Thoughts About Teaching Kids to Pray

A friend of mine with toddlers asked me a question about teaching her boys to pray and that discussion sparked this blog. Thanks friend, you know who you are!

Her dilemma was struggling with the boys wanting to eat their food before the prayer was over and one of them telling her “no” he did not want to pray before their meal was eaten. She wondered if this was a battle she should fight or if she should give up meal time prayer altogether?

This is what I suggested, you can say a short prayer and give them their food after the prayer is over or you can opt to teach them prayer at another time of the day. The little one telling her no should be corrected for any type of attitude of rebellion to instructions given. Allowing a rebellious attitude, even at 1, can breed all types of problems later that are too late to correct. Correct even “minor” problems early and it is preventative maintenance for bad behavior later on.

Is prayer that important before meal time? We know that Jesus blessed the food before He handed it out at the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:19) and at the Last Supper when the disciples were gathered together in the upper room (Matthew 26). We also know the principle that we should give thanks for all things from I Thessalonians 5:17,18, “Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” I think there is a good case for praying before meal time but is it a requirement to eat? Of course not! Will I or my kids be a big fat sinner for not praying before a meal? No, we were already big fat sinners before that… ha ha. (Romans 3:23)

We have 4 kids, ages 7, 5, 3, and 1. Here are some things that we do with our kids, praying before meals and other parts of the day. I am by no means an expert on how to pray or train your children in many things but we have seen our children respond to learning to pray to God and for others.

Be Consistent! Children are limited in their understanding,  and do not know whether this meal is going to be one you pray at and the next will not be. If you want them to pray before a meal then do it every time. This will help them reign themselves in and learn to be calm and collected before they dig in to that awesome grub you have prepared.

Beginning Stages Some mothers begin with praying with their children over their bottle or when they nurse, which is a great start! I thanked God for the milk whenever I thought of it, not necessarily every feeding.

When you first begin to teach your infant (9-12 mo) to pray they may resist your efforts to hold their hands or put their hands together. Just like with baby sign language they always resist learning the sign at first until they are used to it. If you choose to hold their hands during prayer then hold on to them until you say “Amen.” It defeats the purpose of prayer if you are just going to let them wriggle their hands free and do whatever they want.

You can also teach them the sign language sign for “Amen” which is a closed fist with the thumb sticking up tilted sideways, like you are playing the  rock, paper, scissors game and then hitting it on an open palm and bouncing it up again. This is a fun thing to say when you are done with the prayer. Our oldest daughter when she was 2, would throw her hands up in the air and yell “Amen!” when we were done with our prayer, it was really cute.

Keep it simple! Someone taught me that for each year a child is old, is the length of their attention span. So a 3 year old has a 3 minute attention span and a 8 year old has an 8 minute attention span. It’s a pretty useful tip toward our prayer time. I’m not saying we need to have a 3 minute prayer for a 3 year old, allow the child to be a child though. Do not have the expectation that he will sit still for a really long prayer while someone just goes on and on and on. They battle their attention span as well as their tummy. So say a 30 second to 1 minute prayer or their food will begin to disappear before you say amen.

A friend of ours always said that if we are praying a long prayer before meal time then we probably were not praying enough during other parts of the day. His statement hits a nail on the head, if you can’t just say thank you Lord for this food and perhaps a request or two, maybe you need to pray more another time of the day.

Pray about things that they are interested in. They will be more interested in prayer if you are thanking God for the chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes that they really like on their plate than your sister-in-law’s co-worker’s uncle who they do not know. Ask God to allow the food to give their body strength so that they can play and get their school work done and any other activities you are doing throughout your day. This helps them understand their food is used for their body for the purpose of serving the Lord.

To hold hands or not to hold hands… This is up to you. Children can get distracted by holding someone’s hand that may squeeze too hard or feel dry or sweaty. Kids also create hand squeezing games between each other which also kind of takes away from the purpose of talking to God respectfully.We typically do not hold hands when people in our family are sick. Germs kinda tend to travel through our family quickly so there are times when we direct the children to fold their hands in front of them.  Keeping their hands folded in front of them can be an element of teaching children the discipline of keeping still during the prayer.

Eyes shut! This shows respect toward God and plus, it would be weird if everyone stared at each other when someone else prayed. Maybe you have seen scenes like this on movies where everyone is staring at each other during the meal time prayer. In my opinion, it distracts from the purpose of talking to God. Our prayers should not be directed toward each other, only to the One that has provided all things for us.

