Making Children Pray

In the “Making Poor People Pray” post, several readers wondered whether parents risk making their children feel resentful and humiliated by making them join in family prayers.

Assuming that the parents aren’t pitted against each other, and assuming the family is reasonably emotionally healthy (neither “God told me to whup you black and blue to teach you his love” nor “God wants you to be happy, so here’s a co-ed sleepover for your sweet 16”), then most children will not perceive that they are being “forced” to pray, even when it is mandatory: As one reader said, “praying was just something my family did. It was expected, but didn’t feel more forced than anything else we ‘just did.’”

Such an attitude shows both a healthy family life and a healthy faith. The commonplace nature of family religious life is a lesson in itself, one which will stay with children in the best way: We are trying to train our children, for instance, to feel weird if they eat without saying grace. And so our younger kids (starting at about age 4) are explicitly required to say prayers with us, even if they’re grumpy or bored. They shouldn’t be content with habit as adults, but habit is a good place to start.

But what about older children? What to do when your minor child, who is expected to follow all the secular rules of the family, does not want to participate in the Faith?

When I was a teenager, I didn’t want to go to daily Mass, so I stayed home and got dinner started instead. I was, however, required to go to Sunday Mass. I wasn’t required to say the responses or participate; I was, however, required to act respectfully. My parents were very unhappy about my glowering passive resistance (and so was I), but I guess they realized that I needed both time to work out my problems, and a stable structure to return to when I was ready. They could require a certain amount of conformity, and could continue training certain habits; but they didn’t want to put me in a position of saying or doing things that I didn’t mean. That could have led to either a murderous resentment of them and God, or to blasphemy (in the form of, for instance, an unworthy reception of the Eucharist).

As children grow more independent, it’s normal for them to spend less time at home. The danger, however, comes if an older child only spends time with the family during mandatory spiritual activities, like evening prayers or Sunday Mass. Teenagers can be more irrational and self-centered in their thinking than younger children, and if prayer time, family time, and mandatory activities are all part of one experience, the immature teenager may conclude that both religion and family life are all about repression, itchy clothes, and misery (even if the rest of the family is joyful in its faith).  And so having a close relationship in the first place is essential to achieving the balance between respecting your child and teaching him good habits

Maybe that’s what felt so wrong with the spiritual exercise I complained about in my last post: It had no context. The thanksgiving prayer was neither part of a routine, nor part of a true relationship, other than the relationship between the powerful and the needy—and so it was objectionable, humiliating, counterproductive.

But, as several readers pointed out, it’s quite another thing, and quite lovely, when an order of sisters says grace before sharing a meal with the hungry: They may be strangers, but it’s both part of a routine, and part of an appropriate, respectful relationship.

Now, in a parent-child relationship, the parent has authority, and the child does not. But in order for the child to learn more than the rubrics and regulations—in order for the child to learn about love, which is your goal as a catechizing parent—there must be a loving relationship in place. And relationships are only built through time spent together.

Our oldest is only 13, so I don’t have advice for how to help your kids develop a lasting faith; but we do have a plan: (1) to make sure that the entire family spends time together regularly, both for more serious obligations and for fun, and (2) to make sure that my husband and I spend some time hanging around with our older kids so that, if thorny issues do turn up, we will have an established relationship to build on. If my kids aren’t in the habit of talking to us about little stuff, they sure as heck aren’t going to turn to us when something is really wrong.

So, parents of older kids, what do you think? What advice can you offer for teaching the faith in a way that is mandatory without being repressive?