Teaching Prayer to Children in Their Formative Years

Prayer is the raising of the heart and mind to God. With this thought clearly before him, the religion teacher will realize that there is a great difference between teaching a child to pray and teaching a child its prayers. In the first instance we lead the child to raise his mind and heart to God to speak to God as one would speak intimately, lovingly, and confidently to one’s own father. In the second instance we place before the child definite forms which the Church has approved and which people have used through the ages to address God in a more formal manner.

Generally speaking, all Catholics have been taught formal prayers: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed, etc. How many have formed the habit of speaking to God from the heart in language all their own, expressing in their own words their personal needs and desires? Strange, is it not, that we know very well what to say to those we love on earth, and that we have so often to resort to printed words when we wish to speak to God? True, Christ Himself has given us the most perfect prayer in the Our Father; but often, too, a cry burst from His lips that expressed from the very depths of His Sacred Heart a great plea for the need of the moment: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Long before the children can pronounce the more difficult words of the ordinary prayers, they should be taught to speak to God, His Blessed Mother, their guardian angel, St. Joseph, and perhaps one or two other saints in their own words; and this practice of spontaneous prayer should be kept up through life.

Let us consider in detail some practical suggestions for the teaching of prayer on the various grade levels.

I. Prayers for the Preschool Child

Whenever and wherever possible, parents should be reminded that they cannot begin too early to teach the child about God. Naturally, this knowledge must be based on the child’s own experiences. God loves us as father and mother love us, God watches over us and gives us all we have. We can talk to Him as we talk to others. Parents teach the little ones more by their own attitude towards God and holy things than by their words.In fact, their attitude of reverence, love and humility is impressed upon the child’s mind long before words have any meaning for him. A good mother’s love for God and Our Lady will shine out of her eyes as she looks at the crucifix or a sacred picture while her lips move in prayer. As one person expressed it: “I appreciated Mass ever since I remember. My mother always took me with her to Mass, and I wanted to love everything she loved.”

As soon as baby lips learn to say the names of father and mother, they can also learn to say the Holy Names and to associate them with all that is good and beautiful. Little hands should be folded in prayer at least for a few moments; and there might be a good night kiss for Jesus and His Blessed Mother at bedtime.

The next step is the short informal prayer that the child can easily understand, such as: “God bless father and mother. God bless baby brother. God bless me and make me a good child.” Or: “Dear God, I have been a naughty boy today. Please forgive me. I will not be naughty again.”

The Sign of the Cross may be made with the help of the parents at a very early age, as part of the regular prayers. A little later, simple rhymed prayers may be added, such as: “Dear Angel, ever at my side.”

Good pictures — preferably such as tell a story, like Plockhorst’s “Christ Blessing the Children” — are a great aid in teaching the little ones about God and His great love for mankind. The children in that picture were talking to Christ? What were they saying?

If children learn readily, they can be taught the Our Father and Hail Mary before they reach school age. These prayers should be taught phrase by phrase, however, a little at a time. Pictures, stories, and rhymes illustrating and explaining these prayers can be easily obtained, and are splendid aids in making prayer more intelligible to the child.

II. Primary Grades

A good many children when they first enter school or come to instruction class not only cannot make the Sign of the Cross or say even the simplest prayer, but frequently know nothing whatever about God. In such cases — and they are not so rare as we ordinarily suppose — it will be necessary to begin by teaching them first about God and His love for us, His greatness, goodness, and majesty. Once that idea is established, informal prayer should be introduced side by side with doctrinal truths. For example, we teach that God can do all things. We speak of the wonderful things He has done. We look around us for some of the more striking manifestations of God’s love: a flower, a beautiful bird, a glorious rainbow, and then and there pause to praise and thank God for His goodness and love. At first the teacher from the fullness of his heart may make the prayer himself, while the children reverently “think” along: “Dear Lord, how good you are to give us these beautiful flowers. I thank you, dear Lord.” Gradually the children themselves should be encouraged to say such little prayers aloud.

