“Prayer:” Teaching Children to Pray

Girl Praying - Ben White
Image by Ben White

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take

WOW!  Is this really the prayer we want to teach our children?  I know it talks about God’s provision for our souls, but really?  How many of our children are that in touch with their mortality. “Hey God, I may die tonight so do your thing please.”

If prayer is as important as we believe it to be in the Church, why do we make our kids pray this kind of prayer?  The unfortunate reality is that many parents struggle with their prayer life and in turn their children struggle.

However, this article is not about prayer for adults. Instead, here you will find some simple tools to help you teach the children in your life how to pray genuine faith building prayers.

You might wonder why this is necessary. You see, a major problem that many face today is that Sunday schools, and discipleship opportunities focus only on getting kids to pray. What is lost, or forgotten, is why we pray.

Teaching Children Why

Prayer is one of the most important spiritual practices we have as people of faith. Prayer is the primary conduit that we have that keeps us connected with God. This is easy for an adult to understand, but for a child who is a concrete literal thinker it can be a challenge.

Not the Easter Bunny

One challenge that concrete/literal thinking children face is the struggle of disassociating God with fictional characters such as the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. So, one of the first steps that parents must take is a change of language on how you communicate with child about God.

Simple truth, God is real, Santa is not. If you talk to your children about God in the same manner that you talk about Santa, your child will struggle to understand the importance of prayer, and why we do it. If God talk is similar to fictional character talk, a literal concrete thinker will view prayer with little difference than a letter written to Santa.

The last thing we want our children to believe is that God is like Santa, desiring to bless us all for the good things we do each year.

Prayer is not about receiving blessings or gifts from God. Prayer is a practice that develops the connection between the Divine and humanity. Therefore, our conversation with children about why we pray should begin with relationship.

Beginning with Why

One practice that I have developed with my children is to begin our prayer time together with a quick reminder of why we pray. When I tuck my children into bed at night, before I sing Taps, I begin with some form of this question. “Do you remember why we pray?”

Understand, you cannot ask your children this question if you have never talked about it before, so begin by simply taking about prayer. Talk about how prayer is a conversation. Talk about how it involves speaking and listening. Talk about how we speak and God listens and that we listen and God speaks. Remind your children that relationships require communication by discussing friendships that your children have. Once you have done that, before you pray with your children, start with why.

Pray Together

Already, it is apparent that I missed a step. This idea of starting with why presupposes that you are already praying with your children. This may not be the case, but it should be.

Children are imitators, they learn by watching. The greatest and worst things children do or say are learned first through imitation.  The same is true for prayer. Children learn to pray from others. If you are not praying with them, and if they never experience you praying, then you should not expect them to know how.

The easiest way to start the practice of prayer with your children is simply to start the practice. Add prayer to your nightly routine (shower, teeth, book, prayer, song, bed). Do not let grace at mealtimes be their primary experience of prayer. Make it an important part of starting or ending your day together.

Here are some examples of how to pray with specific age groups.

Praying With Infants

You may wonder why we should pray with infants.  I mean they cannot talk.  However, an infant’s lack of language skills is not a reflection of a lacking in God’s love and claim on their life. Still, prayer with infants is limited.

Prayer with infants is really prayer over infants, as infants do not respond in prayer as adults do. Yet this does not negate the need for them to pray, or to be prayed over.

The best way that I have found to pray with my infant children is to pray with them before I put them in their crib. While holding my child in my arms I pray something like this.

“God, watch over name.  Lord, work in him/her in the way that only you can.  Give me the strength, the courage, the wisdom, and the grace I need to lead and love name, as you do.  Thank you for this moment.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen”

Praying With Toddlers

Prayer with toddlers can be extremely frustrating for the dedicated prayer warrior.  The attention span of a toddler is extremely small.  For this reason, short repeated prayers are perfect.

Kid Praying - David Beale
Image by David Beale

Language can be a major barrier for toddlers who have limited language ability.  For this reason, prayers must be simple and short.  Resist the urge to repeat the prayer phrases heard in adult worship services or in adult circles.  Prayer with toddlers needs to be on a toddler’s level.

Focus on short phrases that the toddler can repeat.  Do not make them repeat the prayer phrases on their own, repeat it with them.  When you do this, you model the spoken word with your child.  If your child struggles to keep up, slow down.  Do not stress over missed words.  What is important is that you are praying together and building the spiritual practice of prayer.

By praying the same prayer each evening your child will not only remember the words but also remember the practice.  Pray something like this…

“Dear God…  Dear God…

Thank you for this day…  Thank you for this day…

Thank you for the good things… Thank you for the good things…

Help me with the bad things…  Help me with the bad things…

Be with mommy…  Be with mommy…

Be with daddy…  Be with daddy…

Be with brother/sister… Be with brother/sister… (Others as needed)

In Jesus’ name I pray…  In Jesus’ name I pray…

Amen…  Amen.”

Praying With Young Children

While praying with toddlers can be extremely cute, praying with young children can be deeply moving.  It is at this point where young children will begin to connect with God’s presence in their lives.  While the depth of this connection is not like that of an adult, young children who are exposed to prayer throughout their life are ready to start vocalizing their own thoughts.