Teaching Prayer Other Times of the Day Bedtime Prayers and Discipline Prayers

Bedtime Prayers are probably the most popular prayers. It is another way to simply calm a child before going to bed. It gives you an opportunity to reflect on the day with your child and find out what is on their heart to pray about. With our infant I will pray in her ear as I hold her, “Thank you Lord for this day, thank you for this sweet baby girl. Please help her with her teething to be able to sleep through the night. Help me to teach her your ways. Amen.” With our 3-year-old it is easy to pray and thank God for several things that have happened throughout the day. “Thank you Lord that we were able to go to the park and play. Thank you that you gave us a friend to play with. Please keep our Sunshine Girl safe through the night. Amen.” With our boys we go in and ask them what they are thankful for and if they want to pray about anything then pray with them about the things that they mentioned. We have asked them to pray before bed but they generally opt out and want us to pray with them instead.

Discipline Prayers are prayers you pray after your child has been dealt with for a discipline problem. If the child has been disciplined and is truly repentant for the thing that they chose to do wrong then it is time to pray. We teach our children to confess their sins to God (He alone can forgive sins, parents/others can forgive the wrong done toward them but they cannot forgive their sins). We pray that God will strengthen them and help them to find the way out of temptation so that they do not make a bad choice again because with temptation is always a way of escape (I Corinthians 10:13). We pray that God will help us as parents to be able to see and help our children in times of trouble because we too struggle. After real discipline there should be a repentant (not wanting to do it again) attitude and a soft heart that is willing to hear you speak to God on their behalf.

Why we pray/How we pray God does not demand that we pray to Him and our prayers are not a way to get to heaven. We teach our children to talk to God just like we talk to each other, it’s a respectful conversation, not a specific prayer read out of a book that has no meaning to them. Our goal is to have our children accept Christ as their Saviour in the years to come and then be able to speak to Him as their Heavenly Father. It is a guide to teaching them how to have a relationship with God that they, Lord willing, will carry on throughout the rest of their lives.

Let them hear you pray. This can be a pet peeve of mine. Just because children like to pray does not mean that they should pray at every meal time or every opportunity that they have to pray. Children’s prayers are cute but when will they ever learn to pray if they do not hear you?

Guide on what to pray for. Some kids will pray for their dog every single time or always pray for the person they knew was sick that is not sick any more. We should be steering away from repetitious prayers and we need to guide our children on what to pray for, not the exact words to say.

Our family takes the photo Christmas cards we receive in December and puts the pictures up on our refrigerator and we pray for the people on the fridge all year until the next December. When prayer time comes around before meals then we say “Pick someone on the fridge to pray for.” They will say their name, then my husband or I will tell them something that is going on in their life that we can pray for. Then the child is directed but the words are not put in their mouth on what exactly to say. They say the sweetest prayers for other people, when they might normally be inclined to pray for anyone beside themselves or our immediate family.

Our kids heard someone in the family pray “Help us to have a great day” over and over until they only prayed “Thank you for our food and help us to have a great day.” It began to bother me because not only was it just something they said quickly so they could  move on and stuff their faces, it was an empty prayer. What if God did not give us a great day? Would it mean that God did not answer their prayer? It began to motivate me to show them that even if we did not have a great day, that God is still good and there are always things to be thankful to Him for.

Value Answered Prayer Any time that God answers a prayer, whether it is the way you hoped or not, point it out to your children! My 3-year-old might pray for a cut on her finger because it hurts, when the cut is better, we say, “God made your finger all better! Wow!” We explain to our boys that someone passed away instead of allowing them to get better like we had prayed. We have to steer clear of the Santa Claus mentality of teaching our children we only pray to God to get what we want. This can create disappointment toward God when our prayers are not answered the way we want them to and how we want them to. You may pray for a brand new van but God gives you a used one instead, it may not be quite what you were hoping but it is still an answer to prayer. Value all of God’s answers whether they are yes, no, or wait. Your children will build confidence in God when you value answered prayers.

Children are eager to learn from you spiritual things. I hope that you will, if you do not already, pray with your children on a regular basis. You may or may not choose to pray before meals but you should guide your children to pray. These ideas are by no means exhaustive but it is a start that might just spark your mind toward making a conscious effort to teach your children how to build a relationship with God.

Maybe you are feeling like it is too late for you to teach your children because they are older, do not fall for that lie! Teenagers long for someone to care enough to pray with them about the burdens that lie so deeply in their hearts. Even if you get snubbed the first few times you try to pray with them, continue try, try, again to pray with them whenever the door is open.

I hope this was a help to you, now I’m off to the table to pray with the kids!