How old do my children have to be before I can start praying with them?
Ideally, we think you should begin praying for your child before he or she is even born. What better way to give expression to all the hopes and longings of expectant parents than through the medium of prayer? Mothers talk and sing to children in the womb, and the underlying love that they are communicating is as close to prayer as anything they will ever say or do.
In the first two to three years of a child's life, praying for the child can accompany bedtime routines. By the time our kids were about three or so, we would make a game of praying, so that after Mommy or Daddy said a prayer, the child would clap hands on the second syllable of the word "Amen" ("a-MEN!"). Even a small child can grasp two of the most important forms of prayer: blessing ("God bless Grandma, Grandpa...") and thanksgiving ("Thank you for...").
What are the most natural times of day for the family to pray?
Grace before meals and bedtime prayers. Saying grace is both an act of gratitude and an acknowledgment of our dependence on forces that are greater than we are. While it may be logical or comfortable for a parent to say the grace, we believe that children ought to be given regular opportunities to pray in their own voices and in their own words.
Many families enjoy holding hands during grace--a gesture that outwardly demonstrates an inward unity. For those who are especially unself-conscious, there are a number of graces that have been set to familiar music and can be sung before the meal.
Needless to say, the rituals of bedtime are profoundly important to children. As soon as prayers are over, the child is tucked into bed, flush with the feelings of warmth and comfort generated by the intimate sharing that prayer brings about. It is at moments like this that we can see the "sacramental" dimension of faith, the necessary link between the body and the spirit. We all experience love through the senses, but children are the ultimate sensualists. The smell of our father's aftershave, the sound of our mother crooning a lullaby, and above all the touch of caressing hands--these are the sacraments of love, the very foundations of our emotional well-being.
What do I do if my kids start misbehaving or their attention wanders during prayer?
For all their aptitude for prayer, kids are still kids and parents will have to deal with prayers being interrupted by flying toys, wrestling matches, wandering attention spans, and the question of what to do about childish prayers that don't seem to be spiritually correct....
One thing that we learned when our children were small was the difference between truly bad behavior and the high spirits that emerge out of the intimacy of family prayer.
At some point, however, high jinx have to give way to some form of order. Kids have to settle down, TVs and CD players have to be turned off, and some effort has to be made to create a spirit of quietness. If it is necessary to discipline the children in order to achieve this, then so be it. Just be careful that your own tiredness does not lead you to be so harsh with them that they associate your anger with the experience of prayer--something, alas, we have not always achieved in our house.
A trickier issue arises when your child prays in an inappropriate manner--which usually means that they pray selfishly, asking for candy, presents, and other goodies. Of course, on the scale of sins that human beings are capable of, the wayward prayer of a tot has to rank at the very bottom. There are times when a smile of indulgence is the best response to a greedy prayer request. But there are also times when some gentle correction is justified. At such moments we try to steer the children toward prayers of gratitude for what they already have, as well as prayers for the good of others.
The single most challenging thing about petitionary prayer is not the asking, but the more complicated process of waiting for an answer. A child does not come equipped with explanations about why God might not give him or her what was asked for. That's where we as parents have to summon our courage and venture out into the realm of Ad Hoc Theology. Though we may feel uncomfortable offering answers that sound hollow in our ears, it is important that we be willing to think out loud about these matters. The simplest explanation we can think of is that God's responses to our prayers are like the colors of a stoplight: Sometimes God replies with green for "Yes," sometimes with red for "No," and often with yellow, which means that we have to slow down and wait for the answer.
Another analogy that children understand instinctively is that of God as a parent, someone who loves us unconditionally and wants us to grow and flourish. A child can comprehend that God, like any parent, will sometimes refuse to give us what we ask for if it isn't what's best for us. On the other hand, God can also surprise us with presents we never expected to receive.