Prayer: Opening the Door for Children
People of most religions pray. For some, prayer takes the form of meditation. Others memorize prescribed prayers and chant them at required times. Many purchase written prayers for specific occasions. All believe prayer “works,” if only to help them focus and gain peace.
Christians expect prayers to be heard and answered by a loving, caring Being as part of a vibrant relationship between creature and Creator. But our view of God dictates our relationship to Him and shapes our prayers. If we see God as a tyrant, we relate and pray to Him as a fearful slave. If we see Him as a school principal, we relate and pray as a student trying to make the grade or avoid getting caught. If He seems like Santa Claus, we relate to Him as a dispenser of goodies, making a list and checking it twice. If God is a polite conversation piece, we relate and pray to Him in a distant, uncaring way. So to teach about prayer, we must first teach about God.
Jesus showed us how to relate to God as child to Father. As you teach children about God as Father, it may help to say, “the ideal Father,” “the Father you always wanted,” or even “the perfect mentor.” Ask children how they would describe a perfect father. Many movies and books have characters who are wise mentors. Ask older children to name some of these. (Gandalf comes to mind.) The type of person you wish you had as guide and encourager is real. He is God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So when we talk about prayer, we are talking about relationship. Author Hope MacDonald calls prayer “a conversation between two friends who love and understand each other. Prayer is the key that opens the door to a whole new world.”
When we teach children to pray, we don’t just teach a ritual or one of the Christian disciplines. We actually introduce children to God. “Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love,” says writer Richard Foster. Prayer is communication, one of the most important aspects of any relationship. Prayer is one of the most important facets of becoming a life-long Jesus follower journeying ever deeper into God’s life-giving love.
So how do we help children pray? Developmentally, children start by imitating us. Next, they identify with us. Then they experience God for themselves, after which, by their own choice and in their own way, they personalize their relationship with God. Encourage the youngest children to imitate you, repeat after you. But don’t force a child to pray. Let them watch and listen until they are ready to repeat after you or to voice their own prayer.
Next, give your child “training wheels” by showing him different ways to structure prayer time. You might use the Lord’s Prayer. For a visual aid, help your child trace around a hand, fingers together as if in prayer. Then cut out six handprints. On the first, write “Father” and draw a star, representing heaven. On the second, write “kingdom,” draw a crown. On the third, write “food,” draw a slice of bread. Fourth, write “forgive,” draw a cross. Fifth, write “evil,” draw a mean face. Sixth, write “glory,” draw a sun. Help your child use his own words to follow Jesus’ model: praise God, ask for specifics in spreading the love of His kingdom, ask for needs to be met, ask for forgiveness or forgive others, pray for “evil” situations to be made right, then praise God again.
Another easy method is adapted from the Children’s Ministry Resource Bible. Hold up one hand, palm out. The thumb is closest to me, so I pray for people close to me (family and friends). The pointer finger represents people in need I might point at; instead of pointing, I pray for them. The middle finger, “tall man,” represents people over me, like parents, teachers, government leaders. The ring finger is fourth, so the mnemonic is “four,” which easily morphs into “foreign” and reminds me to pray for people in other countries. The small finger represents me and my needs.
Older children can keep prayer journals in three sections: I Prayed, God Answered, and God Taught Me. Or make it a family prayer journal to use in devotions. Talk about how God answers in a variety of ways. You may hear an inner voice or find the answer in something you read or hear. You may simply sense the wise answer. Answers are not always yes. Sometimes God says no or wait. So the journal’s third section is instructive. We sometimes learn more by seeing how God uses no or wait to teach us and draw us closer to Him.
Also discuss how we know what we “hear” is from God and not just our own thoughts. That’s not to negate our own thoughts. We often know the answer if we think, and if we’re growing in God, we can rely on our wisdom, gained through Him. But if your child wants to test an answer, teach the DiTtO test: Do To Others. Jesus said treat others the way we want to be treated. So does the answer treat others the way you want to be treated? Or give it the love test. Jesus said the most important thing is to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love others as yourself. Our job, then, is to learn and practice love. Does the answer help you learn and practice God’s life-giving love?
