Teaching our children to pray can be a challenge! Young children might struggle to focus, might not seem interested, or could pray for what we deem to be “silly” things. Nonetheless, there are few things that are more important as parents that we can teach our children than how to pray. Prayer is not just something we “do” as Christians—it is how we experience the reality of our relationship with God on a daily basis. And besides that, God has commanded us to pray! Not like some kind of law that we follow out of obedience, but because it’s good for us (like how I command my son to eat his broccoli—but prayer is a million times more important than broccoli!). Here are a few things to keep in mind.
It’s Okay for Children to Pray for Childish Things
My six-year-old regularly prays for “all of the toys in the whole-wide-world,” and when I was a child I distinctly remember asking for the powers of Superman. So far, God’s answer to my son’s prayer has been the same as his answer was to mine: “no.”
God knows that my son’s prayer would spoil him (and make our house cluttered mess) and he also knows that I’d undoubtedly use Superman’s powers for self-serving purposes. But that does not mean that God does not delight in hearing such petitions.
Proverbs 15:8 indicates that God delights in the prayers of the righteous. It doesn’t say that he delights in our prayers insofar as we ask for the right things. It doesn’t even say he only delights in such prayers when we ask for godly things.
His delight in our prayers is not contingent on our wisdom, or our discernment with respect to what we ask for. He delights in our prayers because He delights in Christ—in whom we are his children. And children do childish things—which I believe is a part of God’s delight! Our children are not little sages—they are children, the kind whose faith Jesus praises and hails as an example for us all. When they pray for things we think are childish, they are exercising a relationship with God.
Prayer is Faith in Action
When a child prays for “all the toys in the whole wide world” she might be asking for something that seems childish (and something that God is unlikely to grant) but she is actually exercising faith by saying such a prayer! Through the act of asking God the child is recognizing that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) and that the Lord truly is the “fount of every blessing” as the traditional hymn states.
Jesus praises the “little children” who he says not only have faith, calling them the “little ones who believe in me” but also calls grown-ups to emulate such faith (Matthew 18:3-5). This might be a simple trust—but that’s how children live day-in-and-day-out. Even a toddler trusts his parents to feed him, console him, and protect him. When children pray, they exhibit the same kind of trust in God. It is a trust that will grow and mature, but it is a trust no less! And here’s the thing—as adults, we can learn something from their simple displays of faith.
God the Father is Daddy, Too
Paul tells us in Romans 8:15 that we’ve all been adopted as “sons” who cry unto God, “Abba! Father!” (ESV). Don’t get hung up on the fact that daughters are not mentioned here. Paul says “sons” because all believers—male and female—are “adopted” through the Spirit that comes through Jesus Christ, the son of God! Because of this, we get to call God “Abba,” too. And in the first-century context, the word “Abba” was a term of endearment, something a child might call his own earthly father, something like “daddy.”
As our children’s’ earthly “daddies,” we learn what it means to be “daddies” by looking to our heavenly “daddy.” There is no higher responsibility a father has than to help their children get to know their heavenly fathers.
Teaching our children to pray is a part of that. We don’t have to be everything to our children. We use the gifts God has given us and do our best to exhibit God’s love in our love for our kids. But we need to be secure enough to recognize that there are things that our children need that we can’t provide.
There are things that our children can only find in their heavenly father—in their heavenly daddies. As such, teaching our children to pray is a way of teaching them to look beyond us and our own shortcomings. It teaches them to place their faith in the “daddy” who provides for their every need, in both body and soul.
Balancing “Ritual” with “Relationship”
When I was a child I distinctly remember memorizing the Lord’s Prayer and “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” There is something valuable about memorizing prayers—it gives us something to say, something to pray when words escape us, and we simply need to commune with God.
When it comes to “tradition” or “ritual” the Bible both commends such traditions while also offering warnings about vain rituals (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15; Col. 2:8, Tit. 1:13-14). An examination of these verses (and others) will show that the value of a tradition or ritual is in how well it points us to Christ. In other words, traditions can either enhance our relationship with God or be used to replace the intimacy of a real relationship through vain ritual, and a going-through-the-motions kind of faith.
Some traditions enhance our relationships. Many families have traditions pertaining to how they celebrate the holidays, for example. These traditions are hallowed precisely because they bring us together and deepen our relationships with the people whom we love. But when traditions distract us or replace our intimacy, then they fail to actually accomplish what they are meant to do. Such traditions, the Bible calls “vain” (Matt. 15:9).
There is value to teaching children prayers to memorize. But there is also value in encouraging our children to articulate whatever is on their hearts and minds in an informal, and natural way. God does not require prescribed rituals, like subjects who must obey protocol when approaching a king’s throne. Jesus fulfilled all that! He entered the Holy-of-Holies once and for all! (Heb. 9:24).
There is no such thing as a “perfect balance” between memorized/traditional prayers and ad hoc prayers from the heart (known as ex corde) prayer. However we navigate this balance for our children, though, should be not on certain rules that we’ve been taught about what’s appropriate—use your discernment as a parent and ask, “Is this enhancing my child’s relationship with God?” If it is, embrace it. If not, let it go.
Children Imitate their Parents
We are foolish if we think we can teach our children to pray if we are not practicing prayer ourselves. We should pray regularly, and while we deserve our own private, intimate, moments with God, we should also make sure that our children see us pray. As Paul exhorted the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). When it comes to our children, we hardly need to tell them to imitate us. They’ll do it whether we want them to or not!
That is why one of the most important responsibilities a parent has is to not only raise our children in the faith, but to exhibit what it means to be a child of God by the way we live, the way we pray, and the way we worship.