“She doesn’t want to pray the rosary with the rest of us. I’m not sure what to do,” a friend recently told me. She expressed a concern that I’ve heard from a lot of parents – how do I get my kids to pray the rosary? What do I do if it’s a fight? What if they can’t focus? What if they keep interrupting the prayers? What if they do all of this and they aren’t a little kid anymore?
Before we solve any of these problems, though, we have to consider two things. First, what is our goal in catechizing our children and helping them develop a devotional life? Secondly, what is the theology behind the rosary and Marian devotion, and how can we put that into practice in our families?
Teaching Our Children vs. Forming Disciples
My educational and ministerial background is in catechesis, and something I have seen parents (and catechists!) consistently wrestle with is the problem of how to teach kids the faith, while also making them want to learn about the faith.
I think that there is a role for theological studies. For older students, they may be ready to pursue studying the faith in a more academic way. (As someone with a graduate degree in theology, I wholeheartedly support the academic study of the “queen of the sciences.”) However, before that, teachers and catechists should be less concerned with finding the right textbooks and activities, and more concerned with forming disciples. A disciple is a student, indeed, but a disciple is a student whose whole way of life is informed by the teacher. When we teach our children about the faith, we are not supposed to be the “teacher” they follow. We are meant to point them to the real Teacher – Christ.
In this sense, I truly believe that for catechesis to be more successful, we need a fundamental shift in the way that we do things. Catechesis is not just learning about Christ. It is being drawn into relationship with Him.
With this emphasis on relationship in catechesis, the way you teach children about the faith will necessarily change. For example, the teaching on the Eucharist is not just a memorizing of facts or rituals, “The bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, and this is how you receive it.” Rather, when rooted in relationship, how you present this doctrine becomes richer, “So that He could be with us always, Jesus gave us the gift of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Just think – God who is greater and bigger than we could ever imagine, made Himself little and tiny in a host, waiting in the tabernacle for you. He doesn’t just want you to receive him, He wants you to be in union with Him – held and loved by Him, resting beside your heart, every time you receive Him.”
Do you see the difference? The second way of catechizing presents the fullness of our Church’s teaching, while also placing it in a context that shows a child why this is important to their life.
Now let’s look at how this applies to the rosary.
Mary and a Mother’s Embrace
In recent years, Catholic children’s books, toys, and apps have exploded. When my first was born over a decade ago, I remember making little toys and tools to teach her about the faith. Now, there is no need – many are readily available!
Yet, one thing that no book or toy or app can convey is the lived experience of relationship with another. For a child to understand and believe in the love of God the Father for them, it helps to have the lived experience of a human father loving them, caring for them, and keeping them safe.
Likewise, although Marian devotion is possible without a child having a healthy mother in his or her life (which is, sadly, the reality for some children), Marian devotion is far easier to cultivate if a child has a lived experience of having a mother love them, hold them, and present and listening to them (and their many requests and questions!). The very first step in promoting Marian devotion in a child is to support mothers in living out their vocation. A healthy mother teaching a child about love in a way no one else can (although single fathers can and do sometimes fill some of that role when the mother is not alive or present) is a powerful tool in cultivating Marian devotion.
My second born daughter was very colicky as a baby. She cried a lot, because she was so uncomfortable, and she just wanted me. I was her favorite person, for years, and I loved her (and still do). She is my child most devoted to Mary. (We jokingly call her the “Mary Evangelist” because for many years she was more obsessed with Mary than she was with Jesus. Although, as my spiritual director reminds me, you can never love Mary too much, because you can never love her more than Jesus did!) For her, the idea of being a beloved baby daughter to a mother was very familiar. The idea of safely resting in a mother’s arms is rooted in her lived reality.
However, she is also my child most resistant to actually praying the rosary. Am I worried? No. She loves Mary, and she will eventually pray the rosary. In the meantime, I encourage her to just listen to us praying the rosary, and to imagine being held in Mary’s arms while we pray – a sleeping child in the Blessed Mother’s arms, doing nothing other than allowing her mother to love her and hold her.
This is, of course, the reality for us, too. Praying the rosary is being held by Mary.
In the long run, this perspective will encourage my daughter (and your children, too!) to grow deeper in their desire for relationship with God, Mary, and the saints. A child will naturally gravitate to a place where they are loved and safe.
If you teach your children about the truths of the faith, if you practice your faith and pray as a family – your kids will learn what they need to learn. Rather than stress about making sure they memorize everything they need to memorize, focus on making their experience of faith one in which they can rest and be loved by God. Children need to feel safe, need to feel loved, and need to feel secure. It is how they form healthy attachments. And, after all – isn’t a deep, lasting attachment to God what we desire the most for them?