Teaching Your Child to Pray

January 24th, 2013

Lauren climbed into bed, and her father tucked her in. As he sat down on the edge of the bed, he said, "Are you ready to say a prayer?"

"Dear God," Lauren began, "thank you for Mommy and Daddy and Bethany. Thank you for all good things. Help Grandma get well, and help me feel better about school. Watch over everyone tonight. Amen."

He kissed her goodnight and turned out the light. As he took one last look at his daughter nestled snugly in her bed, he smiled,  remember­ing a time nearly thirty years earlier when his mother had sat on his bed while he prayed.

I remember that night as if it were yester­day, and I remember just as vividly my own childhood ritual of bedtime prayer. Every night my mother and I would talk about the activities of the day before saying a bedtime prayer. My childhood prayers were much the same as the prayer spoken by my daughter Lauren: both included the significant people in our lives. As a father, I have learned what my mother also learned as she sat on my bed listening to her child pray: our children's thoughts and the yearnings of their hearts are expressed in their prayers. As I listened to my daughter's prayer that night, I heard the con­cerns that she had carried through the day. Her prayer gave me a glimpse of her needs and her trust that God was with her as her friend.

Prayer is a language of the heart. Whether the language is spoken or remains silent, prayer gives us a tool to express our inner thoughts and emotions. Prayer also provides a means for us to support others, even those persons we have never met. Prayer is our spe­cial connection with God.

As a pastor, I've served communion to many people, but I will never forget one mother and her four-year-old daughter. As I approached them and offered the bread, the mother took a piece of bread tor herself and a piece of bread for her daughter. As she gave it to her daughter, she said, "When you eat this, remember that Jesus loves you." A moment later, I returned with the tray containing indi­vidual cups of juice. Again, the mother took one for herself and one for her daughter, say­ing, "When you drink this, remember that Jesus loves you." At that moment, the little girl looked up at her mother, and her face came alive with a smile. That child knew she had a special connection with God. She might not understand prayer, but she knew Jesus to be her friend.

Prayer is an ongoing conversation and growing friendship with God through words and thoughts. When we pray with our chil­dren, we are sharing the relationship we have with God at the same time that we are expressing our love for our children.

How Can I Teach My Child to Pray?

1. Begin where the child is.

It is never too early or too late to teach your child to pray. With an infant, you can begin by singing "Jesus Loves Me" and speaking simple words of thanks for your child—such as, "Thank you, God, for Kyle"—during "cuddling time." With an older child, pause at mealtime and bedtime to say a few words of thanks for the meal and the day.

Prayers of thanks are a good way to teach children to pray; even very young children can name things for which they are thankful. Be sure to use your child's name in your own prayers of thanks. This will teach your child that she or he is important to God. Remember that your child can begin to expe­rience a relationship with God without having to understand that relationship. As a parent, you want your child to know that God is per­sonal. God is ready to hear the words of even the youngest child, because God is present with each of us.

2. Establish a regular pattern of prayer.

A friend told me that his family gathered for prayer every morning before the children went out the door to meet the school bus. The children looked forward to holding hands in their family circle as the day began. They knew that whatever they faced during the day, God would be with them.

Children learn through ritual and routine. Mealtime and bedtime are two good occa­sions for establishing a ritual.

Saying a prayer before a meal reminds a child that we are part of the world God has made, and that we are grateful for the food we need in order to live. You may want to use the same prayer before each meal, find several prayers from which to choose, or cre­ate a new prayer each time. Hold hands around the table or fold your hands as the prayer is said by one or by all.

Bedtime has always been our family's time to quiet ourselves and prayerfully reflect on the day that is past. Now that our children are teenagers, they still expect a visit from Mom or Dad before they go to sleep. As you help your child get ready for bed, let this be a time to give thanks and pray for each other.

Look for other times and ways to make prayer a regular part of your family's life together. Your child will begin to anticipate your special prayer rituals and may even remind you when it's time to pray!

3. Help your child to memorize some simple prayers.

Teaching children some simple prayers they can recite from memory helps ease them into the practice of prayer. Be sure to say the prayers aloud with your child to help him or her feel relaxed and confident. Work on learning one prayer, repeating it for several days or weeks until your child has memorized it. Then begin working on another prayer. Start simple and work up to longer, more difficult prayers as your child grows and/or is ready. There are many wonderful collections of children's prayers from which to choose, including some beautifully illustrated books that you can enjoy together (ask your children's ministries director, check your church bookstore or library).

