I have a sweet friend who says that she would rather run around outside naked than pray in a group outloud. She is that fearful. We actually forgot about her little phobia after a while and accidentally put her in a position to pray. Needless to say, she kept her clothes on , but you could hear the quiver in her voice.
It was beautiful.
Praying is not something that one day we suddenly are able to do. Like the disciples, we need to be taught, and it takes practice.
Over the course of these last few weeks, people have asked how they can best teach their own children to pray. The first important thing that needs to be understood, is that learning to pray is developmental. Just like walking, reading, writing, or any other growing process, there is a progression. We don’t expect our two year olds to start writing Shakespeare without first learning to hold a pencil. In the same way, we don’t expect our two year olds (or even a spiritually young believer) to pray through abstract character qualities or the ACTS acronym for prayer. However, our children can and should be taught. When we are intentional in this, we can lead them (and others) to grow their own beautiful prayer life.
Here are some basic thoughts as to how:
Start early, start now. It is never to early or too late to begin teaching a life of prayer. The tender words of a mother over her newborn baby are absorbed into their spiritual DNA. Helping a child to fold their tiny hands in prayer at a high chair sets the foundation for life long habits. Spiritual vocabulary is learned when an 18-month old says simple one or two word prayers. Over 85% of a child’s brain is developed by age 5 and the capacity for spiritual conversation is set in place.
Be the example. As in all of life, children learn what is caught more than what is taught. As you lead in meal and bed time prayers, they come to accept this practice as a way of life. When they see you praying in your special spot, they take notice. Make your internal dialogue throughout the day external so that your children can have a model for what a relationship with God looks like. I am often saying aloud, “Thank you God for this beautiful day”, or “Will you help us find just the perfect gift for this person?” or “I am sorry, Lord, for losing my temper”. Whether in the car, at the store, or in our home, my children hear our prayers and are learning from them.
Pray for them to grow in prayer. Perhaps this is an obvious one, but how many of us remember to pray for our children’s prayer life? Ask God to teach them to pray in their spirit. Ask Him to speak to your children in profound ways and then help them to recognize when He has spoken or has answered their prayers.
Teach them in developmentally appropriate ways. Leading our children into prayer with attainable expectations will be key to making sure that prayer is something enjoyable for them. We must take baby steps. Here are some age appropriate approaches to the practice.
In the infant stage pray over your baby often, while nursing, changing their diaper, giving them a bath. Associating a warm, loving, and secure home environment with the precious love of God will draw them into a relationship with Him later in life. As they near age one, they can begin holding hands in prayer at meal times, or cherishing the bedtime routine of prayer.
One year olds love to imitate words and are learning spiritual vocabulary (God, Jesus, love, Bible). They are learning simple Bible concepts (God loves me, God made the trees) and are able to begin participating in prayer by folding their own hands and closing their eyes for short prayers. They can repeat one line at a time of either a children’s prayer or your own prayer. Although going to church is made more difficult by separation anxieties, consistent church attendance in spite of this sets the tone for the priority of worshipping God. Here, they will continue to have their understandings about prayer reinforced.
Two year olds can say short, memorized morning, mealtime, and bedtime prayers. As they progress they can begin to express their own thoughts in prayer. One way to do this is to have them fill-in-your blanks. The parent says, “Thank you God for….” and then the child fills in the rest of the sentence. The conversation continues with “I am sorry for…”, “My favorite thing about you is…”, “The best thing about today was…”, “I am sad about….”, etc. At this age, they can also memorize one or two short Bible verses a week, and this too can be a context for prayer.
Three year olds really begin to take off in language skills. They can tell stories, can talk in complete sentences of 3-5 words, and can listen to stories at least 15 minutes long. This jump in language ability and attention span makes it easier for them to take ownership of their prayers. They are more able to ad lib and will pray about their own immediate concerns. Routine in prayer is expected and important. Teaching can begin about the different kinds of prayers: thank you prayers, I am sorry prayers, I love you prayers, please help prayers.
Four year olds are beginning to learn to read and write. Because they are able to understand a few more abstract concepts, they should understand that prayer is talking to God. This ability for conceptual thinking now allows them to grasp the concept of sin and forgiveness. Confession in prayer will be helpful for children as they need an avenue to relieve their guilt and shame. It is at this age that most children have the capability to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Varied approaches to prayer help to make the practice fun and emphasizes that prayer is a part of their relationship with God. They can draw pictures and dictate their prayers. They can begin to pray more appropriately for the needs of others as they begin to understand the world around them, and praying for another family at mealtime will widen their compassion. They may enjoy “popcorn prayer” or simple sentence round robin praying about particular topics.
Five year olds become quite capable of learning almost anything about prayer. Their cognitive abilities coupled with their simplicity and childlike faith make their prayers some of the most beautiful on planet Earth. If they have been grown in prayer up to this point, prayer will become instinctual, moving toward it in many areas of their life.
Of course, we continue to learn and grow in prayer and there are numerous enrichments we can provide for our older children’s prayer lives. The point is that we are all growing and developing in prayer, and for children, this coincides with growth in language and conceptual thinking. Even if your children are older, but young in their prayer life, some of the above practices may help to teach them along the way.
And the lesson for those of us who regularly practice prayer? We are never done learning and growing, not here, and probably not even in eternity.
Dear Lord, we so desire that our children learn to love you in prayer. May they come to cherish the privilege that it is. We want you to do a work in their lives so that they will have a deep and abiding relationship with you. As parents, help us to teach, to model, and to lead our children toward a beautiful prayer life. Thank you, God, that you promise to finish the work that you have started in our kids. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.