When my children were young, they said prayers that melted my heart! They prayed for their dad and me, for each other, for their grandparents, and it was so, so sweet. They also spent a good bit of time asking God for all the things they wanted, like new Lego sets and board games.
While I’m sure the Lord delighted in those heartfelt prayers, I realized my boys needed to think beyond themselves and their immediate family and learn to pray for the needs of others.
This is when I learned the challenges of teaching someone to pray. I didn’t want to criticize my children’s prayers, yet they did need instruction. It was my responsibility to help them learn about the needs of those around us and to give them a broader view of what requests they could take to the Lord. I talked to other moms about how they cultivated prayer with their children, and, after some trial and error, this method is what I found worked best for my kiddos:
The Prayer Jar
Children love surprises! I took colorful paper and cut them into strips. On each strip I wrote the names of people I wanted my children to pray for. For example, family members, babysitters, teachers, neighbors, and friends. Don’t forget to put your child’s name in there also; they shouldn’t be discouraged from praying for themselves. Then expand the net a little and write the names of important people that you might not personally know. For example, The President, Vice President, etc.
You could write group names such as: The Fire Department, The Police Department, and doctors and nurses. Don’t forget people you know who are sick or have specific needs; and if your child is in school, I encourage you to add the names of any children that might be considered a bully!
After placing the strips of paper in a container, plan a time each day to sit with your child and have them pull out three strips of paper. My children loved the surprise of who they would be praying for that day and often wanted to keep going after three! If you have multiple children, I would suggest doing this with each child, one on one, at first. Once they are all comfortable praying out loud, then you can bring them together.
While this idea is geared toward younger children, you certainly don’t want to leave older children out. If you have multiple children that span a wide age range, you might find it helpful to make a container specific for each child. This would allow you to add more sensitive needs to your older child’s prayer options, such as the persecuted church, terrorist groups, or those fighting addictions.
You can set your own ground rules for prayer time but for each strip of paper I would help them with three things:
They must say something that Praises the Lord.
They must say they are thankful for the person on the paper and why.
They must ask God for something on behalf of that person.
When we first started this tradition with our children, I had to pray first and show them what I expected. Remember to keep your sentences short and your vocabulary simple. The goal is to encourage your children to pray, not to intimidate them. An example of a prayer might look like this:
Dear God, You are so good and loving! Thank you for our doctors and nurses. I like knowing there are people that can take care of us when we are sick. Please be with all the doctors and nurses and keep them safe. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Be prepared to answer their curious questions!
Another key to teaching your children to pray is to have your Bible handy! It’s important for your children to know right from the start that prayer wasn’t your idea, it was God’s! What will you be showing them in the Bible, you ask? If your kids are anything like mine were, there will be lots of questions!
Below are some questions I remember my children asking, and some responses to help guide you in your answers. Remember, children don’t have a mature understanding of God so it’s good to take them to scripture when answering their questions.
However, children also don’t have a mature Biblical vocabulary. Obviously, you can read to your child from any translation you choose, but the scripture I’m sharing below comes from The International Children’s Bible, which might them in their understanding.
What if I say it wrong?
This is a great question and one that many adults ask! Read Romans 8:26 to your child. “The Spirit helps us. We are very weak, but the Spirit helps us with our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we should. But the Spirit himself speaks to God for us, even begs God for us. The Spirit speaks to God with deep feelings that words cannot explain.” How amazing is it that we don’t have to worry about saying something wrong. The Holy Spirit fixes our prayers for us!
Why do I have to Praise God in my prayer?
Keep it simple. Start by reading Psalm 150:6, “Let everything that has breath Praise the Lord!” Ask your child if they are breathing. If your children are like mine, they’ll hold their breath and shake their heads ‘no’, but ask them again, do they have breath? The answer is yes! So, what does the Bible tell us to do if we have breath? Praise the Lord!
Why do I have to thank God?
There are several places in scripture you could take your little ones to show them God’s goodness and why we should be thankful in our prayers. But, to keep in simple, take them to Philipians 4:6b “and when you pray, always give thanks.” You can’t get much simpler than that.
Why do I have to pray for the bully?
Read Matthew 5:44. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you.”
This is also a good opportunity to explain to your children that the bully you’re praying about probably has something going on in their life that is making them very unhappy, causing them to act out and mistreat others. My sons prayed for the same bully over the course of several years and I’ll never forget the excitement when they exclaimed that God answered their prayers and that this boy was no longer a bully! This is a great way for your children to see God working, even if it takes years!
Why do I have to pray for the President?
Our kids only know what we tell them about politics. They only know if you like or dislike the current President by the comments you make. It’s logical for our children to ask why we pray for someone in politics, especially if they’ve heard us speak negatively about them. This isn’t the time to get into politics and why you do or don’t agree with certain policies, this is the time to instruct your child to pray for our leaders, period. You can take your children to 1 Timothy 2:1-2 and Romans 13:1 to explain why.
Spending time with your children in prayer will never be time wasted! Over time my kids started praying longer and deeper, and an unexpected bonus was that I learned so much about their thought processes, what worried them, what they were excited about, and most importantly, that they were learning to trust God and rely on Him to answer their prayers.
Over time, as babysitters changed, as our President changed, as prayers were answered and new needs arose, I changed the names on those strips of paper. But some strips stayed the same, like the name of the bully. Because God, in His wisdom, took years to soften this boy’s heart, my sons learned patience and the valuable lesson that God’s timing is often different than our own.
This offered the perfect opportunity to incorporate lessons on the many attributes of God, for example, why we can trust His timing even when we don’t understand it.
Over the years, this prayer time will morph into something different. But what you’ll be left with are children who are not only in the habit of praying, but children who are in the habit of praying with their family. There are many, many things I regret in my parenting. But, helping mold my son’s prayer lives and going to the Lord with them everyday is not one of them. I pray that when your kids are grown, you’ll look back and say the same.