.
6) Assign jobs
Children thrive on responsibility, and we allow the children to pass out the rosaries, turn the page in the flipbook or blow out the candle, which they love to do.
7) Pray with older children (6+)
Expectations for the children is based on their age. Our oldest boy is six, and he is required to pray with us. He leads two decades, and when not leading a decade, he can look at his rosary book, illustrated Bible or other religious book.
8) Work on gestures with younger children (3+)
The next boy is three years old, and he just has to remain in his place looking at books. We work on making a nice sign of the cross and being still (it is a struggle). We allow him to do religious activities, working on a religious themed puzzle or picture.
9) Let babies play (0-3)
Our youngest is a one-year-old girl, and she just meanders around the floor playing with her toys. We try to time it right and give her a bottle (or my wife breastfeed her when she was younger) during the rosary. That way, we would have some quiet time for part of it.
We begin our prayers by asking our children to recite their intentions. Often, it is the same memorized list, but sometimes, they pray for a special intention, which comes directly from their heart.
11) Model reverence
We realized quite early that our children mimic us. If we sit nicely, our children were more likely to sit nicely. If we slouched, our children were more likely to slouch. Therefore, my wife and I paid closer attention to making a reverent Sign of the Cross and sitting properly. We recently started kneeling to further show the importance of praying. If we demonstrate prayer is important by our gestures, our children will pick up on it.
12) Explain the mysteries
At the beginning of each decade, we often ask our oldest son to explain the mystery, or my wife or I will give a little explanation or reflection. Periodically, we use a prayer book that provides a short reflection or a scriptural quote for each decade.
Parents need a system of punishments and rewards. It begins with clear expectations. The boys know what is expected of them – the place where they are supposed to sit and what activities are allowed. If they eat their dinner, they receive a small dessert. However, they do not receive the dessert until after the rosary, and poor behavior during the rosary can result in the dessert being lost.
14) Chaos will happen
If you think your children will sit nicely and pray, you are gravely mistaken. Young children will move around and make noise. That’s part of having children, and you cannot change that reality. Sometimes you need to call it. If it is late, children are sick, and everybody is running around screaming, which does happen, we will end the rosary after a few decades and go upstairs to get ready for bed. The next evening we will try again.
15) Pray with other children
It feels like our children listen to everyone but my wife and me. During a family gathering, I am amazing how our children sit nicely next to their cousins and pray with them, or how well behaved they are in church when they are with their classmates or religious groups (Blue Knights). Make time when gathering with friends and extended family to pray. They will learn that other children pray as well, and be inspired by their example.
16) Do it
You must persevere through the difficulties. It would be so much easier to pray after the children have gone to bed. However, how will they ever learn to pray if we never do it as a family? It is especially essential that you pray with your older children, but is also important that younger children be exposed to the importance of praying and to see it being done. Parents must instill good habits into their children, and the earlier that you introduce them to daily family prayer, the more likely they are to keep the practice throughout their life.
“A family that prayer together, stay together” – Father Patrick Peyton