Helping Children Learn to Pray
A sentiment common among many of the Christian adults I encounter is: “I don’t pray enough.”
That’s probably true—not just for those brave enough to admit it, but for us all. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. And we know that Jesus prayed frequently, often by himself.
But why? What is prayer? What does prayer accomplish? And what is its purpose in the lives of God’s people?
What Prayer Is
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, I was taught to pray when I needed something from God. And making requests from God is a valid reason for prayer. But it isn’t the only one. Praying “without ceasing” implies that there is more to prayer than simply asking God to respond in various ways. After all, there’s more to life than asking for help.
One writer states it as plainly as possible: prayer is simply talking with God. That talking may take many forms, including many with which you might already be familiar:
praising God for who he is and all of his virtues (“Adoration”);
- confessing our sin to him and asking forgiveness in Jesus’ Name (“Confession”);
- thanking God for the countless kind, loving, and sovereign ways in which he interacts with us and with all his creation (“Thanksgiving’); and
- asking God to intercede in our lives, the lives of those we know and love, and in the affairs of all the world (“Supplication”).
These four types of prayer form the familiar acronym ACTS, taken from the first letters of the words in parentheses above. Together, they form a relatively well-rounded cycle of prayer which is roughly reflected in the model prayer given to us by Jesus, that known as The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).
But that isn’t the full extent of what prayer is. If prayer is talking with God, then prayer is a conversation. Dr. Paul Miller says in his book A Praying Life that just as in any conversation, we should expect to be spoken to, not simply to be heard.
God often has things for us to hear from him in prayer. Sometimes, his voice comes to us as a small, inaudible voice in our hearts, convincing us of something we need to do, or believe. Sometimes, that voice affirms his love for us. Other times, the Holy Spirit writes his Word (Scripture) on our hearts—making Scripture that we heard or read recently take particular root in us, or opening us up to understand it in a particularly meaningful way. Still other times, God may speak to us not necessarily during those quiet prayer times themselves, but through the words and actions of others, or through the circumstances we experience.
No matter the form of prayer, we should expect God to speak with us, even as we speak with him.
What Prayer Accomplishes
This notion of “prayer as conversation” accomplishes many things. One, God moves through our prayer to exercise his will in our lives and in the world around us. He allows us to ask for good things which are part of his will for us and for the rest of his creation. As one writer puts it, “Prayer is the act of asking God to do what he has already promised to do.” This might include changing our hearts and circumstances, but also working to bring other people to faith, to heal them physically or spiritually, or even to change the course of world events.
Prayer’s Purpose for God’s People
More than that, prayer encourages us. The same way that we are encouraged by sitting down and talking with a loved one or a trusted friend, prayer is meant to strengthen our spirits and refresh our hearts. We express our thoughts and emotions, and know that we are heard. We listen, and know and hear the other person. The relationship becomes stronger.
Through prayer, our faith in God grows. Through prayer, our experience of being loved and cherished by God grows as well. As God’s people, we become more certain of God’s love and his presence in our lives.
Helping Children Learn to Pray
I started by mentioning that many adults (myself included) feel like we struggle with prayer. If prayer is difficult for us adults, how much more challenging it is for children, who lack the capacity to think abstractly. But there are simple things we can do to help them. Here are a few ideas.
- Talk about your own experience of prayer with your child. This gives your child a model for prayer in his or her own life. Explain in simple terms what prayer is, how you pray, and how you know that God listens to you and speaks to you through prayer.
- Pray aloud over your child. Pray simple prayers out loud while you’re holding your child, sitting with them, or when you know that they need encouragement or help from the Lord. Listening to you pray for them can establish a pattern for your child to go to the Lord on their own and pray, sometimes even using the same words you use to pray for them.
- Pray simple prayers with your child. Pick particular times of the day (waking up, going to sleep, before meals, etc.) to pray. You start, and your child can finish the prayer. The Christian organization Focus on the Family offers some creative ways to pray with your child in this article.
- Read Scripture or Scripture stories to your child. Reading God’s Word with your child and then talking about ways to pray for the things God promises in his Word can stimulate the desire to pray in your child. Read to younger children from a children’s storybook Bible or from a book of Bible stories. Before you start reading and at the end, pray a brief prayer of thanks to God for his Word and pray that you and your child would have the faith to believe his promises.
Helping your child learn to pray is one of the most important gifts a parent or caregiver can give to his or her child. You’ll be helping to establish not only a skill that your child will use his or her entire life, but you’ll help your child grow in relationship with their Heavenly Father.