Prayer is an integral part of our spiritual lives as Orthodox Christians. It is the air our souls breathe, and yet, we suffocate ourselves. As Orthodox parents, not one of us wishes for the souls of our children to suffocate, to get stuck in the mire of the world with no hope of relief. But how can we teach them, and ourselves, to pray earnestly and consistently? How can we develop in them a true desire to commune with God?
As parents, you are the example!
It is in the simplest things that we see the beauty and wisdom behind God’s creation. He created us with minds capable of constant growth. Even when our brains are physically finished maturing, we continue to learn. We continue to develop new habits, break old ones, learn new things, forget others. Adults and children alike have the capacity to learn. We, as adults, must remember this.
We must also remember that our children learn best by seeing and doing. They imitate the adults around them, learning about the world through the actions of others. 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.
St. John Chrysostom said, “For generally the children acquire the character of their parents, are formed in the mold of their parents’ temperament, love the same things their parents love, talk in the same fashion, and work for the same ends.” With that in mind, let us discuss how to help foster a desire for prayer in yourself and your children.
1. Don’t force it
Each of us has the free choice to pursue a relationship with God. A deep, lasting relationship cannot be forced or coerced. We – and our children – must all make the choice to believe in God and pursue that relationship with Him to mature spiritually. Sometimes, it is easier to believe that the right upbringing will do the trick; however, even in devout Orthodox Christian families, the children turn their backs on the Church and on their Faith.
As parents, we must remember never to force our children (especially when they are quite young) into prayer, to harm their choice and effectively make it for them. If you push, they will become disgusted by the idea of prayer and resist it with every part of themselves. Instead, we should teach our children through our humble example, showing our children the profound peace and good that comes from a life of prayer and closeness to God.
Focus instead on cultivating a loving relationship with your children and be a living example for them. Whether they consciously realize it or not, they will imitate you. They will see what truly matters to you.
2. Pray together consistently at home
Logically then, we must pray ourselves if we expect our children to learn how to do so. Carve time out of your morning and evening to meet in your icon corner and pray together. Most Orthodox prayer books have prescribed prayers for the morning and evening – you and your children can take turns reading them as you stand together and pray. When your children see that you make prayer a priority, they will internalize this and continue to do so when they go off on their own.
If you have smaller children, it may be frustrating trying to corral everyone into one place to stand still and pray for 15 minutes. Go anyway. Pray anyway. Together. Let them touch and kiss the icons. Perhaps give them their own prayer books to hold, or a small cross. Let them be an active part of things, even if they cannot yet read. Your children are watching, listening, and absorbing far more than you may think!
3. Engage their senses during prayer
Worship and prayer in the Orthodox Church – whether corporate or personal at home – engages our entire bodies. If we engage our children’s senses as they stand in prayer, they are much more likely to remember the prayers they say and associate those prayers with the feelings of peace and joy that comes from the engagement of their senses in such a holy act.
- Sight – Have your children light a candle before the icons. If possible, allow them to venerate the icons and make sure they can see the icons as you pray together.
- Sound – Rather than simply reading the prayers, try chanting them as they would be during services. Better yet, sing some of the hymns together!
- Smell – Burn some incense before your icons. If you cannot do this because of restrictions in a leasing agreement, perhaps open a vial of holy oil to allow that smell to engage the senses instead.
- Touch – If you have prayer ropes, teach your children how to use them. You can also allow your children to hold smaller icons of their patron saint and allow them to kiss the icons before, during, and after prayer.
- Taste – Give your children a sip of holy water at the end of your prayers, to begin and end their day.
4. Teach them the Jesus Prayer
One of the simplest, yet most profound prayers in the Orthodox Tradition is the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Children as young as two years old can begin to learn this prayer and say it aloud when you pray together. Start simple, with “Lord, have mercy,” and build from there as they grow.
Teach your children that this prayer is one they can say at any time of the day, in any situation. Encourage them to pray it daily. This introduces them to aspects of the Faith that all of us grapple with every day – mercy, repentance, forgiveness, and intercession. How powerful!
5. Teach them the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer
If you follow the prescribed prayers, you will find that you say the Lord’s Prayer quite often. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, this is what He taught them. The Church, therefore, has followed Christ’s example and teaching by praying His words for centuries. As your children get older, talk about the meaning of the phrases. Explore the ideas with them. “What do you think it means when we say, ‘Thy will be done’?” Or, “Why do we ask God to give us our daily bread?” Prayer takes on so much more meaning when we understand what it is we are actually saying.
If your church sings the Lord’s prayer, try to do so at home. Music helps children (and adults) remember. In the wisdom of the Church, our entire Liturgy is sung, causing the words to penetrate our consciousness and become a part of us as we worship the living God.
6. Answer their questions
As your children grow, they will begin to ask questions. They may ask why we should pray, who God is, why He hears our prayers, or whether He actually answers them. It is important to answer their questions through the lens of the Holy Fathers and the Church. This helps our children adjust their perception of the world and of prayer, and it helps them grow in understanding.
If you happen not to know the answer to a particular question, acknowledge this humbly to your children and tell them you can all ask the priest about it the next time you go to services together. It is better to do this than to lie and make up an answer that might confuse them and lead them astray.
7. Pray spontaneously, in front of them
Children imitate those around them. Use this as an opportunity to teach them spontaneous prayer. If you see an accident while driving, cross yourself and pray, “Lord, have mercy on your servants.” While walking outside on a beautiful day, say a prayer of thanks aloud: “Thank you, Lord, for the clear blue sky, for the refreshing breeze, etc.”
As you start to incorporate prayer into your daily life, your children will learn to do the same. You may also notice that doing this lifts your spirits a bit each time. Prayer is solace, comfort. We want our children to internalize this and turn to their Lord no matter what is happening in their day.
8. Adapt their prayer rule as they grow older
While this may seem obvious, many of us tend to forget that younger children do not have the same levels of focus, patience, and mental acuity as older children. For younger children, simply saying the Trisagion Prayers (“In the name…” up to “Our Father”) is a reasonable expectation for a morning and evening prayer rule. You can also try adding the prayers to the Holy Guardian Angel and the Most Holy Theotokos, as well as each child’s patron saint.
With age, you can increase the prayer rule; however, do so gradually. If you increase the prayer rule too much at once, it could lead to resistance. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. Each child requires his or her own special approach, taking into account mental, emotional, hormonal and physiological characteristics of development.
Quality matters far more than quantity when it comes to prayer. Teach your children to pray only a few prayers with heartfelt attention, rather than forcing them to endure several longer prayers with anguish and irritation. Over time, they will be more and more capable of handling the longer prayer rule.
Should we pray together, or let our children pray alone?
Praying together is a wonderful thing, and an integral part of the spiritual life, especially in the home. However, there is also a place for prayer in solitude. With younger children, it is best to have them pray together with you. But as your children reach the age of twelve or thirteen, you can begin to give more freedom. Perhaps ask if they prefer to pray with you, or if they would rather pray alone. You could also find a nice compromise, alternating between praying together and praying alone every other morning and evening.
As parents, we want to foster the sense that prayer is a way to connect with God. That we should seek this connection every day, multiple times a day, whether we are with someone else or are alone. Allowing your children time to pray by themselves as they grow older will better help instill this in their hearts.
Let us pray in fear and trembling…
If we wish our children to pray today and keep praying for a lifetime, then we must help them recognize prayer as something deeply beautiful. Something that has transformative power within us, their parents. 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?
Keep Reading: How To Engage Young Children In Church