Guiding our Children to Pray

Reflections on Children and Prayer

In this three-part mini-series, Dr. Daniel Opperwall (author of We Pray from Ancient Faith Publishing) presents a reflective commentary on the meaning of prayer, children’s relationship to Orthodox prayer, and the role of Orthodox parents in helping guide children to a fuller experience of prayer.

August 2017

Guiding our Children to Pray

In Part III, Dr Opperwall brings together the insights of the first two parts of the series to help think through how we can guide our children to pray, both from a theoretical and a practical point of view.

August 25, 2017 Length: 12:42





Hello again. This is Dr. Daniel G. Opperwall of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College in Toronto. Welcome to Part III of a three-part podcast mini-series on children and prayer. In the first two installments, we’ve thought a little bit about what prayer is for Orthodox Christians, and what children and parents are and their relationship to a life of faith. In this final installment, I want to put the pieces together and think a little bit about how to cultivate a life of prayer in our children.

To begin, though, we have to observe that there is really no one answer to this question, nothing that will ensure that our kids will fall in love with prayer and practice it daily as they grow older. We are merely trying to invite them into prayer and to guide them toward accepting this invitation, a point I will return to later.

Let’s start by thinking about the five forms of prayer that we discussed in Part I of this series. These were, once again: supplication, prayer proper, intercession, thanksgiving, and contemplation. There is something very noticeable about the first four forms of prayer as compared to the fifth. The first forms all tend to involve words and ideas: repenting of sins, devoting our lives to God, praying that others will do the same, and giving thanks for his gifts all tend to be done in words. Contemplation, which we will discuss in a moment, is something which takes place in silence or in near silence.

Let’s think about children’s relationship to these two groups in order. How do we teach children to pray words of repentance, devotion, and thanksgiving, and to pray for others? As Orthodox Christians, we seldom have to carry out these forms of prayer on our own. The Church has given us a wide array of set prayers, most of them quite ancient, that address almost every need and situation and that cover the ground of St. John Cassian’s first four forms of prayer. While the Orthodox Church has always had a tradition of extemporaneous prayer as well, it is through these set prayers, and chief among them the psalms, that we learn how to repent, ask God’s aid, and give thanks to him. Prayer, as we have said, is a relational encounter between a human being and God. Psalms and set prayers teach us tried and true techniques for putting our minds in the right space for that encounter in its various forms.

When it comes to children, then, we are faced with some challenges. How do we introduce them to the Church’s well-crafted words of prayer in a way that will make them real here and now? Next, how do we help them grow into the Church’s prayers as they age? First, when it comes to verbal prayer, it is crucial to develop a rhythm of daily prayer in our lives in the home. Prayer, for the Orthodox Christian, is something that should shine through every facet of our lives. If we isolate prayer, relegated only to Sunday mornings perhaps, or only to times of trouble and distress, then we should expect our children to do the same. Constructing a rhythm of prayer in your home begins with setting aside special times for prayer, three times a day at least, and inviting and at times requiring your children to join you in these prayers.

Developing a detailed strategy takes time and some patience, and every family is unique. A prayer rule should not feel like a chore for your children, but they also do need to participate. This is a delicate balance, and only you really know how to guide your children to it. As you seek to craft a family prayer rule, let me recommend the book, Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home, by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker. I found their chapter on building a home prayer rule excellent, and it will give you more detail than I can provide here, and some good practical advice.

Let me, however, home in on some key things that I think can and should be part of nearly every family prayer rule in light of what we have said in the first two parts of this series. First, families should incorporate some psalmody in their lives every day. The psalms are the most ancient and most beautiful prayer book in the Church’s repertoire. Say them with your children so that they will be written on little hearts from the beginning, and remember: even if children don’t understand every part of them, psalms will guide them nonetheless; such is their power. In addition to reading psalms, it is important to do the daily Scripture readings of the Church lectionary as a family. With small children, it can often be helpful to discuss these readings, especially the gospel readings, to help them understand. As they get older, you can allow children to do some of the readings. Your children should hear the Gospel every day, not just on Sundays.

Children should also be taught the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, as soon as possible. This is the single most complete and most perfect prayer ever crafted, given to us by the Lord himself as the essence, perfect model for all prayer. It incorporates all aspects of verbal prayer in a single place, and is part of every Orthodox Christian service. It should be part of every time of family prayer as well, ideally within the trisagion, but at least by itself. It should be the first religious text that your children memorize, and it is short enough that they can usually do so from quite young.

Beyond this, a good prayer rule from a children’s or grown-up prayer book usually takes only a few minutes a day. Find a rule that seems to fit, and begin right away. The book I recommended a moment ago, Blueprints for the Little Church, offers some good advice for this process. As you build a rule and atmosphere of prayer in your home, it is important to work on tailoring it to children’s changing needs. From the beginning, and as they grow, children need to be given more and more of the language of grown-up prayer, yet children also need to encounter prayer here and now, as they are. Adding simple children’s prayers that they can really understand might be helpful. Having conversations about what you are praying and why is also important.

