We often snicker when my three-year-old daughter prays. She knows that she is supposed to kneel, to close her eyes, and to put her hands together. She has heard enough praying in her short life to know what kinds of words to include in a prayer. The only problem is, she hasn’t a clue how to put the words together in an appropriate way. For instance, she’s infamous in her Sunday School class for having prayed, “Lord, thank you for our sin.” Just this morning at the breakfast table, she prayed, “We thank you for God, and we forgive you.” Not exactly model prayers.
Perhaps you have had similar experiences with your children and find yourselves snickering during prayer time. The question that we all end up asking ourselves is this: Is this really the best way to teach our children to pray? Should we let them learn by letting them lead family prayer times?
The truth is that we very rarely allow our children to lead in prayer. In fact, it typically only happens when one of them begins doing it spontaneously. It is our experience that allowing little children to lead in prayer is not the best way to teach them to pray. First, they don’t know what they are doing. They don’t really pray so much as they mimic religious sounding words and turns of phrase. Second, their cute malapropisms become the focus of everyone listening, and no one is really focused on God. Third, the children eventually realize that they have become the center of attention and begin to regard prayer as a time for amusing adults. Over time, the malapropisms become more outlandishâ€”an intentional bid to get attention by entertaining listeners. At that point, it’s no longer cute, but spiritually deadly. They’ve become pharisaic comedians.
As they get older, there will be more opportunities for our children to pray and, sometimes, to lead in prayer. But for now, we think the best way to teach them to pray is to let them hear how mommy and daddy talk to God. In other words, we teach by modeling. This is the way that Jesus taught His disciples to pray (Matthew 6:9-13), and it aligns with the Bible’s commands to parents to teach their children (Deut 6:6-7; Prov 22:6; Eph 6:4). We hope that our children are able to see us daily as needy and broken before God.
We know that if our girls are ever to be converted it will be in spite of our shortcomings as parents. We need God’s grace as much as anybody. Our prayer is that God will somehow use our supplications and the gospel to convert them to a saving knowledge of Christ. Until then, we aim to steer them away from common pitfalls into hypocrisy. To this end, God help us all.