Help your 3-6 year-old child learn to pray with this two-part strategy, based on Montessori philosophy, and practiced in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Five practical tips are included to help you implement this strategy. The benefits are subtle, but lasting and beautiful.
It’s a familiar scene to faithful parents, trying to instill good prayer practices in their youngins:
“Fold your hands, Jimmy!”
“Repeat after me: Oouuuurrrr Faaatthhhherrrrr…”
“C’mon, Jimmy, you can do it!”
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes little Jimmy folds his hands enthusiastically and cutely fumbles through the prayers. Other times, he refuses, preferring to roll around on the floor.
None of this is surprising, but it can be exasperating, and humbling.
I like to believe that Montessori has an answer, tip, or perspective for everything. This one came in the form of a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd catechist.
A Beautiful Example
A group of 3, 4 and 5 year old children, of varying levels of cleanliness and calmness, sat around the catechist on the carpet. On the prayer table was a statue of Mary, the Bible, and a burning candle.
The catechist told the children she wanted to show them something. She closed her eyes, then slowly, carefully, and beautifully, made the sign of the cross.
Next, instead of saying cheerfully, “Ok let’s all try together on the count of three!” she told the children, “I’ll show you again.” And again she closed her eyes, and slowly, carefully, and beautifully made the sign of the cross.
Now, not all of the children were exactly spellbound. Some looked around at their friends, grinning. One remained engrossed in her socks.
But the sense of quiet reverence that permeated the room was present to the children and their spongy, absorbent minds. And this is where our strategy begins.
The Montessori Strategy to Help 3-6 Year-Old Children Learn to Pray
Quick 60-second recap of the Montessori principle of absorption:
- Children, for the first 6 or so years of life, have an absorbent mind.
- This means they take in, unconsciously, everything from their environment. (sounds, sights, ideas, attitudes, etc.)
- What is absorbed forms the mind, e.g. the memory, will, etc.
- This is the first element of learning to speak any language perfectly. (They hear and absorb the language, with every grammatical and dialectical nuance.)
This means that if a child sees and hears people praying, she will absorb these sensations into her mind. And you don’t have to tell her to do it. It happens by nature.
So, how to encourage kids to pray part #1:
Let them see you pray.
Let them hear you pray.
Don’t make it a show. Make it real.
Surround your children with prayer, and with a reverence towards the sacred. Allow them to absorb these sensations and attitudes to form their minds and stay with them forever.
You probably saw this one coming. Kids are huge imitators, and we all know it. Ask any three-year-old what he wants to be, and he will tell you he wants to be “just like so and so.” He wants to imitate some great and wonderful older person.
Children by nature are drawn towards the good and beautiful, and they are drawn to imitate it.
We need to trust this instinct.
So, how to encourage kids to pray part #2:
Give them the freedom to imitate you praying.
Your children, who love you and see you praying, will naturally imitate you. It’s wired into them.
This step can’t stand alone. It must follow the first. If you’re kids don’t see prayer as good and beautiful and natural, they won’t want to imitate it.
Tips for Praying with 3-6 Year-Olds
- Introduce your child to certain basic prayers and gestures and tell him when we say or use them. For example, “Before we eat, we say this prayer,” or, “When we want to get our minds and bodies ready for prayer, we make this sign.”
- After you introduce a prayer or gesture, say it or do it slowly enough for the child to hear and see, but still naturally and reverently.
- Don’t wait for the child to join in, or fold his hands, or make the sign of the cross. Simply begin, and allow him to watch and then join when ready.
- Avoid praising the child when she says a prayer or completes a gesture. The focus is on God.
- Just because the child doesn’t have to join in, doesn’t mean all behavior is acceptable during prayer time. Decide which behaviors can get a pass (maybe lying down instead of kneeling, looking at a book, etc.) and which will result in the child being removed from the room. (screaming, throwing rosaries, etc.)
The Benefits of the Montessori Strategy
You might be on the fence about this seemingly passive strategy toward forming good prayer habits. Prayer is important, do we really want to just let our kids join in when ready? Shouldn’t we nudge a little more?
First of all, a note: the absorbent mind lasts until the age of 6. So this strategy will not work with your 6 and uppers. There is a time for laying down the law, e.g. “We fold our hands during prayer, and that means you, pal.” This time, however, comes when our kids are able to respond to reason, to pull themselves together, and to fold their hands.
Secondly, here is what we can achieve by following the Montessori strategy when they’re young:
- The beginnings of a habit of prayer that is based 0% on coercion and 100% on love/the desire to imitate what is good.
- The beginnings of a habit of listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Those natural instincts that draw the child towards the good come from God. Our goal is to work with God, not instead of Him.
- Hopefully, a deeper prayer life in ourselves, once we realize how important it is to model the goal in a beautiful way.
Testimonies to the Power of Example
St. John Paul the Great writes about his father:
“After my mother’s death, his life became one of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up during the night and find my father on his knees, just as I would always see him kneeling in the parish church. We never spoke about a vocation to the priesthood, but his example was in a way my first seminary, a kind of domestic seminary.” (Quoted in St. John Paul the Great: His Five Loves, by Jason Evert)
And a woman, beautiful on the inside and out, gave this testimony at her father’s funeral, which I attended. I’ve copied it here with her permission.
“I was not a devout child, although I loved Jesus and Mary as most kids love the hero and heroine in their favorite story. My first memory of prayer is of our family gathering for night prayers and the Rosary. I recall stubbornly lying behind the couch, night after night, as my parents knelt before our image of Jesus and Mary and recited the decades of the Rosary. I would braid my rosary between my fingers, hang it around my neck, loop it around my wrists. It was just another plaything, the only one I was allowed during prayers. I kicked my legs in the air out of sheer boredom, invisible behind that couch.
Then, one night, I remember standing up from behind the couch and really listening to the words for the first time, wondering why anyone would say the same thing that many times and what the words really meant. I knew “It’s a small world after all”, and I knew it drove my parents crazy if I sang it enough times in a row. Why would anyone say the ‘Hail Mary’ that many times with love and respect in their voices? Why was there a difference? It was a mystery I needed to unravel.
The two people I loved and trusted most in the world prayed to God every day even though they couldn’t see Him, even though they were tired, even though their kid whined and kicked her legs in the air behind the couch. I didn’t understand why they prayed but I believed there must be a reason both true and important. I decided I would only discover the reason if I tried to do the same thing myself. I was only interested in trying because I saw my parent’s examples and wished to imitate them. My journey toward God with logic and reason would start much later, but routine nightly prayer had pointed me in the right direction.” (Emphasis mine.)
Share your advice with us in the comments! How do you encourage prayer in children?
P.S. Check out the free, printable prayer cards in my resource library below. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses prayer cards like these throughout the liturgical year. They are set up on the prayer table and read aloud to guide reflection. Print yours today!