Stacking his awesome Saint blocks is a quiet activity, but it’s not quite the same thing as praying.
Praying with kids is not easy. No matter how often you threaten them, they still slouch and make funny faces and take off their pants during your family rosary. And somehow they don’t look forward to half an hour of being glared and hissed at: “God is LOVE! Now pray, dammit, or I’ll smack you in the face!” They’re distracted and distracting and most of us give up on our dreams of family prayer time early in our family life because they just won’t sit down and shut up. So we settle for a rushed Hail Mary as we tuck them in and hope that somehow they miraculously learn to talk to God–something many of us seem to have missed in our catechesis as well.
Now, I’m all for family rosaries and memorized prayers, but we run into trouble when that’s the extent of how we pray with our kids. They also need to learn how to talk to God and whether you’re comfortable praying out loud or not, you’re going to have to model extemporaneous prayer for them. Let me give you a window into what it looks like when I pray with little ones, using the ACTS pattern, a model that I’ve found helpful for kids as young as 2. It’s different every night, of course, but if you’re at a loss as to how to lead your kids in anything other than “Now I lay me down to sleep,” this might be something to try.
Jenna‘s kid. Jenna’s picture. Jenna’s generosity in letting me use it.
Adoration: Start off by telling God how great he is. Sure, he already knows, but when we love someone, we want to praise him. And when we teach children to praise, we teach them to appreciate as well.
Me: Can you tell God how great he is?
Kid: God, you’re so great.
Me: What’s so great about God? (pause) What did God do that was so great?
Kid: He made all the children!
Me: Very good! And can you tell him he’s great?
Kid: God, you’re so great because you made all the children.
Me: Nice work. What else?
Kid: Um…God, you’re so great because you were born in Bethlehem and you turned water into wine. God, you’re so great because you died to save me! God, you’re so great because you made me beautiful.
Me: Good. My turn. God, you are so good to us. You love us even when we don’t deserve it. You forgive us no matter what. Please help us to love and forgive each other.
You’ll notice that I take what they’re doing and elevate it a little while keeping the language simple. It’s hard for kids to think about God’s more abstract qualities, for example, so I try to focus my prayer on mercy and wisdom. I also don’t force myself to stick with adoration but let it slide a little bit into petition. I think this helps kids learn that prayer doesn’t have to be so scripted.
Contrition: This part of your prayer time can serve as a little examination of conscience for you and your kids. It’s an incredibly important exercise in the Christian life and getting them started early with the idea of a daily examination is a great gift. It also teaches us to humble ourselves before the Lord and recognize our weakness in the presence of his greatness.
Me: Now can you tell God you’re sorry for something bad you did today?
Kid: God, I’m sorry I did something bad.
Me: What did you do that was bad?
Kid: I told a lie.
Me: Okay, tell God you’re sorry for that.
Kid: God, I’m sorry for telling a lie. And I’m sorry for roaring at my brother and not eating my dinner and throwing my truck and not listening to mommy.
Me: God, I’m sorry that I lost my temper when we were at the playground today. I want to be gentle and patient. Please help me to be more like you.
I don’t know that there’s anything more powerful to a child than watching her parents submitting in contrition and humility. It shows them that you’re human and also that messing up doesn’t make you bad. And it reminds them that God is mercy. That might be a memory that they badly need down the road.
Thanksgiving: Kids are great at this. They’ll thank God for things for days if you let them. This is one type of prayer where I think adults have less to teach and more to learn. Let them roll with it and see where it goes.
Me: What’s something wonderful that happened to you today that you want to thank God for?
Kid: Thank you God that I didn’t eat spicy cheese and that Elizabeth took the diaper off the baby doll.
Me:…okay. What else are you thankful for?
Kid: What else?
Me: Just thank God for anything you like. People or things that happened or your favorite things. God gave you all those things!
Kid: Thank you God for we wish we had a kitty cat.
Me: Okay. What are some things you already have or have done that you can thank God for?
Kid: Thank you God for hot dogs and my friends at school and my Mom and Aslan and bug spray! And thank you God that I didn’t fall off the jungle gym. And thank you for my sister and my other sister and for Peg plus Cat because I love that show.
Me: And thank you God for giving us a family that loves us and for teaching us to love you. Thank you for my prayer time earlier and please forgive me for getting so distracted. Thank you for all the ways you show us your love, especially good weather and delicious food.
Listen to the little things they’re thankful for and try to be as grateful as your kids.
Supplication: Here’s where they get to ask God for things. I usually start with specific things, working toward the abstract and ending with “God blesses.” It’s good for them to know that God blesses us in many ways and that it’s okay to ask him for silly little things but it’s also important to ask for big things.
Me: And now what do you want to ask God for?
Me: Well, what’s something you’d like to do tomorrow?
Kid: God, may I please have some grapes tomorrow?
Me: Good. Is there anything you want God to help you be?
Kid: God, please help me be…a seminarian, a deacon, and a priest!
Me: That’s a great thing to pray for. Would you like to ask God to help you be kind and patient, too?
Kid: Yes, kind and patient and really good at soccer.
Me: And do you want to pray for anyone else?
Kid: Dear God, please bless all unborn babies with diligence. And please bless Mom and Dad and my brothers and sisters and all my cousins and Father Sullivan and….
Me: Father, please help me to be obedient to you, to open my heart to you and let you lead me. Please help everybody who is suffering because they love you and bless everyone who is lonely tonight.
This can also be a time to tell your kids about people who are suffering and pray together for them. I can be pretty bad at intercessory prayer, but when I ask little kids to pray for someone, they remember for months and just keep on praying. You may forget to pray for persecuted minorities in Iraq, but you’d better believe your little boy is going to want to pray for the children on the mountain who are surrounded by bad guys. It’s just another way that family makes us holy: keeping us in prayer for things we’d let our cushy lives push out of our consciousness.
Formal prayer: At this point, I ask kids to pick a favorite memorized prayer and we recite that together. Then we go into a litany of Saints where they call out all their favorites and we chorus, “Pray for us.” Finally we end with the Sign of the Cross.
It’s not quick, this approach, nor is it always the most reverent way to pray. There are lots of interruptions and reminders to stay on track. I often have to stop to define words or correct kids who see prayer time as an opportunity to be silly. But it’s simple and honest, a genuine conversation with God that’s open to the Spirit but guided by parameters. I think it teaches kids to talk to God like he’s a person–which he is. I think it also gives them a sense that prayer is more than just asking for things. It might not fit into your bedtime routine every night, especially if you have several kids. But at least on Sundays, make the time to be vulnerable and pray extemporaneously with your kids. If you’re anything like me, it’ll be good for your prayer life, too.