The practice of prayer is a difficult challenge for most adults, let alone children. It has been my experience, however, that if the children are brought up having been exposed to the idea of contemplation, and have been actively encouraged to practice it, they quickly develop an active prayer life and are better able to pray as adults. Alongside fasting and giving alms, we are encouraged to deepen our prayer-life during the Great Fast. Here are some tips for doing this for the children in your home.
Encourage a prayerful atmosphere in the home
One of the things my children's friends often remark when the visit our home is that it is usually much quieter than they expected for a household of seven people. I have to giggle at that, but it really is true. I try to keep a peaceful and reflective atmosphere as much as I can by keeping the television or radio off most of the time. Peace and quiet makes it much easier to keep a reflective attitude throughout the day that just lends itself willingly to prayer. Not that we don't listen to the television or radio, play the piano, or even sing at a moment's notice once in a while! We do! Its just kept to the proper time and place so as not to become a distraction.
Set up a family icon corner
It is a longstanding tradition among our people to have a miniature altar within our domestic churches at which the family can gather for prayer, or to which individual members can retreat. This can be as simple or elaborate as you like. It may revolve around icons of Christ (on the right) and His Blessed Mother (on the left) as patterned after the Iconostasis in the church. It may include such items as a crucifix, holy water, a shelf for prayer books, blessed candles, a jar for alms, hooks for chotki and rosaries, and a place to burn incense. We have always had one of these in our home. In fact, one of my most treasured memories is of my children lining up along the railing of the upstairs balcony which overlooks our foyer, where we have our family icon corner, each evening to say our prayers before bed.
Some families have also set up icon corners in each child’s bedroom where they can go any time of day or night to better focus on prayer. They may opt to install a corner shelf on which they can place the icon of the child’s patron saint, holy water that they are free to use whenever they wish, their own prayer beads and perhaps even a little battery operated (safe) candle which can even be used as a night light. Another idea may be to dedicate a closet as a personal prayer chapel. This can either be done for the family, or for each child. A small corner of a closet is the perfect place for a little one to go to be alone with Jesus! They may have icons on the wall of the interior of the closet, at their height, with perhaps a small shelf to hold beads and battery operated candles, and a basket of their favorite children’s bible story books or prayer books! A pillow and blanket will help make it a favorite and cozy place to snuggle up with Jesus and just be. Encourage your children to take the time to be alone in prayer, to look at Jesus’ eyes and speak to Him from their little hearts and He will take care of the rest.
Be what you want them to become
One of the most important things you can do for your child's spiritual life is to let them see you pray. When our youngest, twin girls, were about 18 months old, I felt the desire to become an oblate at the local Byzantine monastery. As I began to attend the monthly meetings and receive instruction I learned that I was expected to say both Matins and Vespers daily and keep at least 30 minutes daily in contemplative prayer...as the mom of five children under 10 years of age, this was no easy task, even if I do like to pray! I began by carving out a bit of time at around 10 am to say Matins. I got the little ones dressed, fed, and occupied with a toy or game and then would sneak off to the living room to open my book and begin. One by one, the children would quietly come into the room and stare. I would put up a finger to let them know that I was speaking to God. They knew this signal well, and understood that they should wait respectfully for me to acknowledge them and then then they could ask whatever question they had. Usually they had no question, just curiosity. They just wanted to curl up next to me while I prayed. It literally stunned me that they were so good! Often they would ask to assist me by saying things like "Amen", or "Lord, have mercy" at the appropriate time. I marveled at how respectful and happy they were to pray with me! Even the babies grew so quiet and peaceful then. Its as if they knew we were all in the presence of God! Soon afterward I began to notice them looking through their little picture-bible story books on their own, in the same spot on the couch, "saying their prayers" during the day. It is so good to let them know HOW to joyfully immerse themselves in prayer, to let them feel the presence of God and know His love for us, and actively witness our love for Him, in our own homes, while they are still small. It sets the tone and paves the way for the cultivation of an entire lifetime of prayer in their own hearts, and in the hearts of future generations of Christians to come.