As every parent of an infant knows, you start out in survival mode, as you desperately try to meet the needs of a tiny new being while living with very little sleep and, frankly, a lot of anxiety. There are a handful of things that got me through that rough time as a new mom: support from family and friends, the knowledge that this particularly difficult period would not last forever, deep gratitude for the gift of a healthy child — two boys, in my case — and prayer.
Once my babies were on a good schedule and sleeping through the night — and my sanity resurfaced — I soon found myself thinking about their more long-term needs. As adults, we know that life can be tough and that our children will inevitably face challenges. Experience has taught me that a deep sense of gratitude for my blessings — especially in the midst of struggles — is essential to living a happy, healthy life. With that in mind, I decided that incorporating prayer into my kids’ daily routine would be a priority.
Prayer is many things, but for me, it is synonymous with gratitude. As a young girl, I remember my mother explaining that as Catholics, we begin our prayers with the Sign of the Cross, and then we praise God for His greatness and thank Him for the many gifts He’s blessed us with, before launching into our various petitions.
When praying with very young children, this practice makes perfect sense. Every day, they are learning about the world around them, and they are in awe of so much. Things that we routinely take for granted are exciting and amazing to them – from the squirrels in the trees and the trees themselves, to the sun in the sky and pebbles on the beach, not to mention firetrucks and their favorite toys, and zoo animals, as well as all their little accomplishments, like eating with a spoon, climbing to the top of the play structure – the list goes on and on. Letting them know that they have God to thank for all of these wonderful things is such a natural way to introduce prayer to babies and toddlers.
Even before they have language, you can pray with them. Start by thanking God out loud for anything that interests them. If they are into dogs, you can point to a dog in a book or a dog you see on your walk and say “We love dogs, thank you, God, for dogs.” If they love cars and firetrucks, you can use a moment of playtime with cars to say “We have so much fun with cars, thank you, God, for cars.” When a firetruck blares its way down the street, join the celebration by thanking God for cool firetrucks.
Use opportunities like cuddle time to thank God out loud for the child’s beautiful face with two eyes to see the beauty He’s created, two arms to one day give hugs and offer comfort to those who need it, and so on. Babies and young toddlers may not have the words to express themselves but they understand much of what we’re saying and modeling for them long before they’re able to tell us.
From there, it is very easy to make the progression to thanking God for the food we eat at dinnertime, and to spend a few minutes at bedtime naming all the things in our day that we feel gratitude for. I’ve found that there’s no harm in also reciting longer, more traditional prayers at specific times of day.
When my babies first began sleeping in their cribs, I started saying A Children’s Bedtime Prayer and The Guardian Angel Prayer every night before turning off the lights.
Here’s my version of the Bedtime Prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
Thy love stay with me through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.
I ask this not for myself alone,
but for thy children–every one.
And this is the famous Guardian Angel Prayer:
Angel of God, my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love commits me here,
Ever this day, be at my side,
To light and guard,
Rule and guide.
At two-and-a-half, they still don’t say the words along with me, but they do say “AMEN!” at the end. I know that eventually, saying prayers like these at bedtime will be a regular part of their routine because it’s what they’re used to.
This is already clear in the mornings when we are in the car on our way to a class or a playdate, and I ask them “Should we say some prayers?” They almost always respond “Yes” and then repeat each simple sentence that I say aloud. This is the time of day that we not only thank God for His blessings – including a good night’s sleep – but add requests like “Please give daddy a good day at work,” or “Please watch over us at the park today,” and “Help us to be kind to everyone we meet.”
When one of my kids skins his knee or falls and bumps his head —which happens a lot— I ask God to please make them feel better. When another child gets hurt, we ask God to please help that child heal.
I know that my boys are still too young to fully grasp what God or prayer is. But I also know that I’m laying the foundation for a life of faith right now. I want them to have that gift. There is so much more room for joy in life when we are capable of remaining grateful in the face of adversity and are able to put our anxiety and fear in the hands of God.
So here are a few other ways to incorporate prayer into your young child’s world…
Songs: Young children love to sing. The repetition of song helps them to acquire language and belting one out is so much fun for them. You can sing simple words of prayer to the tune of well-known classics like “Twinkle Twinkle” or “Happy Birthday” – if you repeat them often enough, your toddlers will catch on and join in.
Dolls, Puppets and Stuffed Toys: Therapists have long used Play Therapy as a means of communicating with and understanding children. In Play Therapy, toys act as a child’s words and the way they play with those toys – such as dolls, puppets, stuffed animals or action figures – is their language. But it’s also a great way for an adult to explain a complicated situation, like a loved one who is sick or a parent who has to go away on a long trip.
Books: Every child development expert says it’s never too early to start reading to your kids, so why not sneak in a few books that will teach them about faith. These are my recommendations:
I Talk to God About How I Feel by Stormie Omartian
As a bonus, here’s a video to get kids started on Christ’s own prayer:
Korbi is a former full-time TV blogger, writing for sites such as E! Online and Yahoo!. She is now a full-time mom of twin boys. In her free time, she moonlights as a Marriage, Family & Individual therapist.
Image: Wikimedia Commons