Especially at opportune moments should the children be taught to raise their hearts to God quite simply and naturally. A little girl comes with beaming eyes to say that father has obtained a new and better position. Just as a pious mother at home, with the children gathered around her, would thank God for the favor, so the instructor, making up for the deficiency of the parents, might call upon all the children to help the little girl express her thanks for God’s blessing.

In the meantime formal prayers are not to be neglected. The teacher should lead up to them gradually by means of stories, pictures, and informal talks, so that, when he is ready to teach a certain prayer, the child’s mind has already grasped the meaning. Let us take, for example, the act of contrition, which may be taken first in a simplified form and expressed in a number of different ways. By means of questions such as: “Why are you sorry? How do children prove that they are really sorry?” By means of cases taken from their own experiences, the prayer is gradually formulated. Difficult words such as “heartily sorry,” “detest my sins,” are placed in their proper position only after the simpler terms have made the thought familiar.

Then, and only then, should memorization of the prayer begin.

The prayers usually taught are:

1. The Sign of the Cross

2. The Hail Mary

3. The Our Father

4. Prayer to the guardian angel

5. Act of contrition

6. Acts of faith, hope and charity

7. The Angelus

8. Grace at meals

9. The Creed

The order in which these prayers are to be taught and the time at which they are taught will depend on the preparation, age, intelligence and attitude of the children.

Through the informal prayer in particular the teacher will have opportunity to show without long explanations how prayer is used sometimes to adore and praise God, at other times to ask or thank Him for something, and again to tell Him how we feel about things, especially when we are sorry for having offended Him. When possible, prayers should be taught as a result of a natural situation, as has already been stated. Let us take another example. The teacher may say to the class: “John tells me this morning that his mother is very sick. Would you like to say a little prayer for her? Dear God, please make John’s mother well again. Dear Mother Mary, help her.” A formal prayer such as the Hail Mary may be added as soon as the children can say it. Later John reports that his mother is better. A prayer of thanks follows: “Dear God, how good you are! Thank you for making John’s mother better. Thank you, dear Mary.”

III. Intermediate Grades

Regardless of the grade placement, when children know little or nothing about God, the procedure in teaching prayer should be much the same as in the primary grades, except that the process may go on more rapidly.

Presuming, however, that the children of this group already know more common prayers, the teacher must assure himself of two things: (1) that the pupils can say the prayers correctly; (2) that they know what they are talking about.

To make sure of the first point, the teacher should request the children to write the prayers from memory; not too many at a time, however, or the task of reading and correcting them, and more particularly, the revelations they may contain, might easily become overwhelming.

Skillful questions will bring to light how well children understand prayers they are saying. Most probably repetition of some of the work for the Primary Grades will be necessary. It must be remembered that it is far more difficult to root out bad habits of prayer and replace them with good ones, than it is to form altogether new habits. It will take much patience, instruction, and repetition to change habits of mechanical repetition of prayers to those of heartfelt, sincere communion with God. Yet, it must be done if we are to prepare the children to lead intelligent Catholic lives.

It is hardly possible that boys and girls who have learned the true meaning of prayer, who have tasted the nearness of God in the soul and have poured out their joys and griefs in intimate union with Him — it is hardly possible that they should go permanently astray. On the other hand, it can be readily seen how those who have rattled off prayers mechanically for half a lifetime could easily be convinced that all of religion is mere mummery just as their prayers have been.

By means of repetition of the prayers commonly used in the earlier grades, the children’s understanding and knowledge should be largely enriched. The Our Father, for example, should now take on a deeper meaning by reason of their wider experience in life. “Thy kingdom come” will include now a desire to aid the missions in both a spiritual and a material sense. Similarly, “to atone for my sins” in the act of contrition should make the child aware of his obligation to perform a little penance, particularly during the penitential seasons.

