Our Father Who Art in Stop Hitting Your Sister: praying with regular kids

If the figurine genre has taught us anything, it's that children love to kneel reverently and piously recite their prayers.
But if your children happen to not be figurines, maybe they sometimes complain about saying their prayers. Maybe sometimes prayer time turns into shove time or giggle time or nose-pick time. Sometimes you end up interrupting prayers to remind and lament and shout and put people in timeouts and you wonder if it's even worth it.
Hey . . . sounds like mailbag time! TWO for the price of one. The Question:
Hi Kendra, I love your blog and read every entry. Thanks for all the great advice. I'm writing because I have two children who often goof around during prayer. They might do elaborate hand gestures while making the sign of the cross, giggle and chortle, use funny voices and faces etc. this is mostly during bedtime prayer, and they can be quite hyper at that time of the evening. My five year old doesn't have this problem. The kids in question are ages 7 (girl) and 8 (a boy soon to be 9). I don't want to over react, as they are children, but I do want to address this. I would appreciate your advice. Thank you, Sam
The Answer:
Hey Sam,
We struggle with the same sorts of things here. It can be hard because you want prayer time to be this time of beauty and joy and serenity . . . not yelling and punishments. But, in my experience, kids don't naturally behave during prayer anymore than they naturally behave for anything else. They have to be taught.
We want our kids to enjoy prayer (or at least not dislike it), but also be reverent. We maintain age-appropriate expectations for behavior during prayers, just like anything else. We try to say a family rosary most nights, and they sometimes lose focus. Preschoolers are allowed to wander a bit, but we want out older kids to learn to participate. So, we give them a warning (or two) to knock off the silliness and say the prayers properly. Then, if they don't, they get to stand, or kneel, or some other less comfortable position. Also, if we're going to have dessert that night, we have it after the rosary, and anyone who doesn't behave, doesn't get any. If it were still a problem, I'd tie other punishments to it. Like, I'd move prayer up to right after dinner, and if you misbehave, you go straight to bed. Or no screens that evening or the next day.
Basically, I'd say, don't be afraid to calmly but firmly motivate your kids to do what you say. Once they get into the habit of being respectful during prayers, it's going to be much more enjoyable for everyone. And I think that makes it more likely that they'd keep it up long-term.
Good luck!
AND . . . The Question:
I've been reading your blog for a while now and wonder if you might have some advice. I was confirmed this past Easter. I promised that once that was all done, I would get my son who is almost 3 1/2 going to mass, etc. It is very important that I raise him Catholic. His father is not Catholic, but supportive (and I am praying for him). Anyway, here's the question . . . well two maybe. First, we have been praying at night before my son goes to bed. The first few times he was into it, but now says he doesn't want to do it. I can normally get him to participate, but I don't want to force him and punish him if he doesn't say them. Do you have any suggestions?
Secondly, I struggle with him at Mass. The people around me last night were so kind and said they'd been there too . . . but I get so frustrated every time, which I try not to show him. For a few minutes, I considered just not taking him until he's older, but I know that's not the answer. We sit right up front as well . . . and the priest knows his name :) I keep praying, but as a mother, do you have any suggestions? I feel like I am the only one going through this . . . all the other kids seem to be sitting so nicely . . . and starting at my kid who wants to climb all over the place. -Julie
The Answer: Thanks Julie, and welcome to the Church! It's wonderful that you are sharing your faith with your son. It's hard, especially on your own, but I agree with you that it's important. My mom brought my sister and I to Mass while my dad stayed home and worked in the garage my whole childhood. We gave her a ton if grief over it, but as an adult I'm so grateful and impressed that she did. And my dad eventually did convert when I was in college and now I can hardly remember when Mass wasn't something we shared as a whole family. Hopefully, your road won't be quite as long, but keep at it either way!
And as for your son, I have been there. My oldest was really, really hard for me to deal with in Mass. Nightly prayers were an issue too. I think we all, as moms and Catholics, think that somehow our children should desire things like Mass and prayers. We want them to pray out of love for God and it feels wrong to "force" them to do it. The problem is, that we are all fallen creatures, even our beautiful children, and we don't naturally desire what's good for us. Behaving properly for Mass and prayers isn't a religion issue, it's just a general behavior and obedience issue. He needs to say his prayers at night because you said so, not because he wants to. His prayer life and his love for God can only develop if he does it first out of obedience. Then he will grow to doing it out of love. The same goes for Mass. He needs to sit still in Mass not because he recognizes the majesty of the Mass or because he loves Jesus. He needs to sit still in Mass because you told him too, just like he'd have to behave in a doctor's waiting room, or sit still on a plane. If he can follow your directions at home in other things that he doesn't particularly feel like doing, trying a food he doesn't like, or cleaning up his toys, or going to bed when he's told, then all you need to do is transfer that behavior to prayer time too. Say, "We're going to say our prayers to Jesus now. We're going to kneel here and look at Jesus on the cross and say one Our Father, then you can pick a saint and we'll ask that saint to pray for us. If you do a good job we'll have a story before bed, if not, you'll go straight to bed with no story." Then just follow through. That's how WE do nightly prayers, but obviously you should substitute whatever you prefer for prayer time. If you have bigger behavior issues and he doesn't listen to you on those other issues, then I don't think prayers is the place to focus your efforts first. I have a post called Always Mean What You Say. If you're starting from scratch with a 3.5 year old, I'd start there. Just being calm but firm, having reasonable expectations, giving clear explanations of what is expected and what the reasonable consequence will be, then always, always, always following through.
I'd focus my efforts first on just teaching him that I mean what I say on things like toys and hitting and bedtime and food, and just set a good example of saying bedtime prayers out loud, myself, the way I'd like him to eventually do it. Then after a couple weeks of requiring good behavior in other areas, he'd be ready for you to require him to say prayers. The key is just to NOT say that he has to do it, until you're willing to mean it and set consequences and follow through. Same with Mass. Can he behave in other places where he has to sit still? Great, then just set consequences (and rewards! Donuts are a big motivator!) and mean it. Tell him what you expect: quiet voice, stay in the pew, no banging is a good place to start. Give him a consequence, no screens the rest of the day or week or something, and a reward, like a dounut, to motivate him. Then be really, really, really consistent. If he goes out of the pew, he REALLY doesn't get the dounut or the screens. And every time he asks, you remind him, "It would be fun to watch a show, but I'm sorry, you went out of the pew, so we can't. I'm sure you'll be able to remember next week!" Keep praying, by all means, it worked for St. Monica. But I think in this situation, your prayer will be most effective when combined with solid parenting techniques. Good luck! Related reading . . .

From the Trenches: Mass Survival Strategies That Work for Us

So, Your Toddler is Terrible in Mass . . .

Peace Be With You, Dinosaur: Age Appropriate Goals for Mass Behavior

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith. If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog. P.S. Happy Marine Corps Birthday to the husband, and all the other Marines* out there! In honor of today, through Veteran's Day tomorrow, the new military branch 8x10 St. Michael Prayer printables are on sale in the shop for only $2, and two-sided printable holy cards are only $5!
Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Police are available. No code necessary. They'll go back up to full price on Thursday! *once a Marine, always a Marine Oh, and here is Bobby, reciting the First Marine Corps Birthday Message for our homeschool Great Speeches Pageant last year. OORAH!