Another set of training wheels is “flash prayer.” For example, when you hear an emergency siren, it means someone is in trouble. Say a quick “flash” prayer asking God to help them. On a beautiful morning, simply “flash” a “thank you” to God for the beauty around you. As you yourself sincerely model the flash prayer, your child will sense your own growing relationship with a personal God and will see how to relate to Him.
There are several ways to encourage children to pray for the needs of people in other nations. One way is to get an inflatable beach-ball globe. Toss it to your child. When she catches it, ask her to name the country the index finger on her right hand points to. If it’s ocean, ask her to go to the next finger that is on land. Then quickly pray for that country and its people. For groups, form a circle and ask children to throw the globe to each other.
One teacher suggested asking children to find the names of countries or states on labels of items in your pantry. Pray for that country or state. You can also say “news prayers.” We often hear distressing news reports. Instead of bemoaning the state of the world, say a flash prayer for the people involved. Our prayers can reach places we are not physically able to go.
You might also teach children to turn Bible verses into prayers. For example, Paul writes, “Be alert and self-controlled.” (1 Thessalonians 5:6) To make this a prayer, say, “Dear Lord, help me be alert and self-controlled.” Or for Hebrews 13:20-21, pray, “Dear Lord, equip me with everything good for doing your will, and work in me what is pleasing to you.”
The Psalms are a natural training ground for prayer. You can teach children to turn many Psalms into their own personal communication with God. For example: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from you, Lord. You are the Maker of heaven and earth. You will not let my foot slip. You watch over me, and you will not sleep…”(Psalm 121)
Talk with children about why we say, “in Jesus name, amen.” Read aloud Matthew 27:50-51. A tall curtain in the temple kept people out of the Most Holy Place where people thought God’s presence came to earth. Only the high priest could enter, and only once a year, to represent the people before God with sacrifices and prayers. But when Jesus died, the curtain ripped in two from top to bottom, a powerful symbol that meant everyone now has access to the presence of God. Because Jesus provided the way, and because He, even now, is the human who represents us before the Father, we pray in His name. It’s a way to recognize what He has done and to honor Him. He is our passport to God, our VIP backstage pass. What does “amen” mean at the end of a prayer? “Let it be.” It voices our hope for an answer.
I have a wise friend who says that, to him, all prayer ends in silence. There is a beautiful part of prayer that uses no words, but is a time of quiet rest, enjoying God’s presence. Ask your child to practice feeling God’s presence, just for a moment. Still yourself, quiet your mind, see if you can feel His nearness, peace, or love. It may feel like a gentle hug.
If you yourself have heard God or seen exciting answers to prayer, be careful not to stress your own experience too heavily as if you expect your child to have the same. If your child does not feel the same closeness you have with God or does not hear or find answers like you do, she may feel that she is not doing it right or that God does not love her as He loves you. God treats us as the individuals He made us to be, and He knows how to speak to each of us. As your child turns to God, He will respond, and he will develop his own relationship.
So encourage your child to choose training wheels or tell you a method he already may use. Ask him to choose a time of day to pray. This planning is important. John Piper says, “One of the main reasons so many of God’s children don’t have a significant life of prayer is not so much that we don’t want to, but that we don’t plan to.” Of course, the whole goal of training wheels is to take them off and ride on your own. After a child is accustomed to communicating with God, she can pray any way she likes, anywhere, at any time.
Growing to know God is a process, not an event. Hearing His voice, recognizing His “nudge” comes as we cultivate a life of prayer. It’s not a matter of “doing it right.” Instead, it’s about growing to know Love in person, Grace as a Living Being, the One Faithful and True.
In summary, it’s up to you to go first and show your children your own growing relationship with God. After that, give your children training wheels and provide the right conditions for them to open the door to a whole new world.