When you help your kids memorize prayers, you give them a “mental prayer book” that they’ll carry with them wherever they go for the rest of their lives—plus, you’ll help to connect them with the rest of the Church . . . and God. Here’s how.
When American journalist James Foley was held captive by Islamic extremists in 2011, he passed the long hours by praying the rosary. “If nothing else,” Foley later said, “prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released.”
Memorized prayers make a “portable prayer book” that kids will carry with them their entire lives—one that’s always available, even in a crisis. That’s just one benefit of helping your kids memorize traditional Catholic prayers. An Our Father or Hail Mary (or Memorare or Holy Spirit Prayer, for more ambitious souls) provides ready words when words fail us. Plus, they connect us to the rest of the Church (besides, of course, connecting us with God!).
But how do you get kids to memorize their prayers?
Children Learn by Imitating Grownups
The easiest way to help your kids memorize basic prayers such as the Hail Mary, Our Father, Magnificat, and Nicene Creed is to pray them together on a regular basis. Choose one prayer to pray for a month or two; pray it out loud, slowly and clearly, even if you’re the only one saying the prayer. Eventually, even the youngest children will begin to join in.
This “memorization by osmosis” method works best when kids (especially little ones) perceive that the words being spoken are important to you. A few simple ways to let kids know that this is important stuff:
- Show reverence. What does your body look like? What does your tone of voice sound like? Your body and voice should communicate that you’ve entered a sacred space and time—even if you are, say, in the middle of laundry or driving the car.
- Get other family members to participate. If other family members signal the importance of the prayer by praying with you, your younger kids are more likely to want to join in.
- Make connections. Talk about why you’re praying: “I need to take a break to pray now,
honey,because I need to ask God for some help. You can pray along with me if you want.”
followup. What happens after you pray? If your kids see a parent who is calmer, more upbeat, and more positive after praying, then they’re more likely to have positive associations. If you aren’t in a positive place after saying your prayer, try closing your eyes and spending thirty seconds in pure silence before “returning” to your kids.
Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Directory for Catechesis emphasize that memorization must not be mechanical, but part of a larger synthesis of the faith. Take time to talk about the prayers and their meaning, as well as your personal experience of prayer.
Other tricks for memorizing prayers
Here are some other tips and tricks for helping your kids memorize their prayers, especially if you decide to take a more proactive approach:
Provide an incentive. Create a sticker chart to track your child’s progress, or buy some mini M&Ms and offer one for each line memorized.
Break it down on flash cards. Print the prayer out on flash cards, one line per card. (Use pictures or symbols for children who can’t read yet.) Begin by having your child arrange the cards in the proper order. Then have him try saying the prayer one line at a time, using the cards as prompts. Eventually, have the child say the prayer from memory, relying on the cards only as necessary.
Stack the lines of the prayer. Say or read the first line of the prayer together, then have the child repeat it on his own until he is able to repeat it flawlessly. Do the same with the second line by itself, then try repeating both together.
Write out the prayer. One of the ways some actors quickly memorize their lines is by writing them out…again and again. It works, although if you try this approach with your kids, you’ll want to find a great incentive or risk boring them to tears or, worse, making them resent the prayer so much it becomes useless.
Keep practice sessions short. Keep practice sessions to five or ten minutes a day; longer periods are less effective.
The Spaced Repetition Method
For older children, teens, and those adults among us who still can’t quite recite the Nicene Creed on our own, you can up your game by borrowing and modifying the memorization technique most favored by polyglots and medical school students.
The spaced repetition method involves reviewing the material you want to memorize at increasingly spaced intervals — ideally, just as you’re about to forget the material. Here’s a quick explainer video:
This technique is usually applied to memorizing the meaning or definition of a list of words, but the underlying principle (repetition at increasingly spaced intervals) can be applied to memorizing prayers with your kids.
Talking Points: Why Memorize Prayers?
If your kids ask why they have to memorize prayers, here are three good responses:
Connecting with the Church. Memorized prayer helps us pray with the rest of the Church, especially during public liturgies such as the Mass. Plus, sharing the same basic prayers connects us with Christians around the world and throughout history.
A mental prayer book. Memorizing prayers provides us with a sort of “mental prayer book” that we can draw on later in life, especially during times of stress or crisis, when more spontaneous prayer might be impossible.
Traditional prayers are tried and true. Traditional prayers, especially the Our Father, teach us to pray by providing tried-and-true formulations, and they often contain a wisdom that goes beyond our own.
This article is adapted from the book 77 Ways to Pray with Your Kids, available in paperback or ebook from Peanut Butter & Grace.
Catechism of the Catholic Church #2688:
The catechesis of children, young people, and adults aims at teaching them to meditate on The Word of God in personal prayer, practicing it in liturgical prayer, and internalizing it at all times in order to bear fruit in a new life. Catechesis is also a time for the discernment and education of popular piety. The memorization of basic prayers offers an essential support to the life of prayer, but it is important to help learners savor their meaning.
Catechetics forms part of that “memory” of the Church which vividly maintains the presence of the Lord among us. Use of memory, therefore, forms a constitutive aspect of the pedagogy of the faith since the beginning of Christianity. To overcome the risk of a mechanical memorization, mnemonic learning should be harmoniously inserted into the different functions of learning, such as spontaneous reaction and reflection, moments of dialogue and of silence and the relationship between oral and written work.
In particular, as objects of memorization, due consideration must be given to the principal formulae of the faith. These assure a more precise exposition of the faith and guarantee a valuable common doctrinal, cultural and linguistic patrimony. Secure possession of the language of the faith is an indispensable condition for living that same faith. Such formulae, however, should be proposed as syntheses after a process of explanation and should be faithful to the Christian message. To be numbered amongst them are some of the major formulae and texts of the Bible, of dogma, of the liturgy, as well as the commonly known prayers of Christian tradition: (Apostles’ Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary…).
“The blossoms—if we may call them that—of faith and piety do not grow in the desert places of a memoryless catechesis. What is essential is that texts that are memorized must at the same time be taken in and gradually understood in depth, in order to become a source of Christian life on the personal level and on the community level”.