Advent is the perfect time to start new habits of prayer.
If you’re not sure how to start, here are some tips for parents. There isn’t one right way—there are many! Whether you find time on the run or create a bedtime prayer routine, praying together can produce greater peace, greater hope, and greater faith during the holiday season.
“Family” and “prayer” belong together. After all, as the Second Vatican Council taught, our families are the “domestic church.” What better place for children to learn about the beauty of prayer and its fruits than within their family circle of life and love? However, family prayer can tend to evaporate in busy households that are stretched to the limit with work and other activities.
If your family has not yet established a tradition of praying together, Advent is the perfect time to begin. It offers a wealth of traditions, like the Advent wreath, the Advent calendar, and the crèche, to use as focal points for prayer. In the frenzy of this shopping season, family prayer during Advent keeps the reason for Christmas ever before us and our children. And once the habit of family prayer is established, it may be easier to continue it through other liturgical seasons of the year.
If you’ve tried praying as a family but it just didn’t work, you might want to try again. There are a host of obstacles—lack of time, boredom, and resistance from kids and teens, to name a few. But with persistence and creativity, families can find a way a few times each week to gather together in the name of Jesus.
Why Pray Together? “Parents are … the first herald of the Gospel for their children,” wrote Pope John Paul II in 1981 in “On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World” (Familiaris Consortio). By praying with their children, reading Scripture to them, and introducing them to the sacraments and the Church, the Holy Father wrote, parents become “fully parents”—they have not only transmitted bodily life but also the life of the Spirit through the cross and resurrection of Jesus (39).
When we pray with our children, we introduce them to the language of faith so that it becomes natural for them to converse with God. By our example and guidance, our children learn how to praise God, how to thank him, how to ask for forgiveness, how to intercede for others, and how to ask for their own needs.
Regular family prayer also demonstrates to our children that being a Christian means that God reigns in our family—not just on Sundays but every day of the year. Being a Christian means living in close communion with the Lord—and with each other. In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul wrote, “The family has the mission to become more and more what it is, that is to say, a community of life and love” (17). Family prayer is one way we can fulfill that mission. To live as a community of life and love requires compassion and mercy. Praying together can produce peace and harmony as we and our children learn to forgive and ask for forgiveness—and every family needs God’s grace to forgive one another.
For the most part, however, Catholic parents need no convincing of the benefits of family prayer. The tough part is implementing it! The following suggestions may help.
Finding the Time. A famous verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes states, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1). In the rhythms of the day, mornings, evenings, and meal times are natural moments to pause and pray together.
A natural opportunity for family prayer is just before the evening meal. In addition to saying the “Prayer before Meals” together, this time might be an opportunity to pray for friends and family members who are sick or suffering and to thank God for blessings received during the day. “It doesn’t take a long time,” says one mother who tried this, “yet some evenings our short prayer time generates conversation and discussion that last throughout the meal.”
Many families pray with their children before they go to bed, either individually or together. They might begin by lighting a candle or singing a hymn, and then go on to spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving and petition for one another and for family and friends. An Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be could be said in conclusion. In one family, Mom and Dad make a sign of the cross with holy water on each child’s forehead before sending them off to bed with hugs and kisses.
When work and school schedules permit, families might also try to pray in the mornings. One family with older children uses the morning prayers of the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours which, because of the antiphons and responses, encourages everyone—even reluctant teens—to participate. Evening prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours can also be used.
Finding the Format. Once you’ve found a good time to pray, you will need to experiment with the format. Whether you pray spontaneously, use Scripture, formal prayers, or a combination, pray in ways your kids will understand.
With young children, the challenge is keeping them interested and relatively well behaved. For preschoolers, that might mean singing a praise song and clapping along, or thanking God for one special thing.
What works at one age, however, won’t necessarily work at another, so be flexible. As children grow, they might “graduate” from bedtime prayers to what more resembles an evening prayer service.
If preteens or teens are still resistant, ask them to participate in the prayer by choosing a song or prayer to say. However, if kids choose not to participate, don’t force them or put them on the spot, where they feel they have to “perform.”
It’s often a positive first step just to have kids present while prayers are being said, and it may affect them more than you think. One woman shared that, when she was a girl, her mother and aunts used to gather to pray the rosary. They all brought their children, who played in the room while their mothers prayed. The children were never made to join in and yet, the woman fondly remembers those days. She grew up with a sense of peace, security and the presence of God.
The actual time you spend in prayer doesn’t have to be long. Fifteen minutes works for them, says one father of three boys, who are fourteen, twelve, and ten.
To keep the boys from getting bored, he says, “we mix it up.” After playing a worship song from a CD, they may read a chapter from the Bible and discuss what it means and how they can apply it in their family. Or, they may pray one or two mysteries of the rosary, or use a scriptural rosary book. They usually conclude with petitions for friends and family members. To avoid disruptions, the youngest child—who is two— watches a video in another room during this time and prays with his parents at bedtime.
Prayer on the Run. Even if a definite family prayer time eludes you, don’t give up! You can still find times in which to pray as a family. Pray in the car on a trip or while running errands. Pray with your child when he is sick or struggling. Go to Mass together one weekday. If you can’t get the entire family together or if your spouse is reluctant to participate, God will bless your prayers even if only one or two children are present. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).
Above all, resist any feelings of inadequacy. Your prayer life may not be as consistent or vibrant as you’d like, but you can still lead your family in prayer, and taking that step of faith to pray with your family will strengthen it. As you learn to feel more comfortable praying spontaneously, so will your children. Teach them some of the Church’s treasured prayers. And remember that every step you take—however small—will lead your family closer to Jesus. Happy Advent!
Patricia Mitchell is the content editor for The Word Among Us magazine.