Can you teach children to pray like saints?
By Beth Carlson, Office of Evangelization and Catechesis
Several years ago, my brother-in-law decided to take his son to their parish church for a father/son outing with a lesson on relational prayer. As they walked into the church, he had grand plans about what and how he would teach his son. His four-year-old, however, was incessantly chatting and would not focus on the prayer lesson. My brother-in-law became impatient and frustrated, but then he noticed that his son was telling him about his day. His son was relating everything about his day – thoughts, feelings, desires, details – to his father who was distracted with his own desire for the day.
Children are naturally inclined to share their unfiltered heart with others. Think about the last time your toddler had a meltdown (i.e. an unfiltered sharing of their heart). The reason was poorly articulated and probably seemed ridiculous so what did you do? Tell me how you feel? Tell me what you want? Talk to me. You encouraged your child to articulate what they were thinking and feeling. As my brother-in-law began listening and receiving his son’s unfiltered heart, he asked questions to draw out more details and shared his own heart with his son.
Their interaction is easily translated into a natural and simple language of relational prayer called ARRR (a-triple-r):
- Acknowledge: the son is with the father and notices the thoughts, feelings, and desires in his heart.
- Relate: the son tells his father everything.
- Receive: the son receives an outpouring of his father’s heart.
- Respond: a response is stirred in the son’s heart.
I find the simplicity of ARRR astounding and encouraging. It describes the fundamental movements of prayer, and even young children can learn to speak with God in this way. You can follow this simple and easy format for practicing relational prayer with your children.
Your time in prayer with your child will focus on two feelings: gratitude and fear. These are very important to pay attention to as gratitude is always a gift from God and fear is never, ever from God. Acknowledging and relating our gratitude and fears to our Heavenly Father will naturally draw us closer to Him and open our hearts to receiving and responding.
Begin by gathering together in a comfortable place and allow time for everyone to settle down. Open with the Sign of the Cross and a prayer (i.e. the Our Father or a short spontaneous prayer). Ask one child to share a moment of gratitude from their day. What is something you would like to thank God for today? It is easy to simply share with one another and forget to tell God. I am grateful I saw grandma today. Encourage your child to talk to God. Tell Jesus what you did with grandma today. Ask the next person to share their moment of gratitude (parents share, too!).
Following the sharing of gratitude, everyone shares a fear (or frustration, worry, concern, sadness) in the same format. Would you like to tell God about a frustration or concern from your day? You may notice a desire to respond or fix the fear of your child. Instead, encourage them to notice what God is saying to them. Is Jesus saying anything to you about this frustration or concern? Once they share, take a moment to pray for them aloud and then ask if they notice a response in their heart. Jesus, I ask that you comfort, John, so he may know you are taking care of [name his concern]. Is Jesus asking you to do or say anything in response? Don’t be afraid to pause and allow moments of silence.
Close the time of prayer with a short spontaneous prayer of thanks and praise. Thank you Jesus for this time in prayer with you and one another. And together pray an Our Father, Glory Be, or Hail Mary and make the Sign of the Cross.
It really is simple to have a conversation with God. Our own commitment to spending time every day with God through the practice of relational prayer will improve our ability to pass this gift on to our children. My brother-in-law’s experience of teaching his son to pray did not go as planned and yours may not either; however, advent is a wonderful opportunity to begin cultivating this practice with your family. I challenge you to commit to praying as a family once a week this Advent season using the method I’ve outlined. I pray with confidence that the Father will grant you the grace to know and hear His voice.
Beth Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.