Teaching our children how to pray gives them a ‘connection to God’
This is a tall order in my shaping role as a parent. God has given me this precious child, and my daunting task is to prepare her to give back to him. If this task were mine alone, I would not succeed. But thankfully, the Lord of the universe is helping me. He allows me direct access to him, and I can teach this to my children.
I believe prayer to be the means of fostering a lifelong dependence and relationship with the Father. When I teach my children to pray, I am giving them a “connection to God.”
Children receive instruction in varying ways as they grow. The method a parent uses will change with the developmental stage of the child. One would not expect a 9-month-old to take his turn saying the prayer at meal time. However, the child can participate by closing her eyes and folding her hands.
A 1-year-old needs the more hands-on involvement of the parent in prayer while an adolescent may be ready to develop her own prayer life. Although they will vary in appearance, three strategies are available for parents to use throughout the developmental stages of the child — modeling, ritual and direct application.
Beginning early and laying a foundation when the child is an infant is best. However, if this has not occurred, it is never too late to begin. Children learn their earliest concept of God as infants — through their parents. They learn either to love and trust him or to fear him. They watch their parents and parrot what they see.
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Rituals are important at all developmental stages but at this stage play a vital role in setting the tone for the child’s life. The repetition of prayer offers a sense of security and familiarity. Meals and bedtimes are the most logical times to build prayer into a child’s routine.
Allowing children to participate in both their own simple prayers and the more complex prayers of the parent is very important. Simple prayers draw the child into interaction with God. He becomes their friend.
At the preschool age, children begin to ask “why” and “what” questions as they seek to understand the world around them. The concepts of good and evil emerge, and the parent has an opportunity to teach them God’s place in this dichotomy.
Rituals continue to provide structure for their relationship with God. Be sure to create a safe environment for the praying development of the child. Not having adult capacity for language, their prayers are “cute” and adults tend to laugh. Although laughing together is healthy, one must be cautious about hindering the prayers of the little one.
If children feel ridiculed or even teased, they receive the message that their prayers are not correct. They become reticent in expressing their thoughts to God and may develop an aversion to praying altogether.
One aid to prayer is asking two questions that elicit the child’s perception of what is going well in her life and what has been difficult. The questions can be asked in various ways, such as, “What made you happy today?” or “What made you sad today?”
With this information, a parent can lead her child to thank God for his blessings and to invite God into his struggles. This practice will set a lifelong pattern of being aware of God’s presence. Children learn that in every circumstance, thoughts can immediately be turned to God. What a gift to give a child!
During the elementary school-age years, the focus of children begin to expand beyond themselves. They become more aware of those around them as they enter the world of school and begin spending time outside of the family. If they have developed a comfortable relationship with God at an early age, they naturally continue this relationship and embrace the encouragement to pray that is learned when the church meets to worship.
Ritual persists in being a key to making prayer a normal aspect of the child’s routine. The family can say a prayer together at meal times, or the child can recite a favorite prayer at night. It is fine for parents to encourage this familiar praying as well as teaching the child to pray about day-to-day needs and thankfulness.
Modeling is also vital as children are shaped by those around them. When they see Mom or Dad asking for help and praising God, they will view this as normal and acceptable behavior. At times, the church subtlety gives the message that one should not struggle with God. Prayer is a good avenue to demonstrate that this struggle is not only acceptable but necessary for growth.
Adolescents begin to see themselves as part of the larger world. They learn how to be in relationships with others but also become more aware of “differences.” In their spiritual development, story becomes important. They are interested in God’s story and can be guided in seeing their own story as part of this greater narrative.
A mistake parents often make during adolescence is to back away from the child’s spirituality. The rationale is that the child is old enough to make his or her own choices now. One is hesitant to “impose” on the child, but this hesitancy can remove a vital influence. In addition, a hindrance to prayer is a life too filled with activities.
Keep in mind that, even if sporadic, the parent can still feel confident of her continued influence through prayer. The child should be encouraged to pray alone and to also begin developing a personal devotional life. But the parent should continue to pray with the child, thereby offering a time of continuing intimacy between the parent, the child and God. What an opportunity we have as parents. We can help our children bridge that gulf and make a holy connection with the God of the universe.
JACKIE L. HALSTEAD is chair of the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy at Abilene Christian University in Texas. She and her husband, Randy, have two daughters and attend the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene.