Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house,, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut 6:4-7)
My daughter asked the question when she was about five, quite suddenly, in the midst of a quiet day together. "Mommy, do we take our voices to heaven?" I laughed and said, "Great question! I don't know if we'll need our voices in heaven. But I wouldn't be surprised."
Young children have great purity and innocence. They are particularly open to prayer and contemplation of God and His kingdom, so it's important to weave an awareness of God throughout our time with them.
For years, my days with my daughter have begun with children's Bible stories, a morning offering, a guardian angel prayer. Meals at home and in public are preceded by the saying of grace. Nighttime prayers with lots of cuddles and affection punctuate a day which may have included a quick weekday Mass, a saint video, or an impromptu discussion of things eternal.
I love talking with other moms about the cultivation of prayer in the lives of children. I remember my friend Stefanie bubbling over with happiness one snowy day because her young son, in the midst of helping to shovel the driveway, had paused at the sound of a siren to say, "God bless the ambulance drivers and the sick person."
My friend Tracey, who uses a similar ritual with her children, told me that kids relate to prayers like this because they involve something tangible. While it's important to teach them formal prayers and the dogmas of faith, children tend to glaze over if the discussion is too conceptual. But when an ambulance passes her house and they all pause to say a Hail Mary or a Glory Be, the simple mechanical call of a siren brings the need for prayer right into the moment.
Our girl-denigrating culture provides opportunities, too. Sometimes, while driving through their town, Tracey's children will remark on the sight of a girl dressed immodestly. Since they have been taught that we have inherent dignity as children of God, they respond to the grating dissonance of trashy clothing and exposed flesh. But rather than mutter something judgmental, their mother lovingly draws them into a sympathetic prayer for the girl on the street.
She says, "When children can see the tangible good of their prayers, they comprehend the purpose and meaning of prayer right away. We are in a microwave culture. They want to see it all up front. If they say, 'Look at that girl!' I immediately say, 'Let's say a Hail Mary for her. Maybe she was never taught that it wasn't appropriate to dress that way.' And they're willing to do it to help her."
This awareness has grown in her children because Tracey seizes teachable moments and creates many of her own. Young children are highly visual, she points out. So sometimes she'll sit down at the table with paper and brightly-colored crayons and start drawing something about God. The children get excited and gather around, crying out to one another, "Mommy's drawing something!" She explains as she draws, creating the images as they look excitedly on. "I find it better when you draw it while they're watching," she says.
Using stick figures and simple shapes, one such drawing shows a bright, cloudy heaven, a charming earthly scene, a blue swimming pool "purgatory" with the Blessed Mother perched on the Lifeguard chair, and the flames of hell below. On earth, a small child has fallen and blood runs from her knee. But she has offered this suffering for the souls in purgatory, so the drops are turning into little red hearts that Our Lady catches in her loving hands. She touches them to the Crucifix to join them to the Cross of Christ, and then places them on a soul in the "pool," who then rises, is cloaked in a white robe and ascends to heaven. That soul then prays for the girl on earth until she enters heaven, signified by little blue hearts coming down from the clouds.
It's more than altruism that makes these images stick. Kids, Tracey says, also need to know that they receive a benefit themselves. In her little crayon work of art, the Blessed Mother finally drops the little hearts into a treasure chest with the child's name on it, and stores her works of mercy as heavenly treasure. "That's when you share the scripture with them," she says.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt 6:19-21)