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.
Zach Nielsen (Vitamin Z)
My 4 year old daughter prayed the other day that the Christians in Nigeria would continue to be persecuted.
But in truth we know this is how the Gospel usually advances, so maybe it was not all that far off!
Good thoughts, Dr. Burk.
I serve in a children’s ministry where we use the ACTS prayer model. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. We normally write down what they should pray for on each one, basically telling them what to say. What are your thoughts on giving them the words to pray?
Denny, I think it has to be both (modeling and practicing). We have to model prayer to our children, as well as allow them the opportunity to verbalize their prayers. I know too many adults who are fearful to pray and flat-out won’t pray b/c they are fearful of not saying the right thing, or messing up. How sad, when prayers are to be a form of communicatoin with our Savior.
Perhaps, they didn’t have it modeled to them. Or worse yet,they were chastised for not saying the right words, or for not using flowery Christaineze language.
Of course, we don’t want our kids, to be attention-seekers, but we allow them to pray. If it begins going in a direction that is not appropriate, we gently say something to them about what prayer is, not being about us, etc. (We have the doozey moments, too, mainly with our daughter, but it is getting better.)
However, our son floored us several months ago, right after our launch service for our church plant. We were having dinner and he asked to pray for our meal. However, it was anything but a dinner prayer. He prayed, “God, we ask for you to grow Selah, and not just Selah, Lord, but all the churches in our town. Because people need you Jesus. You are the Saviour. You are the hope.You are the Christ.”
I don’t think he even mentioned the food that we were about to eat…didn’t have to after that. Jon and I were looking at each other with tears streaming down our faces. It had been a very labor-intensive, emotionally and spriitually draining week church planting (question re: success and what that looked like, fear of failure as so many church plants fail within the first two years, not to mention intense spiritual warfare in this area of our country).
To hear that 5 yr old boy pray like that was the biggest encouragment to us.
From that moment, our definition of a success vastly changed (church plant, or personally). We knew that our kids and our family were growing in and towards Christ. In fact, during our time as church planters, both children have accepted Christ and been baptized.
Seeing our kids’ faith develop and grow has been a huge reminder for me in my own faith journey. People are watching. My relationship with Christ has to be authentic, ever-growing and a constant part of my everyday life in all areas. Perhaps it is because we are church planters with a lot of baby Christians in our midst, who vary in chronological age, but modeling prayer and allowing others to pray are both important. Encouraging all to read prayers in the scriptures, listen to prayers by seasoned believers, but also to pray simple, but biblical prayers to God, to begin communicating with him…..essential.
Thanks for sharing, Denny.
I’m not in disagreement with you at all. I promise! But I do wonder if we are over-thinking this a tad. My son has prayed a number of times for our family, and while he “messes up” from time to time, he will not understand how to do it unless he tries. No matter how many times he hears me pray, unless he prays on his own, it won’t feel like prayer.
God knows what they really mean, and they need the experience, so in my mind, let the children pray. I’ll teach him how to do it as we go along.
Ok, that’s just my thought, and I apologize if I overstepped any boundaries.
really good thoughts! It got me thinking, “do our children see us as NEEDY and BROKEN before God”? We have done well modelling how accessible our God is, and how Thankful we are because every good thing we have or are is of Him, but I know we can do better modelling needy and broken. I like your idea of having Mom and Dad leading more prayers, too – but I still want to hear from the children sometimes – not for the malaprops, but for the truly profound and heartfelt prayers that they have already taught us.
Thanks for this post, and for the impact it will have on a little family in Birmingham…
It’s not only children who can pray, ah, creatively. Years ago I was amused when our pastor spoke this prayer over a church meal, “Bless this food to the consumption of our bodies.”
Hello, all. Thanks for the comments. I agree with Jada. I’m not arguing for a hard and fast either/or kind of a thing. I would favor a both/and approach.
In this post, I’m simply concerned to point out the dangers of pharisaism (praying to be seen by men, Matt 6:6).