Sitting down to write this post I certainly find it the one I feel most incompetent to write and most curious about. In researching I have read lots of thoughts and ideas which I will try and distill and integrate in the post below. There is too much to cover even in one post, but I will try and lay an outline and come back to this throughout the coming year. After all, there is no other single thing more important to our spiritual life than prayer!
Before we get to the HOW I would like to cover a few key tenets:
Bring them to prayer in love
Certainly the most important wisdom I have come across is that we can’t force this. We can bring our children into prayer, but we cannot force them to pray. We could, of course, force them to say words, read out loud and make the outward demonstration of prayer, but this wouldn’t be prayer. Moreover it would probably instill in them a natural distaste for prayer – a thought of prayer time being “unpleasant”. In an age where many Christians will already go through a period of doubt and possibly even estrangement from the church (before, God willing, returning of their own volition) why would we want to add any fuel to that fire? In teaching prayer, as in all of our shepherding, we must remember to do so with a spirit of love.
Help them “befriend” God in prayer
While our children may see prayer time as a time that we read from certain books or recite certain words, it is most important, I believe, that they recognize that prayer is simply talking with God. I wrote in my post Bozhenka – “Little God” about the power of the language of our prayers and the importance of keeping prayer accessible to children. Mother Gavrilla writes: “Talk with God’s Spirit as you would with someone dear to you.” Whenever we prayer, in whatever way, we can try and connect with the spirit of prayer – that burning in the heart when we recognize and embrace that we are speaking with our Heavenly Father, protector and comforter.
Teach them some formal prayers
I would argue that a good mix of both formal and informal prayers is necessary. Having the tried and true words of a spiritual elder to fall back on and rest into as we pray and in moments of difficulty is so vital. Not only the supplicatory “Lord have mercy” but also many others psalms, bible verses and prayer snippets from the great spiritual elders can serve as anchors for us and our children to ground us in God’s unwavering love in moments when things seem unsteady and unknown. In my post on building a Godfulness Jar I shared a bit about a way to gather and include these arrow prayers in our little churches. Our homeschool hybrid also does a scripture verse for memorization every few weeks and I am so impressed by how quickly my 4 and 6 year old remembers the verses (even ones 4-5 sentences long).
Teach them the Scriptures
I regret in my life that to-date my spiritual life has not revolved around reading the scriptures enough. I will admit I didn’t think of scripture as even part of this post until I listened to the lovely podcast by author Daniel Opperwall (listen here) author of We Pray – a book on prayer for young children that I admit is still in the mail for me! Yet reading the scripture is a form of prayer. St Tikhon writes: “Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read; you are praying and talking to Him.” St. John Chrysostom spoke extensively of the need to know the scriptures to a people who were just as “sophisticated” and distracted as our current generation: “This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how are we to come off safe?” How can we let our children into the battle of life without arms? And how can we make the scripture accessible to the littlest of our flocks? I won’t go into that here but promise to circle back in another post shortly. For here enough to say that we must integrate scripture into our prayer lives – not as a separate “to do” but as a part of prayer and bring this practice to our children on a regular basis (not just Sundays!)
Some basic recommendations I have as a novice in the field:
- Pray with your Children: While prayer may feel distinctly personal, especially perhaps to those of us in the Orthodox Church, I feel the power of group prayer is truly amazing. Moments in church when we all pray aloud together (The Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, perhaps prayers before communion) are so rich and invite in Christ’s presence so tangibly. (“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”) Hearing the prayers read a loud over and over will bring the prayers deep into the hearts and memories of your children and memories of family praying together (in a spirit of love remember) will be precious and make a permanent impression on our littlest. I would argue that family prayer can last until high school – although more and more independent prayer can be encouraged as your child desires – but think about how weak we are even as parents in our prayer and strive to keep family prayer as a general rule.
- Start Simple and Build Up Your Prayer Rule: Don’t get bogged down in the how (I say as I write a massive post on the how) – just start – today – with something and then build on it. Bring your family together at least twice a day for “prayer time” – in whatever way shape or form that may take. If you don’t have an icon corner in your home make one please – it is such a visible way for children (and us) to unite in prayer and to have a small place in our little churches for formal worship. Start with making the sign of the cross and saying one prayer, if you feel overwhelmed, and then gradually build up your repertoire.
- Include Children in Prayer Time: The more interactive you can make prayer time the more easily you will maintain your children’s attention without too much need for redirecting or correcting. In our house we try a “kids say the Our Father”. Right now each child chooses a nativity figure to bring to prayer. You could have one light the candle each day or hand out the holy bread at the end.
- Don’t Make it Harsh, but Don’t Let it Slide: It will seem like a chore at first – remember it can feel like this for us (Lord have mercy on our laziness!). But with time and gentle but firm encouragement it will just be expected – like brushing teeth, cleaning up, getting ready for bed or other things that your kids are expected to do every day. Setting some basic ground rules can help with expectations – ours are no toys, no sitting (above age 3) although they can be held, and no saying the prayers in a silly voice. I have heard many wise Orthodox parents advise against being too strict (i.e. no fidgeting, speak loudly, stand up straight) and, though a part of me worries about children recognizing the need for respect in prayer, I firmly believe they are right.
- Prayer Spontaneously Throughout Your Day: The more our children are “exposed” to prayer – the more they will internalize the true heart of prayer – communication and communion with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the rest of the Trinity and heavenly hosts. To see my daughter shout out to me from the playground with friends – “Mom an ambulance – say a prayer!” is a blessing and a sign that she is beginning (at age 4) to understand the why and when of prayer and recognize its value. Just be spontaneous – in your own moments of gratitude (Thank you Lord…), concern (Please have mercy Lord…) and need (Please help us o Lord) – be vocal and invite your children into prayer even as we ourselves grow in prayer day by day by God’s grace.
Wherever you are in the process I pray these thoughts may help remind, reinvigorate or even reinforce your blessed efforts. PLEASE let me know if you have ideas or comments – I desire to learn here so much more than to teach. Would love to hear from you!
With love in Christ,
- Beautifully written priest’s view on how to lovingly model and guide our children in prayer. https://orthochristian.com/97078.html
- Worksheets for prayer: https://www.dgopperwall.com/single-post/2017/08/10/WE-PRAY-Teaching-resources
- Ideas from other Orthodox Families on OrthodoxParenting.com