5 Ways to Instill Gratitude and Prayerfulness in Young Children

Gratitude and prayer go hand in hand — here are some ways to put them into action in your family

Cover of ‘Goodnight, Jesus’ by Kate Sydnor
Cover of ‘Goodnight, Jesus’ by Kate Sydnor (photo: EWTN Publishing)

Besides being a wife, being a mother is the best blessing in my life. It’s hard to put into words what my children mean to me. I’ve been reminded, over and over again, how it’s much like the love God has for us. It’s the type of love that consumes your soul, heart and mind. My children teach me so much about slowing down, finding the joy in life’s little blessings and focusing on the family.

Here are five ways we’ve tried to instill an attitude of gratitude and prayerfulness in our young children.

1. Gratitude Lists

We pray every night before bed by saying the Our Father and Hail Mary. We end our prayers with a simple, “Thank you God for our family and for all our blessings.” We then ask our children to add to what they want to thank God for. They will say things like, “Thank you for our teacher,” or, “Thank you for our toys and books.”

It can be easy to focus on the things that go wrong during the day, but when we change our perspective to cultivate a grateful heart, the world seems to change. That doesn’t mean we are ignoring the outside world, but we are choosing to focus on what God has done for good.

As an adult, I even write gratitude lists when I’m having a tough day and it puts things into perspective to reset my day with a new outlook. I do this by writing down everything I am grateful for in that moment. It can be simple things such as “sunshine” and “90s country music” or bigger things such as “my children and my husband who always know when to make me laugh.”

2. Short, Frequent Prayers

Having a background in elementary education, I learned to “meet children where they’re at.” This means that, in our home, we began with very simple prayers for our 2- and 3-year-old. Their attention spans are still short and therefore, so are our prayers. The prayers have grown longer and the children are learning traditional prayers, but we started very simple.

Being a mom (and parent in general) can be tough at times. Our children are 15 months apart and both are in the big-emotions and meltdown phase of their development. In such moments, short prayer has saved us.

Something I love to do in the car when these emotions come out is to pray for them. For example, they were fighting over what color flowers they saw out the window until both were sobbing over this. So I started to pray aloud. I prayed for each daughter and I prayed that God would help guide them through the day. Then I asked them who would they like to pray for next and before I knew it, the fighting had stopped. It was a simple action of using prayer to calm us all down. A little prayer can go a long way!

3. Family-Time Prayer

Praying together as a family is a big thing in our home. My husband leads us in prayer every evening before dinner. We make it such a habit that the few times we have been so busy in the hustle of getting dinner on the table, feeding the kids and getting them off to bed, our children have reminded us with the sweetest reminder: “We forgot to pray, Daddy!”

Modeling prayer and being consistent is so important. The children are watching you and even at a young age, they’re soaking it all up. Parents are their biggest teachers from an early age, and what better way to show them how important Jesus is than including the whole family in praying?

4. Catholic Literature

Reading to children is one of my favorite things in this world to do. It is such a beautiful moment and seeing their faces light up over a story is just so special.

So one of my biggest tips for practicing prayer with little ones is to fill your home with Catholic children’s books. My husband and I have read them three stories a night since they were born, and though they can’t read the words and understand their meanings, they’re looking at the pictures.

They each have a Bible in their rooms as well, and although they may not understand what we are reading yet, I know that consistency and being introduced at an early age will have an impact. This was a big inspiration behind my writing of the book Goodnight, Jesus. Even the smallest introduction to Jesus can make a big impact.

5. Modeling in Word and Action

Children learn by watching so we make sure to model our faith to them. We take them to church every Sunday, just like my parents took me. It was our priority for Sundays above everything else. Going to Mass, praying the Rosary and going to adoration are all ways to model faith in action — so always make God a priority in your home, even when it’s hard, because your children are watching.

If I could teach my children anything, I hope it’s that everything we have, the material and the intangible, is something we can thank God for. There was a time in my life when I was in a dark place, not practicing my faith, and going down a slippery slope. I look at my life now, reconnected with my faith and making prayer a daily (sometimes hourly) part of my life, and I know that it was God who pulled me off that slope. I just want everyone to have that same connection because it changed my life.

As my children start their relationship with Jesus and learn to lean on his love, I hope they have that same connection!