By reason of their dignity and mission,
Christian parents have the specific responsibility of educating their children in prayer,
introducing them to gradual discovery of the mystery of God and to personal dialogue with Him.
—Pope John Paul II,
On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, #60
Prayer is essential to the Christian life, and parents are the primary people responsible for teaching their children to pray. But if you’ve ever tried to pray with a four-year-old who won’t stop jumping on the bed, or a resentful teenager who has better things to do, then your first reaction might just be, “Easier said than done!” And the task is doubly daunting for those of us whose prayer life isn’t what we’d like it to be (which is most of us).
Fortunately, parents can find advice and encouragement in the Church, which has learned a lot about prayer over the past few thousand years. Much of that wisdom is distilled in the fourth part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For now, though, consider three points that might make the responsibility of educating your children in prayer a little less overwhelming.
The Holy Spirit Is Already At Work in Your Child
It is the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to pray (Luke 11:13; Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit is already at work in your child, simply by virtue of his baptism. Even if your child hasn’t been baptized, as one created in the image of God, his deepest self longs for God. That longing may be hard to see, but it’s there; it’s a fundamental fact of human nature. And even if your child actively turns away from God, God will never stop seeking him out (Catechism 27, 30).
In the end, then, teaching your children to pray isn’t like teaching them how to ride a bike or do calculus; it is a lot more like teaching them how to be friends with someone. You can teach children the basic rules of relationships (good manners and so on), but in the end, it is the people in the relationship who are responsible for making it work or not.
Similarly, when you teach your child to pray, you introduce her to God, show her how to enter God’s presence—and then get out of the way, leaving room for the Holy Spirit to work in her. As St. Paul says: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
The Holy Spirit Is at Work in You, Too
Besides trusting the work of the Holy Spirit in your child, you can also trust that the same Spirit is at work in you. Even if your own prayer life is far from perfect, God will use whatever you have to help your child grow in faith. Of course, the more you offer (i.e., the more you pray!), the more he can help.
The Community of Believers Has Your Back
The main way that the Holy Spirit teaches people to pray is “through the believing and praying Church” (Catechism 2650). From the Israelites gathered with Moses at the base of Mount Sinai to the disciples gathered in the upper room and beyond, prayer has always been the work of the whole community of believers. And it is the whole community of believers that hands on the tradition of prayer.
In other words, teaching your child to pray isn’t something you have to do by yourself; you have the help of the whole Church.
What does this mean, practically speaking? For starters, if you do nothing more than take your children to Mass, the sacraments, and other liturgical celebrations, you’ve already laid a solid foundation for a vibrant prayer life. The prayer of the community—what the Church calls the liturgy—is one of the most important ways that children learn to pray (Catechism 1074-1075).
But it also means that the incredible wealth of the Church’s long tradition of prayer—the wisdom of the saints, the mystics, and the whole People of God (including lots of moms and dads just like you)—is at your disposal. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel!
The ideas in the Praying Together section of this website—drawn from the Catechism, traditional prayer practices, and the creative ideas of other parents—are a good way to begin praying as a family:
► Start out small; choose the simplest, easiest ideas (usually tagged as “Grab & Go”) and work your way up to more involved practices. Go deeper by following the links at the end of each article to additional resources.
► Try out one idea at a time. If it works, try making it a regular part of your family’s “prayer menu”; if it doesn’t, move on.
► Try out a variety of different prayer styles. Even if a particular style doesn’t suit your children now, they might return to that way of praying later in life.
► If you manage to incorporate even a handful of these practices into your family life on a regular basis, you will be doing great.