Where to begin? How can we move out of the powerful currents that flow through our lives in order to find the "still waters" where prayer is possible? How, in short, do we gather together as a family to break the ice with God?
The answers to these questions may vary, depending on many factors, including the ages of your children, your schedule, and your religious and cultural background. But we think it is safe to say that there are two opportunities for family prayer that nearly everyone can make a part of the daily routine: grace before meals and evening (or morning) prayer. In fact, these two forms of prayer are not only the best places to start, but they may also become the principal prayers in your family life. A family that says grace and morning or evening prayers every day will have all the time they will ever need to grow together in grace and love.
The great advantage of these two types of prayer is that they are eminently natural. Prayer on such occasions is not imposed or artificial, but something that grows out of our deepest human instincts and aspirations. Because children have not acquired adult cynicism or a jaded approach to the world, they retain a strong intuitive connection to these instincts. And because they are so dependent on others, children are less tempted than adults to believe that they can either earn or create the blessings they enjoy.
Hunger is perhaps the most vivid reminder human beings have of the fact that we are fragile creatures who depend on nourishment for our very existence. Our kids have no inhibitions about telling us when their bodies are needy or thanking us when they are satisfied. To ask a blessing before (or after) eating a meal is to acknowledge that human fragility and to celebrate the bounty of God's creation.
As darkness falls in the evening we may look back over the day's experiences, expressing gratitude for the good things we achieved and sorrow and regret for the bad things we have said or done. At night our fears tend to emerge-from the child's fear of monsters lurking in the dark to the parent's insomniac worries about money, work, and personal relationships. To pray at close of day allows us not only to examine our hearts but also to seek comfort in God's encompassing love.
Unless your family is made up of all "morning people," the most likely time for daily prayer will be in the evening. When your children are quite small, the most natural time is just before sleep. Prayer, lullabies, and reading aloud are activities that simultaneously calm children down and stimulate their hearts and imaginations. Here, too, one can begin quite modestly, with a couple of short prayers and an opportunity for your child to ask God's blessing on family and friends.
Though prayer is natural to human beings, prayer is also an art. Just as a child starts by banging out random notes on the piano, and then begins formal lessons with scales and arpeggios, so the art of prayer must begin modestly and progress slowly to the more ambitious and complex. However, the goal we seek in mastering the art of prayer is not necessarily hour-long sessions of mystical contemplation. To continue the analogy: an accomplished piano player can demonstrate just as much proficiency and ease in playing a minuet as in a full-scale concerto. So, too, the goal of learning the art of prayer should be a capacity to open our hearts to God at any time and place, regardless of the forms of our prayer.
What makes the analogy with learning a musical instrument so apt here (and the same could go for learning a language, sport, or nearly any other skill) is that children have an amazing capacity to absorb, adapt, and integrate knowledge. That's why we say that in family prayer, children often become the teachers.