My youngest daughter is not quite three years old. Her attention span is somewhere between 5 seconds and non-existent. So whenever she must sit through a serious or solemn event (oh, for instance, let’s say… Mass) she can usually be found wallowing around on the floor, or being passed back and forth between my wife and I, or seeking some other form of entertainment in a book or with a pencil and paper or by making faces at the people behind us. An hour is a long time for a three-year-old to sit still, so we don’t expect much.
Family prayer is no different. Every evening we gather as a family and say a few prayers before the kids go to bed. Our two oldest children recite the prayers from memory and are fully engaged, mentally and spiritually (usually…let’s not kid ourselves). Our toddler however is rolling on the floor, attempting to stand on her head, making faces at everyone around her, and generally trying to get some kind of reaction from us or her siblings. We all do our best to ignore her antics until the final “Amen.”
Our other two kids went through the same phase at her age. As parents, we know that patience and persistence is the key. This too shall pass. As long as she sees “family prayer time” as a regular part of her daily routine, as long as we stick to it and model our own behavior for her to imitate, she will (eventually) learn to stop the antics and participate with the rest of us. She will learn the prayers on her own time. But if we push too hard she may push back and learn to resent her faith rather than embrace it. So, we practice our faith and wait for her to catch up. We wait for it to “click” as her own faith matures.
And you never know when that moment will be. It might happen right before your eyes, and even when you least expect it. It may even be happening as she’s doing back-flips during the Hail Mary. I learned that lesson during Lent this year…
As a part of our Lenten journey we decided as a family to add the traditional St. Michael Prayer to our daily prayers:
Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness
and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host –
by the Divine Power of God -
cast into hell, Satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world
seeking the ruin of souls.
After a few weeks of reading the prayer each night we soon learned it by heart and could recite it together without a printed copy in front of us…all of us, that is, except for our little “holy roller” who continued to flop on the floor and make googly eyes and dance to non-existent music while the rest of us prayed. Needless to say, there was no participation on her part.
So, fast-forward to Holy Week… On the afternoon of Palm Sunday I was looking through a religious catalogue advertising books and statues, rosaries and icons, and other such Catholic goods, when our littlest one came up to me and said, “What’s that?” pointing to an image of the crucifixion, “Is that Jesus?”
“Yep, that’s Jesus,” I said.
“He’s got boo-boos?” she asked pointing to Christ’s wounds.
“Yes, those are His boo-boos.”
“Bad guys do that?”
“Yes, that’s right, bad guys did that to Him,” I said. “And do you know who that is?” I asked pointing to Mary.
“That’s St. Mary,” she said. Then she saw an image of St. Michael casting Satan from heaven, and she asked, “Who’s that?”
“That is St. Michael the Archangel,” I explained.
“Oh…defend us in battle?” she replied.
[Wait! Hold on. What did she say? Is that the Saint Michael Prayer that she’s been ignoring for forty days of Lent? I tested her a little more.]
“That’s right! ‘…defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares…” I prompted her.
“…of the devil,” she finished.
We went back and forth for a couple more lines of the prayer as she filled in the blanks that I left with each pause, until finally she saw something shiny on the floor and was off again in her own little world before we could finish. But for one brief moment I saw a glimmer of hope that amidst all her rolling and tumbling and restless fits during family prayer, something was being absorbed by her little mind.
Teaching our kids the faith is not about dragging them where they don’t want to go, but rather showing the right direction and letting them find the way…even if it means turning a few somersaults along the way.