When participants in a Christian education conference wanted their children included in the daily Eucharist, Chaplain Robyn Szoke sat with some of the youngsters to discern their role. Led by the children’s stories, the conversation turned to healing and, soon, to planning a healing service.
When the time came, five 7- and 8-year-old leaders, with younger children beside them, laid hands on the adults.
“It stopped the conference because it was so powerful,” recalls Szoke, former national church staff officer for children’s ministries and Christian education. “Every one of the children called the adult by their name, invited a question of what would they like prayers for, laid their hands on them and prayed in the most beautiful way extemporaneously. ... I had parent after parent come up to me and say, `Well, I knew my child was precocious, but I never heard my child pray, let alone pray for me.”
Prayer is integral to Christian living, and parents naturally want to help their children develop a healthy prayer life. The goal, say Christian education specialists, is less teaching children to pray certain prayers than praying with them, modeling prayer and fostering their natural spirituality.
“I really am a big proponent that children are born with a spirituality, just like they have an emotional component and a physical component and an intellectual component,” says the Rev. Anne Kitch, author of several books of and about family prayers. “It’s not, `There’s this child who’s ready for me to teach prayer.’ Here’s this child who, like anyone else, is ready to be a prayerful person.” The question, she says, is how to engage with that.
For Sharon Pearson, Diocese of Connecticut children’s ministries and Christian education coordinator, “at the top of the list is just to model prayer. ... Be conscious of your own prayer life as an adult and how you share that in conversation with children.”
Brynn Williams, 11, of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Boonton, N.J., learned about prayer from her grandmother. “Every night she would say a prayer, and my sister and I would pray with her.” Bedtime prayers are common.
“I bend down my knees, fold my hands and talk to God in my bed before I got to sleep, because I believe in God, and he wants me to pray,” says F. Niles Porter, 8, of Flossmoor, Ill.
Emma Fosko, 5, prays at night with her father. “We do some ones from church, and we do some ones that we made up, and we do some ones that we have in a book,” says the St. John’s chorister, adding she likes the “made up” ones best. “I would make up one that said, `Dear God, thank you for making this beautiful world, and thank you for making me.”
“I do it all by myself, when [my parents] go out of the bedroom and turn out the light,” says fellow chorister Erin Bender, 5, who learned a bedtime prayer in kindergarten. “I lean down and say that prayer right next to my bed.” She prays in her own words in the morning: “God keep all the good stuff in us, love all the people and take care of all.”
Mealtimes provide another time for modeling prayer.
In the Comings household in New Jersey, family members take turns saying what they are thankful for during dinnertime prayers, says Libby Comings, 9.
Parents also can model prayer by seizing “teachable moments,” such as when picking up children from school or when a friend or pet is ill, Pearson says. Those “are great ways to expose children to show we have conversation with God and how we can share our thoughts and our feelings and our deepest desires with God.”
Notes Brynn, “We pray because sometimes it’s easier to talk to God, and we want everybody to be happy, and we think the best person to make that happen is God.”
A special language
“Really,” Kitch says, “if we understand prayer as one of the ways that we communicate with God, then it’s about relational language, and it has a lot more to do with children’s spirituality and their relationship with God than learning a specific thing.”
Kitch, canon for Christian formation at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Pa., likens learning the language of prayer to children’s developing speech after listening to and observing others. We coach speech -- by naming objects, for example -- but don’t “sit down and give lessons on talking,” she says.
The Rev. Jerome Berryman, who developed the Godly Play religious education curriculum and the Center for the Theology of Childhood in Houston, says humans use two communications systems: verbal and nonverbal. “Our spirituality is in that nonverbal communication system.”
Words, he adds, can invite us into that nonverbal, spiritual realm -- or get in the way.
Godly Play uses storytelling to teach children the Christian language system and invite them into the mystery of God’s presence. “What’s missing in most of the razzmatazz and entertainment approach to religious education is the real storytelling,” Berryman says. Since prehistoric days, people “learned their values and how to come close to God with their families around campfires. ... So human beings deeply need to learn like that.”
“The trouble today is that kids don’t know how to listen, so they can’t hear with any depth what’s in these parables and sacred stories and liturgies,” he says. “What needs to happen is to take the time to teach them how to listen to the presence of the mystery of God in the stories, in nature and in themselves.”
Different ways to pray
Play isn’t apart from prayer, educators note; it can be prayer. Books and crayons are useful, even in church. “I think it’s pretty much been proven that children are still taking in things even though their hands might be busy,” Pearson says. “They’re just using a different part of their brain.”
When choosing what to bring to church, Kitch advises, “It’s important to think of tools, not toys.” She likes the Sunday Paper bulletins, which connect to the day’s lectionary. “It’s not bringing a Clifford book. That’s about distraction.”
It’s important to remember prayer comes in many forms, educators say. Nonverbal spiritual communications can range from symbolic gestures like crossing oneself to a child’s capacity for joy.
“If you ever watch a young child in times of contemplation, ever see a child pick up a little tiny stone and just watch it and look at it and turn it around ... there’s a sense of God’s presence and God’s creation,” says Szoke, associate to the rector at St. John’s, Carlisle, Pa.
Erin experiences prayer during ballet class. “I dance and sing a prayer while I’m dancing.”
For St. John’s chorister Hannah Cronk, 7, singing “helps God come alive.”
“When my great-aunt died,” Brynn says, “I wrote a letter to [God]. I took it outside, and I buried it in the yard. Since God created everything, I thought he would find it.”
Ultimately, Szoke says, the key to praying with children is love. “The more a child is unconditionally loved, the more a child comes closer and understands God, and I think the more a child is in an environment of trust, the deeper a child’s capacity and awareness continues of God.”