Wiggly, distracted kids during family prayer? Try calling children to prayer with hand motions. We did that with our 2-year-old daughter and had positive results. Here’s what we did and some sample hand signs to try.
by Regina Lordan
“How do I engage my distracted, fidgety kids to focus during family prayer?” That’s a refrain echoed by every generation of religious parents, including me. Our family tried a strategy rooted in early childhood education that might work for your family as well.
Attention and focus are abstract ideas, so educators use kinesthetic, tactile and concrete cues to help build a child’s awareness of less tangible concepts.
For example, teachers develop good listening skills by calling students to use total-body listening: children actually turn-on their ears (twist their “ear buttons” on), sit up straight, and focus their eyes on the speaker’s face while he or she talks.
Our particularly wiggly 2-year-old daughter so desperately wants to be part of everything, but does not yet have all the skills required to hang in there. As a way to foster better engagement in our family prayer time, we tried a modified version of total-body praying.
Recently, while trying out our new Catholic Family Book of Prayers, I taught my daughter hand signals to engage her body and mind in the “Children’s Call to Prayer.” Not only does this (somewhat) focus her attention on prayer time (as much as you can with a 2-year-old child), it also gives her a chance at leading the family in prayer which truly thrills her. The older two caught on, and now all three children love our call to family prayer. It worked so well, we added hand motions for “A Short Morning Offering for Children” as well.
“Children’s Call to Prayer” with Hand Motions
Here’s the “Children’s Call to Prayer” from the Catholic Family Book of Prayers, modified to include hand motions:
Let’s be as still as stones (make a stop and freeze motion)
and as silent as the stars (touch pursed lips with pointer finger, then point toward the stars)
as we listen for the voice of God (point to ear with same finger)
whispering in our hearts. (rest finger on heart)
“A Short Morning Offering for Children” with Hand Motions
And here’s “A Short Morning Offering for Children” from the Catholic Family Book of Prayers, modified to include hand motions:
Thank you, God, for giving us this day; (place hands together, fingertips facing up)
help us to be like Jesus in all we think, do, and say. (use the sign for Jesus, then point to head, and lastly place pointer finger on lips)
Amen. (fold hands)
Other Helpful Hints for Successful Engagement in Prayer Time
- If possible, use fingers and hands rather the entire body to ensure that there is still relative calm and focus during prayer time.
- Use sign language to help. The sign for Jesus is so beautiful and poignant.
- Make sure lighting in the room is conducive to peacefulness and stillness (light a candle, dim the main lights, turn off the television, cellphones and distracting noises).
- Keep it short. Little bodies need lots of movement. The younger the child, the shorter the attention span.
- Use appropriate “wait time” for special intentions, responses and reflection. When we reflect on Sundays readings with Breaking Open the Word at Home, we attempt the quick question-and-answer discussion. Giving our children appropriate time to hear the question, consider the question and respond to the question takes time. The younger the child, the more time needed.
- Keep routines (as much as possible). We’ve been trying to consistently say these prayers in the morning. Do what works for your family.
- Let your children take turns picking prayers. Even my 2-year-old participates.
- Keep expectations low. Sometimes I am amazed at how great a prayer session went; sometimes I am amazed at our epic failure to get through a few minutes without a total meltdowns or uncontrolled fits of laughter. If we get through any amount of prayer time together, we have succeeded!
Regina Lordan, a digital editor at Peanut Butter & Grace, is a mother of three with master’s degrees in education and political science. She currently reviews books for Catholic News Service and is a former assistant international editor of Catholic News Service.