I remember the first time I realized that part of teaching my children was going to include teaching them how to converse. My oldest daughter was just starting to try to have conversations with us at the dinner table each night. At first, it started with her just talking over us. Then after telling her she should ask questions, it switched to a single question over and over, “What did you do yesterday?” Why yesterday and why always the same question? I still don’t know. However, in that moment I realized that we would have to coach her a bit in having a conversation. If prayer is a conversation with God, we will have to coach our kids in the same way...
Over time, our daughter grew into her own conversation style. We taught her what kind of questions to ask, how to listen, and how to share what was on her mind. Once she had an idea of a structure of how to talk to someone, she took it and made it her own. We should do the same thing with our children and prayer, or else they will fumble through it themselves for far longer than they need to, possibly saying the same thing over and over.
But first, let’s talk about conversational or spontaneous prayer. Many people find themselves uncomfortable with this kind of prayer, and we as Catholics can often be the worse culprits. We are used to memorized prayers like the Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Mass. These prayers are all great and important, but alone leave something to be desired. Just like my marriage can’t consist wholly of love poems and songs composed by others, my relationship with God shouldn’t either. By including this type of prayer in our lives, it makes our prayer personal and shows our children that our faith is a relationship, not just completing a list of actions. However, just because we need to include conversational prayer in our lives, doesn’t mean it can’t have structure. Whether we realize it or not, our daily conversations often have a structure, including saying hello, asking how someone’s day is, asking about their family, telling them a story, and so on. So when teaching our kids this kind of prayer (or learning it ourselves), it can often be best to start with a structure.
I have found the simplest structure that works with our kids (and myself) comes from using the acronym A.C.T.S. I in no way came up with this, but learned it when I was a teenager and have heard it countless places since. The acronym stands for A (Adoration) C (Contrition) T (Thanksgiving) S (Supplication). Let’s break them each down.
Adoration: Spend time telling God you love Him, this can be very short or can involve extended time of just sitting in God’s presence as you begin prayer. This is often a great place to include words of praise to God. For me with our kids, this is where I start our prayer time in the morning. I tell the kids to tell Jesus they love Him and I model it for them. I will pray something like “God I love you, help me to love you more.” It is always amazing to hear my little ones put this into their own words, often including phrases like, “I love you to the end of the Universe and back.” I find it great to start with Adoration because we are intentionally focusing on God first rather than ourselves and our own wants and needs.
Contrition: Take time to recall things you have done to hurt your relationship with God and others since your last time of prayer, and then ask for forgiveness. Naturally, after adoring God it makes sense to mend anything that is hurting your relationship with Him. Although children typically might not receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation until they are slightly older, even young children can recognize some choices they have made that were bad. When we reach this part of our prayer, it typically consists of them thinking about what things they got in trouble for, mostly fighting with each other and not listening. This step can help children to also realize that their bad choices not only hurt others but hurt God too.
Thanksgiving: This is one of my favorite parts to hear from my children. We go around and say what we are thankful for, being sure to recognize them as gifts from God and give the thanks where it is due. Again, focusing on God’s goodness before our own needs is a great example to set. I have heard things as profound as being thankful for Jesus’ love so we can be in Heaven and as silly as for rainbow unicorns. It is truly a peek into the minds and hearts of our children and I know it brings a smile to the face of our Heavenly Father.
Supplication: Finally, after everything else, we come to the place where most of us who stumbled through learning prayer alone often begin: asking for help for ourselves and others. By saving this for last, we are teaching our children not to converse like someone focused only on getting what they want. When leading our children in this part of prayer I simply ask them what they want to ask Jesus’ help with, for themselves and others. Again, if you want a look into your child’s mind, get ready. Sometimes they will pray for “mommy’s headache” (which may have happened a week ago but is still on their mind) or for “the person that siren was going to help yesterday.” As with all the other steps, I often will go first to model it for them and help give ideas when they are learning for the first time.
Now that you have the structure, I encourage you to give it a try with your children. Model it for them and show them how you can pray in this way. Don’t worry about being perfect, as I said in our last blog on prayer, your imperfection is actually a gift that shows your children their prayer doesn’t need the perfect words and can be as natural as a normal conversation.
Also, remember to be patient with your children. They will learn reverence and appropriate posture in prayer in time. They are children and will have trouble sitting still at first and not being silly with prayers. God finds joy in your children being children. He is a Father and created them that way. We shouldn’t expect their prayer to look like the prayer of adults, but rather should try to step back and let their way of praying put a smile on our face too. Lastly, don’t forget to encourage them as they pray. Tell them you are proud of them, like how you are proud of how they thought of someone else when asking for God’s help. We often don’t realize how much of an impact these moments of encouragement have on our children.
So, go and get started. Pick a regular time after having set your initial foundation of prayer and teach your children to have these conversations with God. Start with a short amount of time at first – try 5 minutes. If you are anxious, that is okay. You likely recognize the importance of this for your child and are worried about “getting it wrong.” Just trust the Lord and let the Holy Spirit guide you. He made you the spiritual head of your children so He will equip you.
Zack Hinger is a husband and father of 3 girls. He worked in parish ministry for over 8 years in all ages of formation from preschool through adulthood. He has a B.A. from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Theology and Catechetics. His passions are God, his family, and helping others journey towards a closer relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.