For very young children, it is also helpful, too, to focus on the wonderful material resources that we as Orthodox have. Icons are exceptionally accessible to children, but there is much more also. Crossing ourselves, kissing the icons, holding prayer ropes, lighting candles—all are practices that even very small children can be part of, and all are forms of prayer. Give them these spaces, let them pray here and now, and maybe learn something from them as they do. In these ways, you can make a start in teaching your children the art of verbal prayer. You know them much better than I do, so I am sure you will find your own patterns and paths as you explore together.

What, then, of St. John Cassian’s fifth form of prayer, contemplation? At first blush, it might be hard to imagine introducing little ones to the work of clearing their minds and thinking only of God, and really, the fullest heights of contemplation are probably not open to children. Yet if we ourselves set aside contemplative time—time to pray in silence or simply repeat the Jesus Prayer over and over—then we can begin to show children something of the beauty it begets within us. Invite your children to sit with you for the first few minutes of silent prayer before the icons, just five or ten minutes, depending on age. Let them hold the prayer rope. Don’t worry if they fuss or seem more interested in the candle or icon. Let them be as they are. Most importantly, teach them the Jesus Prayer, and let them say it a few times, maybe just ten or 15. Let them count it on the prayer rope or on their fingers. Don’t push them beyond their capacities, but don’t underestimate how much joy even small children can take from these practices. Continue on your own after a few minutes with your kids. Clear your mind, and find the depths of peace in Christ.

This leads me to a last essential point. Whether it’s contemplative or verbal, helping our children to cultivate prayer is not just about what they do. It is about our own hearts, finding the beauty of prayer within our own souls. Remember that prayer is an invitation to all of us, children or adult. It is the work of the Spirit done through us, and this means that we are not so much teachers of a technique for our children, but witnesses to something miraculous and profound. Teaching our children to pray requires that we ourselves learn how to pray, and this is a lifelong process, even for the most expert of monastics.

So if we wish our children to pray today and keep praying for a lifetime, this will only be possible if they recognize prayer as something deeply beautiful and something that has transformative power within us, their parents. If we are always strict and irritable during prayer time, will we expect our children to be captivated by prayer? If we are too lax, though, and never pray or never require their attention, how will they ever encounter this most beautiful art? If prayer is not something we ourselves love to the bottom of our hearts, can we possibly expect our children to fall in love with it? If we are not open to the work of the Spirit, will they be?

It is this, the beauty of prayer, that I think must be the essence of our approach to teaching our children to pray. When we know the beauty of all forms of prayer, when we let in the words and silence of our tradition, when we connect with our Lord and Savior this way, tasting something of that light that St. Symeon described in Part I of this series, then teaching our children will flow naturally from us. If the beauty of the experience is real, and they see this again and again, day after day, we will set them up in the best possible way to keep a life of prayer forever.

Nothing is guaranteed. Our children will have their own relationships with Christ and their own struggles; they already do. We’ve all fallen away, and no generation has ever succeeded in protecting the next from such falls. Some children are more resistant to prayer than others, just as we all are. You may have an enormous hill to climb, or it all might feel simple, especially at first. When it comes to teaching our children to pray, we will fail a lot. This is for certain.

Lest I seem to come off as someone much more wise than I am, let me say that I fail in this task every single day, and my home is nowhere near a paragon of the ideas and practices laid out in this series. Indeed, I probably struggle and fall more than most. But to pray, in the end, is to get back up, to brush ourselves off, and to give ourselves back to Christ. Supplication, prayer, intercession, thanksgiving, and contemplation all lead here.

To guide our children to pray is thus not so much about creating perfect angels, but is much more the act of offering a hand to young people we love, as we ourselves get up from these stumbles so as to keep walking together on the journey of the heart toward Christ through the words and silence of prayer. The balance of freedom and discipline in our home will not come easy. The energy to pray will not always be at hand. Our prayer rule will ever be a work in progress and in flux. Our children will change quicker than we’re ready for. But that is human life, and the Spirit will be teaching them, just as us, what and how to pray. In that we must have faith.

The life of prayer in the Orthodox Church is immensely rich and varied. These brief remarks have only barely touched on prayer to saints, the use of prayer with icons, liturgical prayer, and many other essential ways of praying which should be a part of every child’s life. Still, I hope these thoughts of a humble fool are some help in thinking about how to make every form of prayer really live for your children, and how to help them grow into prayer and keep it a part of their lives. The details of that heart and noble labor I will now leave to you and your spiritual guide. I also hope that my little book, We Pray, can serve to create a few moments between you and your children, wherein you can reflect on the beauty of prayer in all its forms and steepen that beauty for a little while. I hope you’ll give it a look, and I invite you also to my website: dgopperwall.com, where I’ve posted some activities and resources for helping teach your children about prayer.

Regardless of that, though, thank you a final time for listening. May God bless all your efforts to turn yourselves and your children to prayer, and please, as you do, pray for me, a sinner.

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