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Sunday 6 September 2020

How to Teach Children to Love to Pray


Praying to Allah is the second most important act of worship for Muslims (the first being the declaration of  faith). Since it is so important, we must be mindful that we are doing it properly and that we instill it in our children to want and love to pray to Allah. 

How do we do that? Most parents of pre-adolescents and adolescents leave it too late when they find their child dragging their feet, or flat out refuse to pray or does it with a lot of nagging on the parent's side and a lot of complaints from their kids. This is not what we want. We want our kids to self-regulate and be able to pray when it's time without our prompting. We want our kids to look forward to praying. We want our kids to love praying to Allah.

Form a Connection with Allah

The secret, as with everything to do with children, is to start out early when they are young. As soon as your child is born, help them form the connection with Allah. Babies love listening to their mother's voice so talk about Allah. Talk about Allah's Greatness and blessings. When you feed your baby, talk about the blessing of having milk to nourish him and grow. As you massage your baby, talk about how great Allah is to create her perfect body. As you bathe your baby, talk about the blessing of water to clean with. Your baby might not understand everything you say but he is listening and this is how babies learn language and eventually, learn the meanings to words.

If your child is older and hasn't formed a connection with Allah yet then it's never too late to start. Begin by repeating phrases such as "You're so blessed by Allah" and "Allah loves you" at appropriate times. When you constantly do this, these phrases will gradually play themselves inside your child's head and they will eventually say them in their heads. These phrases are called positive affirmations and the process is called self-talk. When they say something often enough then it becomes their thought and belief. 

Instill Awe, Wonder and Gratitude

As your child grows from infancy to toddlerhood then beyond, she'll become more aware of her surroundings. So talk about it - talk about how Allah gave us the warm sunshine, how Allah created the flowers and animals. Point out Allah's Greatness and blessings through His creations. Build a sense of awe, wonder and gratitude in your child for Allah.

For older children start by noticing how some of Allah's blessings are affecting your older child such as "What a blessing it is that Allah gave us a sunny day today so you can play soccer with your friends" or "It never ceases to amaze me how Allah gave you such great thinking skills to solve that problem". Let them hear how you think and feel about Allah's Greatness and blessings on you. Say out loud instead of in your head, "Oh how blessed I am by finishing this work, Alhamdulillah". 

Whether your children are young or old, get them to practice gratitude. This is part of connecting to Allah. The more a person feels awe and grateful to Allah then the more likely the person will want to do things that are pleasing to Allah. 

A gratitude practice is to ask your children what's one thing they're grateful to Allah for in the morning, during dinner time or at bedtime. Each person take turns saying and feeling gratitude. Another gratitude practice is to journal it. Write down something to be grateful for in a journal every morning or every night time. Read more on how to practice gratitude and ways to practice gratitude.

Pray Together

After you've had your baby and she's beginning to stay awake and alert more and it's time to pray, then go pray. Take your baby with you. Most parents would wait until their baby has fallen asleep again. Don't. Pray while holding your baby as this is permissible. Narrated by Abu Qatadah as saying: "The Prophet came out towards us, while carrying Umamah, the daughter of Abi Al-As (his granddaughter) over his shoulder. He prayed, and when he wanted to bow, he put her down, and when he stood up, he lifted her up" (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).

During toddlerhood and the preschool years, when it's time to pray announce it to them and encourage them to come with you to pray together. Most children at this age are usually clinging to their parents so they'll follow parents wherever they go. If they're busy playing then announce 10 minutes ahead of time that it's nearly time to pray and to prepare to stop. Announce again at 5 minutes then 1 minute. This will give children plenty of time to transition. 

At this stage they don't need to be praying the full prayer. As long as they start it with you or are in the room with you during the time you pray then that's good enough. The aim here is to have them observe you praying daily and be involved a little bit. When your husband is at home and you're praying together as a family then it makes children want to pray too as everyone is doing it and they'll feel more united as a family.

