How to Pray with a Toddler

little-praying-hands prayer childLearning to pray together as a couple can be difficult, but learning to pray as a family with a small child is even harder. In the first year of our marriage, my wife and I struggled to figure out how to pray together. Though we’ve made some progress, especially since becoming Catholic, we are still learning. Since I’m sure that there are many couples just starting out like us, I want to share some lessons our family has learned to make prayer with a child more workable.

Make a plan and stick to it. The primary reason our well-intentioned efforts to pray together failed in our first year of marriage was a lack of commitment. We’d try out a plan regarding time of day, place and kind of prayers, but after a few days we would give up if it wasn’t working. It took a while to learn that we have to persevere for at least a few weeks, even if our plan isn’t the best, if we want to try to make a habit of prayer.

Our current plan for praying as a family is built around basic prayers and the Liturgy of Hours. We like joining with the universal prayer of the Church and the historic reading of the Psalms. Plus, having an already established schedule helps maintain the discipline necessary to make prayer a habit. We briefly used the booklet Magnificat, which is a fantastic resource, but had to pass until we could afford a full subscription.

In the morning, right after breakfast, we simply pray the Our Father, sing a hymn, and pray briefly for our day. In the evening, right before Christopher’s bedtime, we pray Vespers, but we abbreviate it to suit a toddler’s attention span. Having a dedicated time and place for prayer was one of the things that first helped our plan really stick.

Start small. Overly ambitious prayer plans have almost always kept us from praying! With a toddler, we have to humbly accept that we can only do so much right now. Starting with a simple plan, like reading a paragraph of Scripture or praying a decade of the rosary, is far better than doing nothing. It’s far easier to add more later than to be continuously discouraged by too much now.

Mix the formal with the spontaneous. We like the order of a regular plan for each day, but also try to add elements that make prayer more personal and meaningful for our family. We write down on a small card things we pray for each week on a particular day during Vespers (our pastor and church, friends and godparents, conversions, the end of abortion, etc.). This gives us a chance to pray for things and people who are important to our family so that even in prayer we can communicate our faith to our children.

Enchant your children. More than anything else, children should delight in prayer. To that end, we do everything we can to fill our son’s mind with wonder. Icons, singing, candles, rosary beads, and the sign of the cross are a few things we have found essential. We started by setting up a Little Oratory for our psalter and candles with a few simple icons. Christopher loves holding and studying icons, rosary beads, and prayer cards while we pray.

But even more so he adores the candles. From a very early age he would be absolutely mesmerized when we lit candles to pray, and the look of delight and awe on his face filled us with joy. We know that these physical aids have stuck with him because even before his first birthday, he would move his hand across his chest when we said “pray” to imitate the sign of the cross and try to blow air (as if to blow them out) whenever we said “candles.”

We also find that singing helps to keep his attention, which is one of many reasons we love the Mundelein Psalter. Not only does it organize Lauds and Vespers into a single book, but it has instructions for chanting the Office, which helps elevate our family prayer time. We can’t do much, but we’ve learned to chant the Our Father, which we know our son particularly enjoys.

For our morning hymns we use a basic Catholic hymnal and a collection of church bulletins from our old Protestant church. We love old hymns for their accessible, memorable tunes and their rich theological content. All of these things not only solidify a habit of prayer for our family and help keep our son’s limited attention, but they really work in shaping and forming his mind and teaching him to love family prayer. My wife and I also benefit greatly.

Reprinted with permission from FathersForGood.org.

Chris Mooney received a Classics degree from Georgetown in 2013 and is currently a student at Yale Divinity School, studying Patristic and Medieval theology. He lives in New Haven with his wife, Julia, and their son, Christopher.