When your child is ready for more difficult prayers, be sure to include the Lord's Prayer. Jesus offered this prayer as an example of how we are to pray (see Luke ll:l-4). It contains specific guidelines for prayer: praise, thanks, forgiveness, and direction. Children do not need to fully understand the words in order to memorize the prayer. In fact, even four- and five-year-olds have been known to master the prayer in a relatively short time. Teaching your child the Lord's Prayer at home—rather than waiting for your child to learn it at church—will help to make an important "link" between home and church.

4. Model prayer for your child.

Children learn the importance of prayer by watching and listening as their parents pray.

At a recent gathering of our extended fami­ly, one of the children was asked to say the mealtime prayer. Everyone listened intently to the words of the child. Later it occurred to me that the children usually were asked to say the mealtime prayer at these gatherings but rarely were given the opportunity to hear an adult pray.

We adults look forward to hearing children pray, but it is important for children to know that prayer isn't just for kids. Pray daily for your child. Pray daily with your child. Allow your child to see the importance of prayer in your own life.

What Should I Teach My Child About Prayer?

1. Prayer is simply talking with God.

Children need to know that they can talk to God just as they would talk to a parent or a good friend—wherever and whenever they want. God is alwavs ready to listen.

One day I was driving with our two children in the car. Suddenly an ambulance approached from behind us. I pulled the car to the side of the road and said aloud, "God, take care of those who are hurt." By responding to the situation with a simple prayer, I demonstrated my belief that God is with us wherever we are and cares about what is happening to us.

Look for opportunities to offer simple, spontaneous prayers in the presence of your child—such as thanking God for a beautiful sunset, expressing your concern for a sick friend or pet, or asking for God's help with a particular problem or situation. Remember that the best way to teach your child to pray is by your own example.

2. Prayer involves listening as well as speaking.

In his book, Bringing up Children in the Christian Faith, John Westerhoff writes that "prayer is what God does to us rather than anything we do to God" (Minneapolis, Minn.:Winston Press, 1980, p. 45). Listening is as important to prayer as speak­ing. The psalmist writes, "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). For a conver­sation to be meaningful, someone must be lis­tening. Prayer is our conversation with God. If our prayers are to be meaningful, then, we must take time to listen to God.

Being quiet and listening do not come nat­urally for most children. As a child, I tried to follow the long prayers of the Sunday worship service, but usually my mind would wander and I would think about the people and things important to me. Yet because of what I had learned about prayer, I knew that God was with me when I prayed. I knew that prayer was my special time alone with God. I believed it was the time when God was think­ ing about me.

How can you begin to teach your child that prayer involves listening as well as talking? Here are a few ideas you might try:

First of all, find ways to introduce the concept of listening and help your child practice listening, such as spending quiet time togeth­er in a rocking chair: listening to quiet, meditative music together; reading to your child; and so forth.

Help your child understand that prayer does not have to be spoken. Ask your child to draw a picture of things for which he or she is thankful or persons he or she loves. Some of the most meaningful "prayers" I have witnessed were drawn by a child.

When praying with your child, ask your child to think quietly about God and the questions he or she has for God.

Take a walk outside and ask your child to listen quietly to all the sounds of God's creation. Then have your child identify as many of those sounds as he or she can. Talk about how we can hear (and see) God in the world around us.

3. God does answer our prayers, but not always how or when we want or expect.

As with so many things in life, prayer takes practice. The more we pray, the easier it becomes—and the better we become "hearing God," and at recognizing God's answers to our prayers. Sometimes we pray for healing for someone who does not get better. Sometimes we ask for something that never happens or that we never receive. Explaining this concept to young children can be difficult. The best approach is to keep it simple. Assure your child that although we may not always understand the things that happen and why God chooses to act or not to act in certain ways, we can be sure of God's love for us (Romans 8:38-39) and God's promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20b).

Prayer takes patience and persistence. In time we learn to listen not for what we want, but for what God wants, trusting that God will always be with us and will help us in ways we may not be able to see or fully understand. 

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