By 7 years of age, encourage them to complete the full prayer with you and family. By 10 years of age, insist that they do the full prayers together. To encourage them to do so, have some tracking system such as a chart or prayer journal or log book

Take Kids to the Masjid

Depending on your child, between the toddlerhood and the preschool years your husband can start taking your child to the masjid whenever he goes to pray (this is during Covid-free times). It it preferred that men pray at the masjid for Fajr and Isha as the prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said “Whoever prays Isha in congregation, it is as if he prayed half the night, and whoever prays Fajr in congregation, it is as if he prayed the whole night”. (Reported in Muslim). So take your child for Isha as well as for Friday jumah (once it's Covid-free). 

By being in the masjid, praying and observing, your child will begin to become attached to the mosque, to learn the etiquette of the mosque and it becomes normalised that this is what Muslims do.

Developmentally Appropriate Lessons

Narrated Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-'As: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: "Command your children to pray when they become seven years old, and beat them for it (prayer) when they become ten years old; and arrange their beds (to sleep) separately." (Sunan Abi Dawud). 

Before children reach the age of discernment of 7 years then whatever you teach them it should be in a playful way. Make it light, fun and use lots of encouragement but do not sit them down and formally drill it into them. If they have no inclination for it then this is the quickest way to make them detest it. Instead play a game: "I wonder what position comes after this (demonstrate a prayer position eg ruku)" then have children decide if it's sujud or standing up.

If you've been praying together as a family since they're young then your children would have memorised the correct prayer sequence by imitating you. By 5 or 6 years of age, you can begin to fix any incorrect positions such as placing elbow on the floor in sujud by gently lifting the elbows and saying "Look mummy/daddy's elbows are off the floor." You can also start to teach what to say in each prayer position. Remember to make it playful.

By 7 years of age if your children have not yet memorised how to pray or what to recite then sit them down and formally teach. Also have them pray all the prayers with you. At this age, children's thinking skills and understanding have developed so you can start to teach them the reasons why they need to pray. 

But keep in mind that their logical reasoning is based on concrete experiences rather than abstract. You can tell your 7 to 11 year olds that they need to pray to thank Allah for His blessings but if they don't feel that gratitude because it's not concrete for them then it won't do anything. To make it more concrete for your children, get them to experience that gratitude by feeling it. Have them keep a gratitude journal or talk about it (see section above on 'Instilling Awe, Wonder and Gratitude'). Get your children to use their 5 senses to experience it. Ask them to see the blessing, to hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it. 

As for your teenager who can think logically in abstract ways, you can talk about the spiritual aspects of praying. For example, how Allah created us to worship Him and part of that worship is to pray 5 times a day.

As you can see, there are different approaches to teaching a 3 year old, a 5 year old or a 7 year old and a 12 year old about praying. It depends on their cognitive development (for more on how children develop get my co-authored book 'Understand Your Child's Development: For the Muslim Parent').

Heart, Body and Mind

To get your children to love praying, they've got to put their heart, body and mind into it. 

The heart for praying is developed through connection to Allah during all stages but especially in the early years as children's nature are pure and still on the fitra. Abu Huraira reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “No child is born except upon his true nature (fitra)..." (Al Bukhari and Muslim). This is when you teach them to love Allah and be grateful to Him. 

The body for praying is developed through habitually doing it and also by observing others pray. This starts in the early years and continues into the primary years where the body learns the different prayer positions and movements. Later on, the body needs to learn to wake up in the early hours before dawn to pray the Fajr prayer. It needs to be disciplined to pray all of the prayers.

The mind for praying is developed through understanding the reasons for praying. This starts later in the primary years and continues into adolescence.

When your children have their heart, body and mind on praying then you have done a great job in teaching them to love to pray, insha Allah.

Read about the Frequently Asked Questions about children and salah.
Read about how the salah can help with childhood anxiety.