Prayer and young children

Kairos, Volume 24 Issue 12

Dr Gerard O'Shea

EARLY in the 20th century, the great Italian educator, Maria Montessori, began a new way of thinking about education. Instead of making up clever theories, she thought it would be better to observe children very closely to see if she could work out how they could learn best.

One aspect of her observations, however, does not receive much attention from contemporary educationalists. Montessori noticed something that many attentive parents and teachers of early childhood have seen as well. She claimed that children from the ages of three to six years seemed to be in a natural ‘sensitive period’ for religious faith. In other words, just as children of this age have an extraordinary capacity for learning a language, so too do they have a deep interest in the concrete aspects of religion.

The way these insights have been adapted by Sofia Cavalletti and those who promote the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has been presented several times in Kairos over the past few years. But how does this apply to helping young children to pray? Is there some simple key for helping parents and teachers in developing this aspect of the child’s relationship with God?

It is obvious to those who deal with young children that their primary focus is on individual things and people in the real world around them. They are fascinated with all of creation and are capable of taking in a vast amount through their senses. Young children want to see, touch, hear, smell and even taste all they see around them. According to Cavalletti, all of this interest in the real world has an effect on them, as well as an important purpose. It brings forth a kind of wonder, a joy and serenity that is hard to explain, but observers of young children have seen it on their faces many times.

Adults can feel this way too, but we are less likely to be attracted to simple things like a snail crossing the path or a spider spinning its web. To feel this way, adults would probably need to be standing in a place like a viewing platform looking towards the Twelve Apostles standing majestically amid the crashing waves of Bass Strait at sunset.

This wonder, claims Cavalletti, is God’s natural way of drawing children to himself. They are meant to perceive the hand of God in the beautiful works of his creation. Wonder is drawn forth from them when they ‘attentively gaze at reality’. But what does this have to do with encouraging young children to pray? It is precisely this attentive gaze at reality, this focus on what is real, that is the starting point for the child’s prayer—something that children enter into with natural ease.

For some years, I struggled with helping my own children to begin their life of prayer. I recall being very earnest about this and trying to teach them to repeat prayers after me. I hope that this effort was not wasted and I like to believe that God made up for my own deficiencies, but there was a much better way waiting for me, and I regret that I only discovered Cavalletti’s insights later in life.

It is now one of my great joys to go into prep classrooms early in the year and see how easy it is to get them to pray. It consists of one simple question: ‘What would you like to thank God for?’ This simple question unlocks a floodgate! For much of their young lives, they have been looking and wondering about the wonderful things God has made, and they are more than ready to give thanks.

Once the process starts, it is difficult to stop. The starting point for prayer is in fact the gratitude they feel for being in a beautiful world. Once this process starts, the relationship of prayer is under way. By natural degrees, it will lead further—the God who is thanked can also be praised, then asked for other good things and so forth.

It seems to me that this is also the starting point for adults who find the relationship of prayer to be difficult and dry. Perhaps we also need to learn that the relationship we have with God starts with an act of gratitude for what we have. This is certainly something that children have taught me, and is something for which I continue to be grateful.

Dr Gerard O’Shea is senior lecturer in religious education at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne and has worked with children for many years as a teacher, principal and more recently as a catechist with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Victoria.