When my oldest son was three, he had a special devotion to Our Lady of Breakfast, judging by his Hail Marys:
Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with Thee
Breakfast art Thou among women,
And breakfast is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
He was so sweet and earnest when he said it, I always wrestled with correcting him, or just letting the prayer self-correct as his understanding of the words deepened. Ultimately, I just let it go, and he now can say a Hail Mary with the best of them.
But it was the start of an anthropological project on my part, a concept that all parents understand. Living in such close proximity to tiny humans yields all sorts of glimpses into rich, exotic cultural practices, and the prayer life of children is no different.
Jesus tells us to let the little ones come to Him, and that we all must be as a little child to enter the Kingdom. So clearly it would be wise to observe the spirituality of kids. Luckily, I’ve got six observation subjects right under my own roof, though it’s sometimes difficult to tease meaning from their practices.
For example, my three year old spent a solid month of bedtime prayers begging to have me say “the King Kong prayer” with him. When I admitted I was unfamiliar with this prayer, he would cry. In an attempt to repair the relationship between observer and subject, I asked him to lead the prayer, and to teach it to me. Unfortunately, the three year old insisted he couldn’t remember the prayer, but was sure “Daddy knows it. Daddy taught it to me.”
Well, since Daddy doesn’t return home from work until after the three year old’s bedtime, it meant we had a problem. And when I later asked my husband about the King Kong prayer, he seemed equally as perplexed. Here was a great mystery of childhood devotion, and we couldn’t crack the code!
Until one weekend, after putting the kids to bed, my husband walked into the living room, laughing hysterically.
“I figured out what the King Kong prayer was,” he said to me. I dropped everything I was doing to listen. “It goes like this: ‘Dear God, please kick King Kong in the ding dong.”
My mouth fell open; I actually spluttered for a few moments. Finally regaining enough control over my speech, I choked out, “That’s the King Kong prayer? You taught that to them?” My husband held up his hands to ward off the oncoming fit of righteous fury. “No, I didn’t teach that to them. I have no idea where they came up with it. But that’s the King Kong prayer.”
I made sure the King Kong prayer was not put into regular bedtime rotation.
Whatever small prayer seeds my husband and I have planted in our children’s souls burst into bloom in unexpected, beautiful ways, King Kong prayers notwithstanding. My oldest child, 11 years old and already asking deep questions about the faith, paused in the kitchen the other night. She and her siblings were supposed to be cleaning up from the game we’d been playing, and I saw her stop, stare at the clock, and fold her hands in prayer. I saw her lips moving silently for a few moments, and then she went back to her chore. She didn’t see me watching her, and I didn’t want to intrude into her quiet moment with God, but it was something that was ephemeral and sublime all at once, played out in the middle of a messy kitchen.
This morning, my five-year old son asked me what the phrase, “when you sing, you pray twice” meant. We talked about how when we sing songs to God, we’re offering Him the prayer of the words and the prayer of the music. We talked about how you can turn anything you do into a prayer for God, if you offer it up to him. “Anything?” he said, wide eyed and legalistic in the face of the possibilities. I nodded.