If you’ve ever tried to get a 7-year-old to say a rosary, perhaps you’ve heard, “HailMaryfullofgracetheLordiswithyou…”. All in one breath, seemingly in one syllable, like the words were a trench full of hot coals that the child could cross if he just runs fast enough. And if it’s not too fast, it’s too slow, or it’s with a funny voice, or shouted at the top of their lungs or whispered so its hardly audible. Why is teaching children to pray so HARD?
Such are the hazards of trying to teach little children rote prayers. I don’t have any objection to rote prayer. Jesus gave us the Our Father and it’s perhaps the most beautiful and profound prayers ever spoken. But there’s a real danger of teaching children to say a bunch of words without ever teaching them to pray.
Vanity isn’t just vulgar.
The word “Jesus” only appears in The Princess Bride (admittedly one of my favorite movies) as a swear word coming out of a child’s mouth. I cringe every time I hear it and tell my children how that’s not the way we use the Jesus’ Name.
This casual and vulgar use of the name Jesus pleases the evil one, not the least because it uses God’s holy Name as something foul. Satan tries to defile anything that is good or holy. But the commandment not to use the Lord’s name in vain goes much deeper than avoiding using His name as a swear word.
The real danger of emptiness.
I think the deeper danger for children learning to “say their prayers” is that they don’t ever realize that their prayers impact reality. You can say a rote prayer without any kind of faith that your prayer is going to be answered. Reciting specific words in a certain pattern is not prayer. It can be part of prayer, but it is the lesser part.
Without faith, it is impossible to please God. If I recite the Our Father without any notion that there is a Person who is listening to that prayer, who will answer that prayer, isn’t that the very definition of using the Lord’s name in vain? This type of vain prayer is exactly what the devil wants. It’s a kind of prayer without prayer. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and scribes by quoting Isaiah, who prophesied, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
The devil works to reinforce this hypocrisy by tempting children to see prayer as a waste of time or exercise in absolute fruitlessness. This is the first step towards the exit door of the Church and all too often leads to full blown apostasy and atheism.
Model a life full of prayer.
The antidote to this is for parents to model a life filled and informed by “full,” not empty, prayers. Children should see their parents praying about important things. They should be taught to recognize the fruitfulness of a prayer made in faith.
A few years ago, my wife and I tried to buy a house out in the country. We were super excited about it, because it was right next to her parents and an ideal place to raise our children. Our kids were likewise excited to get to move next to Grandma and Grandpa. The owners accepted our offer on the house. What could possibly go wrong?
We couldn’t get financing. I still don’t understand it. I had great credit. The house price fit my budget. I tried two different banks, but I just couldn’t get a loan to buy the house. While my wife and I were disappointed, my kids were crushed.
My wife and I explained to my kids that God must have a different plan. We still wanted to move to the country, but we had to wait for God to reveal that plan. I told my son to start praying that we be able to move to the country every night. He did so for about 2 years. Then the OTHER house next to my in-laws came up for sale, for about half the price of the first house. It’s the house we now own.
I just asked my son, “Do you think God answers prayers?” Without missing a beat, he responded, “Yeah. But sometimes He answers in a way that takes a long time for us, even though He really answered it right away. Because He’s eternal.” He’s been listening. And watching.
He knows that God answers prayer not because I’ve told him (though I have many times), but because he has seen it for himself. He has had more than one personal experience of God answering a prayer in a way that was very obviously God’s hand. God wants to build my son’s faith, and answered prayers are brick and mortar.
The joy that results from this growth in faith and prayer is so beautiful. When a child recognizes that our God is a God who answers prayers, they are venturing our onto the Way. They see that fulfilling the second commandment is not some terrible burden, but is rather a never ending source of blessing. It’s good news in an age when good news is hard to find.
To read my story of how Jesus Christ snatched me from the snares of the devil, get my new book Demoniac on Amazon.com.