I’ve often heard that prayer is something lots of people do, whether they go to church or not. Recent research by Scripture Union showed this is particularly true for children. However, many Christians feel inadequate in their own prayer life which makes passing this on to others quite daunting. I think prayer is both the hardest and the easiest thing to pass on to children. It’s the easiest thing because it really needs no equipment, no reading skills, and no prior experience or training. But the best teachers of prayer are pray-ers. I think the best way to pass on a life prayer is to pray! (Ok, so you should have seen that one coming!)
If I want my children, those in my family or my group, to be pray-ers, I need to pray. I need to pray for them, and for myself to be a good pass-er on-er of a life of prayer. Inviting God into this dynamic is the most powerful thing we can do, which is why I have it first. I seriously believe that if we do only one thing to promote a life of prayer, this should be it.
Thing two is kind of a variation of thing number one: let children see you pray. Let them know that you pray for them, for the world, for yourself. Let children see you praying with other people and on your own. Give them a window into your conversations with God. If this makes you feel bad because you don’t feel like you pray enough or in the right way, don’t let this stop you! Rather be encouraged to communicate with God in ways which really work for you, and let your desire to share this with your children inspire you to find more of those ways. This also helps them know that prayer looks different for different people at different times. I love to pray with Sharpie pens and music, while my husband loves to sit silently in a chair with his eyes shut. Both are good, and our children need to see both and other forms of prayer to find out what works best for them.
I know a family who love making photos of their holidays into videos with a soundtrack, so I encouraged them to bring God into that by working together to choose the moments of their holiday they really enjoyed and were most thankful for and to choose a thanks-filled worship song as the backing track. For some of you, I know you’re thinking, “I could NEVER do that!” Well, don’t, do something which you enjoy doing! I love making bread, and I find when I’m kneading dough is a great time to pray the prayers for which I’ve run out of words – prayers for people I’ve prayed for a long time and not seen an answer yet. I’ve also found running a good time to pray. If you’re not a photographer, a runner or a baker, do what you do that makes you feel close to God.
I’ve been in a few meetings lately where the importance and significance and usefulness of the Lord’s Prayer was underlined. It has so much in it and is well-known by many people, so is often a good place to start praying.
I also think it’s great to help people make up their own prayers, and so encourage them to use their own voice and words when talking with God. Many people seem to be put off prayer as they don’t think they can do it right, when I think God is more interested in us talking with Him than He is in the words we use.
Once we’ve prayed, let our children see us pray, we can then invite them to pray with us. This can be as simple as asking a child who they’d like to ask God to bless. When my daughter was tiny, I started doing prayers with her using a photo prayer book. I simply printed photos of all our extended family and stuck them in a book. At the front I stuck some different coloured Post-it notes then invited my two-year-old to read the book with me. She choose which photos we looked at and drew a prayer for each person as we paused on their page. To my amazement, she once drew a picture which turned out to be an encouraging word to a family member who, unbeknown to me, was going through a very difficult experience at the time. The encouragement included an element of a prophetic word which also came to pass later that year.
I find I’m always being reminded not to underestimate how much prayer children already do without us, and not to assume they need us to communicate with God. One form of prayer I’ve found really helps me step out of the way in their relationship with God is silent prayer. Rachel Turner, in her brilliant book ‘Parenting Children for a life of faith’ encourages parents to use silent prayers as a way of encouraging children to interact directly with God. This is where you pick topics and spend 30 seconds or a minute talking silently with God about that topic. (I’ve also done whisper-into-a-pillow prayers.) The topics can be varied, such as What I liked best about today, My favourite toy, Things I regret, What I like to eat, Where I like being, and what upsets me. I love this but find it challenging as not hearing what children pray means I have to leave them to it and trust God – I think this is good for me! As I’m discovering, my children don’t always need my prompting to talk with God. The other day I got in the car and asked if anyone would like to pray for our long journey ahead. My five-year-old said yes. This was her prayer: “Dear Lord God. I’ve already sung you a song before Mummy got in the car. Please could you also bless our journey?” Wow!
So let’s pray, let’s let children see us pray, and let’s invite them to pray with us.
Oh, and let’s have fun! Look for things you like and tie prayer into them. Try out prayers which link with the natural or church season, ones which link in with what you are doing as a family. See below for some ideas.
And for those of us who are church or childrens’ group leaders, let’s try and do prayer in our settings in ways that people can replicate at home. Keep it simple so it’s easy to learn the ‘method’ of praying. Make it accessible – this is often about the words we use. I often to about being thankful as well as thanking God. For many people being thankful is a good discipline they’d like to do more of and is only a step away from acknowledging that ‘every good gift’ comes from God. If we do this then people (adults and children!) are more likely to repeat what they did with us again at home. And then we’ve given them the items they’ll need to do so. (See Jelly Baby prayer below.)
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s also make sure that the prayer we do and the prayer we pass on is a two-way conversation. Let’s teach children how to listen to God, or as Rachel Turner describes it, ‘catching’. (There’s a brilliant article describing how she helps children learn about ‘catching’ God as well as in her book (see above)). I think that taking part in prayer which is a two-way conversation revolutionises our prayer, making it not something we have to work hard to do but something we can’t live without. Let’s be a people who “Never stop praying” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Ideas to help inspire praying together
1 Think codes
My favourite is a colour code, where you just assign each colour different things to thank God for or pray for. If using sweets, try picking a sweet out of the bag without looking then say a prayer about the topic you allocated to that topic. (We often use Jelly Babies which have 6 colours. They come in large and mini packs so you can use them in a group or service setting then give families a packet each to use at home. For a healthier, messier option you can also use fruit (e.g. strawberries, blueberries, grapes/kiwi and melon). This also works well with Twister. Just label up your mat with 4 different categories for prayer. I find this works best if you get people to think about what they’d like to pray about before you start the game, as otherwise, the game moves a bit too slowly. If doing this with children under 3, you might want to give them only 2 options. For children 5 and over, invite them to help choose the categories. You might be surprised at what they pick! I’ve also found dice prayers work well – especially with children 7+ who are given free rein to choose which six topics to pray for. I’ve found it is hard to get them to stop once they get going!
2 Think senses
Including things which appeal to different senses helps people with different learning styles, builds a strong bond between objects and prayer, so that when those objects are encountered again outside of a prayer context, they are likely to bring to mind the prayer experience.
Hand washing, writing in sand, and watching vitamin tablets dissolve in water can all be used as sorry prayers. I find it’s easy to overdo sorry prayers with children, and at home, it can easily turn into ‘say sorry for everything you’ve done wrong again’, so I try to have this as an option rather than compulsory.
3 Think seasons
Both natural and church seasons lend themselves to certain types of prayer. In one Messy church, I led the group in a time of prayer using conkers. I collected a whole bucket full and gave them one each to hold in the shells! As we held them, we thought about and told God silently about ‘spikey’ things in our lives, things which were hurting us. We then opened up the spikey shells and held the smooth, beautiful conkers on the inside, and asked God to transform our spikey things into something beautiful (“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11). It was a short but profound time of prayer. Afterwards, I discovered that one family had lost a young baby on that day the year before, and found it a powerful way to bring that to God.