Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Teaching your children to pray the Rosary is a gift that returns innumerable blessings. The simplicity of the prayer affords quick memorization and repetition — perfect for children. Similarly, that same simplicity makes for a prayer that can be repeated while focusing on contemplative matters: great for spiritual maturity as we grow. This is why the Rosary is an effective prayer for every age. But the prayer must also be taught. Deciding how you will teach the Rosary to your children requires a sensible evaluation. I have some suggestions based on personal experience, and the experience of my friends.
Yes, your sweet baby and early toddler can begin to learn the Rosary from infancy! Sts. Philip Neri and Aloysius Gonzaga’s biographers tell how their mothers would repeat the Rosary while rocking their sweet babies to sleep. In the case of Philip Neri, Antonio Gallonio says that his mother’s repetition of the Holy Family’s names — “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” — caused the first words from his mouth to be those names of the Holy Family. I can say that, without comparing myself to the saint, my current youngest and fourth-born child did in fact make the words and names “God,” “Jesus,” “Mary,” and most recently “Joseph,” before she was 18 months old.
You don’t have to bank on that, but repeating holy words, including prayers, in your baby’s ears will certainly help make the Rosary a familiar and comforting prayer in future years.
Another important suggestion is the use of actual rosaries: as often as you can, let your child become comfortable handling the beads, looking at, and kissing the crucifix. Our children love the Chews Life rosaries. They’re irresistible and almost impossible to break. On that note, just be sure that you monitor your child if they are handling a real beaded rosary — choking hazards should be avoided.
They call them “terrible twos” but I will say that all of my kids started their frustrations at 3 years old. Despite their inability to focus, unwillingness to sit still, and lack of interest in much else other than their toys or TV shows, they are watching and they are learning quicker than we can realize. Having kids who have passed through this age group and having tried nearly every method of parenting to help them learn to pray, I will say that the biggest asset to their learning was my patience. I could almost count the amount of steps backward we would have paced if I lost my cool or bought into their false sobs. Ages 3-5 enjoy a huge amount of growth and development, but I think it’s safe to say that parents must set quality expectations that may be unseen for this whole period.
My biggest tip, aside from patience, is to use imagery. Put a small saint card in their hands, or again, an actual rosary. At this age, kids want to hold what their parents (or older siblings) are holding. So let them.
There’s a tough turn here for the parent and it’s because the kids are becoming more aware of their freedom, their time and their possessions. As your child matures, your level of patience and the way you handle him must mature too. Of course, keep the family prayer time and show your kids that you enjoy it and make it a priority — kids at this age are desperate for consistent leadership. But there are rules for the parent, too. Do not, under any circumstance, use prayer time as a negotiation tool. Do not quid pro quo prayer time and good behavior in prayer for movies, popcorn or video games. Prayer time is our obligation, not a poker chip. Kids will buy into this system.
At this age, it’s not just about the rules — your child also needs quality communication. So, take time to also talk about prayer and the Rosary — why we do it and how we do it. Over and over, talk with them about what to pray about. In this age range the kids will make their first confession and that means they must have the training to make a solid examination of conscience. The Rosary can be a good opportunity for this. Be sure they know that this aspect of their prayer life is very private, and you’re not there to poke around or make them feel bad.
Somewhere after age 10, perhaps even before, it’s a good idea to begin to arm your child with two things — the mysteries, and a basic defense of the Rosary. The mysteries of Christ are a perfect fit for a child climbing into pre-teen and teen years. They can easily understand their reflective use, and can never outgrow their importance in spiritual contemplations. But on the other side of their spiritual toolkit, they’ll benefit from good apologetics. Cover topics like Marian devotion, intercession of the saints, the effectiveness of prayer and the history of the devotion. They’re good for when there are moment of doubt or questions from others, but most of all they contribute to a wholesome appreciation for the Rosary. And that’s something most adults don’t even have.
Whatever you do, be sure to remain patient, authentic and informative when praying the Rosary with your child.