The aim of the teacher in the intermediate grades, then, should be more to give the children a better understanding and appreciation of the prayers ordinarily said and approved by the Church than to add a multiplicity of devotions. In general children in this group should have well-balanced ideas of the following:

  1. What prayer is and how it should be used.
  2. The difference between formal and informal prayer and the special value of each.
  3. An understanding of the more commonly used formal prayers, including the Rosary, the stations of the Cross and the Litanies.
  4. Some knowledge of the value of the Mass and the best way of participating in the Mass. A simple book of Mass prayers possessed by every child would be of great assistance for occasional group instruction in the Mass; by now, the children should also be able to recognize the distinction between the outstanding prayers and devotions approved by the Church and so-called “pet devotions.”

IV. Upper Grades

Again the teacher must assure himself, as in the earlier grades, that the pupils can say the ordinary prayers correctly, and that they know what the prayers mean. If their knowledge of these essentials is deficient, it is far better to give them a good general foundation and send them away with a thorough understanding of a limited number of formal prayers than to try to accomplish too much without a good foundation.

In addition to the requirements already stated for younger groups, the children of the upper grades should be more particularly instructed in the following:

  1. A more intimate knowledge of the ordinary prayers, particularly of the Creed, this knowledge to be acquired largely in correlation with the doctrinal instruction.
  2. The use of the Missal and with it an understanding of the liturgical year.
  3. The use of the Psalms or parts of Psalms as a desirable form of prayer for various occasions.
  4. An introduction to the practice of meditation in the shortest and simplest form.
  5. An introduction to spiritual reading as a part of one’s spiritual life, and in particular an appreciation of the New Testament. Many of the texts, read slowly and thoughtfully, would be a nucleus for the simple form of meditation suggested above.

V. Senior High School

Provided that the senior high school students have the necessary foundation, special stress should be laid with this group on the intimate relationship between their spiritual life and their conduct, between their life of prayer and their life of activity. In other words, the teacher should employ every possible means to cultivate in the pupils a childlike simplicity and absolute sincerity in their intercourse with God. Nowhere is this attitude better reflected than in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, hand in hand with which Richard Crashaw’s “Two Went into the Temple to Pray” could also be studied. In this connection the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — “Our Father,” “forgive us our trespasses,” etc. — will help the pupils to a clearer insight into their relationship with their fellow-men. There must be no discrepancy between their words and their deeds. Also, there should now be a better understanding of the difference between genuine prayerfulness and mere sentimentality. Their prayer, as their Catholicity, should become more and more virile as they increase in knowledge and age.

Other points to be taken into consideration at this stage are:

  1. The great necessity of prayer, especially at the time of temptation.
  2. The need of perseverance in prayer, especially when one is tempted to say: “I cannot pray”.
  3. The cultivation of a great personal friendship for Christ, particularly through a life of prayer.
  4. The realization that prayer does not necessarily need to be expressed in so many words, but that all our actions can be made a prayer by one good intention.
  5. An explanation of the prayer of praise and adoration as the highest and most acceptable form of prayer. Use of the Gloria Patri, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, Te Deum,, with that intention in mind.
  6. A more complete understanding of the liturgy, particularly the use of the Missal as the best means of keeping up one’s Christian life in accordance with the spirit of the Church.
  7. The practice of simple meditation more as a thoughtful reading pondering of Scriptural selections than as any particular form of mental activity.
  8. Informal discussions on prayer in the Christian home and an attempt to inculcate high Christian ideals into the minds of the students as future homemakers.

At this juncture the first part of the chapter dealing with prayers for preschool children may be discussed with the students.

In conclusion, let us recall once more that in every case the teacher must begin with his class at the spiritual level at which he finds it, and start to build from that level. A high school group that has had little or no instruction in prayers, for example, will gain more by a simple explanation of the Our Father and by learning to pray with humility, sincerity, perseverance and confidence, than by an attempt to impose the prayers of the Missal upon them before they are ready to appreciate such prayers. Above all, let the instructor keep firmly in mind his duty not only to teach the children their prayers but also and principally to teach them how to pray.

(From Religious Instruction and Education*)

* Chapter 5, Joseph J. Baierl, S.T.D., Rudolph G. Bandas, Ph.D., S.T.D. and Joseph Collins, S.S., S.T.D.; NYC: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., 1938.

Girl praying


Comments on this entry are closed.