Before we can teach our children to pray, we need to remember two very important points:
1. "More is caught than taught." Just like so many other important values and character traits, we can tell our kids how to do something but they will be more likely to internalize it if they see it modeled as well as taught. So, I have to remember that if I want my children to grow up to be pray-ers, then they need to see me praying and growing in my prayer life. It's okay to say, "Not now, Mommy is praying." It's okay to schedule time for prayer, even if that means time away from our children.
2. There are many ways to connect with God and every member of my family has his/her own sacred pathway. Gary Thomas has written the book, Sacred Pathways, where he identifies 9 different pathways (and I would contend that there are far more) for connecting to God. For myself, I may meet with God best when I'm serving others and working toward social justice, but my child might just be a sensate and traditionalist who finds God in rituals, symbolism, and the majestic. I might have another child who is an enthusiastic worshipper who connects best when singing loudly in large worship gatherings. We need to help our children find their own pathways (Train up a child in the way he should go ....) by exploring a variety of pathways together.
For more information, you can read Thomas' book, find a summary written by the Center for Evangelical Studies, and/or take a survey by Bill Gaultiere to see what your pathway(s) might be. Older children can take the survey, too, and you can discuss the results together.
Here's one way this has played out in my family: As I wrote in the example above, my Number 1 and Number 2 pathways are Caregiving and Social Justice. It was no surprise to me that those are passions of mine but it was eye-opening to realize that I best connect with God when living out of those passions. Contemplative Prayer and Learning tied for Number 3 when I completed the survey. Again, no surprise considering I love to study Scripture, learn from brothers and sisters in Christ, and read Christian writers. I also prefer "being absorbed with God in quiet solitude" as opposed to enthusiastic, corporate worship.
Shoun took the survey with me. I had no idea what his pathways would be and it was helpful to both of us to find that his pathways were through sensation and tradition. This makes sense as we explored his experiences in churches for the first 8 years of his life. He grew up with tradition, with symbolism, and liturgy. His senses lead him to connect with God. He talked about how the symbolism of the cross is important to him. Out of this discussion, we asked PopPop to make him a cross for Christmas, something that he could hang on the wall of his bedroom. PopPop took it a step further, going to a specialty wood shop and asking for a particular kind of wood. God was one step ahead of all of us when the owner told my dad that he had a particular variety of that wood, grown in Kenya.
As we look at teaching our children to pray and helping them explore the various pathways, it's important that we don't make this complicated or more difficult than it needs to be. Take into consideration your praying gifts and patterns, your child’s gifts and way of best connecting with God and your family’s interests. Find ways to strengthen your child’s prayer pathways and to explore new ones. Make prayer fit into what you are already enjoying and doing. If you want some specific ideas, here you go:
- · Using fabric markers (or Sharpies), print a bedtime prayer on a light colored pillowcase. Around the prayer you can add names of people you pray for, or specific prayer requests (great for a child with night-time fears), etc. You can add to it through the years. The child not only has a reminder to pray, but a reminder of prayers answered (fears that have been dispelled).
- · Make a prayer pillow for someone who is sick or lonely. All family members can write verses, prayers and encouraging messages to the person. What a treasured gift!
- · Is your child’s bed overflowing with stuffed animals? Transform them into “Prayer Bears” (or dolls or dogs or whatever they are). Talk about different prayer requests and attach a tag to each stuffed animal with that request written on it. When you pray at bedtime, choose several bears and pray for the requests. You can remove the tags as prayers are answered and add newer ones.
- · Keep a collection of prayers (or a prayer book) at the dinner table. Instead of the same old recitations or prayers, mix it up with a new prayer from this collection.
- · Remember that many hymns and praise songs can be used as prayers. Keep a list of these and use them as dinner prayers. If you are a person who grew up with hymns and fear that your children won’t know the songs of your youth, introduce a new one each week and sing it everyday at suppertime.
- · Buy or make (from cardstock) blank postcards. Each month, every member of the family is to choose someone you have been praying for, or a family member who is ill or lonely or going through hard times, etc. and write an encouraging message, telling that person that he/she is praying for them.
- · Use the holidays as reminders to pray for others. For example, in February, cut out hearts and on each, write the names of people, families, or situations in your own home which need prayer. You can either divide them out among your family members or display them in a prominent place to daily pray for them. For Easter, you could fill Easter eggs, each with a piece of paper outlining a prayer need. Each day, chose 1 egg and pray for the situation written inside.
- · Save your Christmas cards (or your child’s classroom Valentine’s) and place them on the dinner table or near your child’s bed. Choose one each day and pray for the sender of that card.
- · If you have a child who is a reader, together you could make bookmarks with the names of people to be prayed over. Encourage your child to pray for the person on the bookmark each time he/she opens the book. If you are a reader, you can do the same thing!
- · Give your child a special notebook for recording prayers. To start out, you could do this project together, maybe during bedtime prayers or at a meal. Have your child record prayers in the notebook. Be sure to go back to record and celebrate answers to prayers.
- · Some people pair this with a dream journal so your child can record dreams.
- · You could have a journal that you share back and forth with your child, each of you recording prayers for each other as well as people you know.
- · Together as a family (maybe at meal times?), memorize prayer-related verses such as The Lord’s Prayer, 1 Thess. 5: 16 – 18, Ephesians 6, etc.
- · Keep an atlas or large map in a prominent location. Choose a number of missionaries (McBIC has a map with names of BIC missionaries on the hallway wall near the office) and find their locations on the map. Pray for one each day. You can let the missionaries know you are praying for them and can join their prayer teams for frequent updates on their prayer requests.
- · Window on the World by Spraggett and Johnstone is an excellent resource for reading about the needs of various people groups. You could read one each day, locate the country on your map, and pray as indicated in the book.
- · Once a week, serve rice and beans (or a similar, simple meal). Use this weekly meal as a reminder to pray for those in other countries. You could use either of the two above ideas in conjunction with this one.
- · Make a book of simple prayers for the younger child. If your child needs to move, make sure you have some prayers with motions (or make them up).
- · Do you walk your dog every day? Ask your child to join you and pray for the families in the houses you pass and pray specific prayers for any other people out walking their dog or working outside.
- · Walk around your block as a family, praying for the families in the homes you pass.
- · Take a hike in nature. Plan to stop every 15 minutes and pray. You could take along a pre-written list of requests and choose a new one each time you stop.
- · In a small bag, place a sweet candy, a sour candy, a hot candy, and a dark-chocolate candy. Tell your child that each candy represents a different kind of prayer: Sweet to thank God for a “sweet time” in your life, Sour to ask God to help you add sweetness to someone else’s day, Hot to ask God to keep you excited about serving Him, and chocolate to pray for someone going through a “dark” or difficult time. Together, each of you should pull out a candy and pray as the candy dictates. Go off alone to enjoy the rest of the candy and to pray independently.
- · We need to learn to integrate prayer into all of life. Replace, “That was so lucky,” with “Thank you, Jesus,” the next time you find what you were looking for or that parking spot opens up right as you arrive. Learn to say, “Let’s pray about it” before starting a difficult conversation with a child.
- · Talk to your children about your prayer life. Tell them your struggles. Talk about your answers to prayer and the prayers you’re still waiting on. Let them know that these things are all okay.
- · On the way to soccer, pray with your child about soccer practice, for the coaches and kids. On the way to school, pray for the day, the teachers, and students. Need a reminder? Stick a post-it note on your dashboard. Need another reminder? Stick a post-it note in front of your child’s seat. If you forget, your child won’t!