There is no specific age where the repeated prayer becomes obsolete.  Instead, it depends entirely on the child.  When your child is able to articulate their thought process in other areas of their life, they are ready to begin answering direct questions in prayer.

The way that I have made this transition with my children is by crafting a standard prayer with embedded direct questions.  Expository prayer with children can be hard to follow and often has little meaning.  So, do not just ramble on in prayer with your young children.

Instead, begin your prayer time the same way each time.  Then provide direct questions for your child to respond to.  This allows the child to interject their thoughts and feelings into the prayer.  Then close your prayer in the same way each time.  Pray something like this…

Beginning of the Prayer

“Awesome God, thank you for this day.  From the sunrise, to the sunset, you have been with us.  Thank you for walking with us through the good times and the bad.”

Direct Questions (use as many or as few as wanted)

What is something you are thankful for?

Where did you struggle today?

How did you show love to another person today?

Is there someone special you want to lift to God in prayer?

Would you like to pray for one of your friends? 

What is on your heart/mind?

Closing of the Prayer

“God, be with our family and our friends.  Help us to live lives worthy of your grace and love.  In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

Praying With Pre-Teens

As any parent knows, the pre-teen years bring with them a new dynamic between parent and child.  Many changes are wonderful as we see our children continue to grow into the people God has created them to be.  Other changes can be more challenging.

Somewhere amidst and between being a younger child and a pre-teen our parental influence diminishes.  This is common and is why prayer is begun with children as infants, learning habits that will continue for a lifetime.

Since the parent pre-teen relationship is different than the previous stages so is the approach for prayer with pre-teens.  So, to begin, pre-teens may not appreciate starting with why, but it still should be asked semi-regularly.  Instead of asking why we pray each time you pray, ask why weekly or monthly depending on your child.  The last thing you want to do is sound condescending.

Teen Praying - Ben White
Image by Ben White

Unlike prayer with young children, your prayer location may need to change.  While prayer with infants, toddlers, and young children most often happens at the bedside, prayer with pre-teens may need to be moved to another location.

Instead of separating your prayer time as a kid’s prayer, invite your children to pray with you instead.  This may not be what you want to hear, but prayer with pre-teens needs to be a priority over other things.  So, turn off the TV, let the dishes sit for five minutes, gather in the living room, kitchen, dining room table, or where ever you want and pray together.

Begin your prayer time with an invitation.  Ask your child, “Will you pray with me tonight.”  Do not ask if they want to pray, ask if they will.  Prayer is not about want or desire, but about communication.

If the pre-teen is receptive, be genuine and authentic with your prayer.  Be honest and pray aloud, as a parent, about the things that concern you.  Do not fake your life before your kids.  By being honest and sharing your real heart before God, your child will realize what prayer is all about.  Here is an example of a prayer with a pre-teen.

“Holy God, thank you for being present in our lives today.  God, today was a struggle for me at work.  I failed to show your love to those around me.  Also God, the stress of our family finances weighs heavy on my heart.  Lord, help clear my mind and help me to remember that all that I have is from you and that money is not my primary motivation in life.  Be with Grandma as she struggles each day with the loss of grandpa.  Help us to share our lives with her in a way that helps her recognize you.

 Name, is there anything that you want to pray for?

 God, be with us this day.  Help us to never forget you are with us.  Give us the courage to live out our faith each day, living fully alive in you.  It is in Jesus name that we pray. Amen.”

Praying With Teenagers

By the time our children reach their teen years, our influence as parents to encourage prayer is even more limited.  If your children have not learned the practice of prayer from you by this point, it is highly unlikely that they will now.  However, this does not mean that you cannot influence their prayer life.

While teenagers may not be willing to pray with you, they still watch you and judge you on your spiritual practices.  For this reason, it is exceptionally important that your teenage children see you pray, and read the Bible.

Teenagers are in an uncertain stage of life.  While trying to become the independent individuals that they are, teens need the freedom to make their own choices when it comes to faith practices.  But, this does not mean that your influence as a parent is over.

The best practice for praying with teens involves consistent self-practice and teachable movements.  Consistent self-practice means that we as parents need to let our teenage children see us pray and know why we pray.  Teens need to see parents turn to God in the tough times they see their parents go through.  They need to see parents rely on God during times of blessing as well.   When teens witness parent’s prayer practices on a personal level, they see the faith of their parents.

Prayer - Ben White
Image by Ben White

Teachable moments are the times when parents use life events as teachable moments.  This does not mean using the bad times in life as a time to condemn a teenager’s activity.  Instead, use the hard moments as opportunities to teach faith in the real world.

Use the hard moments in life, when your teenagers reach out to you, as moments to teach prayer.  Do not use prayer as a punishment but as a spiritual practice that connects us with the Divine, the source of true healing in this life.  Use the moments you have and let God work in their lives.

Amen

The goal of teaching children to pray is to help create a lifelong spiritual practice for our children.  Spiritual practices are first taught and then lived out in our lives.

Remember to begin where you are.  Just because your children are no longer infants does not mean that it is too late to begin.  If we want our children to be praying adults, we must teach them.  It is our responsibility as parents to be the primary faith developers for our children.  The responsibility does not rest on the Church, the Sunday school teachers, or the pastors.  The responsibility is our own.

Begin with why.  Pray for your children.  Pray with your children, and let your children see you pray.

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