A blessing realigns our world with Heaven by acknowledging that all is gift. Catholic parents have traditionally blessed their children. The practice is rooted in Scripture. In the Old Testament, the elder Tobias blesses his son before a journey saying, “May you have a good journey, may God be with you in your way, and may His angel accompany you.” In Genesis, Noah blesses his sons Shem and Japheth (Gen. 9:26–27). Likewise, Isaac blesses his sons Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27, 28:1–4, and 49). Jesus also blesses children in the New Testament by “embracing them, and laying His hands upon them” (Mark 10:16).
Often what keeps parents from blessing their children is the fear that they will do it wrong, but a broad array of prayers or gestures, even wordless prayers of the heart, can be used. When I was a little girl my mother would tuck me in every night after reading a book and saying our prayers with the last line from the Madeleine books. She would say, “‘Good night little girl, thank the Lord, you are well, and now go to sleep,’ said Miss Clavel.” And I would reply, “And she turned out the light and closed the door and that’s all there is, there isn’t anymore.”
Bless your child before bed. It can be a simple as saying, “God bless you, sweet boy” or marking the child’s forehead with the sign of the cross, using your thumb. The words and the gesture can feel like a blanket, a soft covering before the child goes into the darkness just before sleep. Start the day with a blessing. The world can be unkind. A blessing reminds us that we do not go out into it alone. God goes with us.
As Catholics we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross many times at church, but this practice should also be kept in the home. Before Vatican II many families kept a holy water font in the house for this purpose.
Bless your child on his birthday or before the first day of school. Another good time to give a parental blessing is before travel. Some parents give their children a hug and a kiss before a trip, and then mark them with the sign of the cross, or simply wave goodbye saying, “Go with God.” My own parents always did both, and though there were times in adolescence when I found being physically blessed, unnecessary, or uncomfortable, especially when my friends were around, as a college student I came to expect my blessing, happily inclining my head to receive it, before jumping in my car and heading back to school.
Another time parents might want to bless their children is when they are sick or in the hospital or experiencing some kind of trial. They might place a hand on the child’s head or shoulder and pray for them from their heart in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These blessings leave an indelible mark on the child and should not cease when he or she is an adolescent. A parent might discreetly bless their teenager at home, before a trip, for example, without causing excessive embarrassment. And while in person blessings carry the greatest weight, do not hesitate to write, “God bless you” or “I’m praying for you” to your child in letters, emails, or texts.
A parental blessing is a simple but profound reminder to the child that he is loved, and that his true identity comes from God. It is like a shield. The act of blessing one’s child also reminds the parents of their awesome responsibility and allows them to pause for a moment and ask for God’s grace. When a child is blessed it helps her realize that she ought to respect her parents, because her parents, however imperfect, love her and seek goodness for her. Likewise, it reminds the parent of the child’s inherent dignity and individuality; she is a gift, not a possession.
When Pope Francis appeared publicly for the first time after his election, he asked the crowds to pray for him and for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and then led them in the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. These simple and familiar prayers are known to most Catholics and to many non-Catholics as well. Pope Francis invited us to join in simple prayers we know by heart. In so doing, he offers a model for prayer at home, and especially, prayer with children.
As St. Ambrose says, “You may not be rich; you may be unable to bequeath any great possessions to your children; but one thing you can give them [is] the heritage of your blessing. And it is better to be blessed than to be rich.”