(Today I’m excited to share this guest post from author and Church History professor Gary Neal Hansen. These are great insights into helping our kids develop a deeper prayer life!)
Maybe you think intimate conversation with God is the most natural thing in the world. If you do, you’re right: we really were created for this. But all relationships, even with people, take skills.
Kids have to grow in the skills of prayer.
You wouldn’t just set your three-year-old on a bike and give her a shove. You bolt on some training wheels.
There are training wheels for prayer too!
In my book Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers, I talk about ten approaches to prayer. Several have wisdom for teaching kids to pray. Let me highlight two.
1. Training Wheels from St. Benedict: A Daily Pattern of Prayer
Imagine yourself as a Benedictine nun. You would miss your kids, but you would have one very rich prayer life.
Every day of your life, prayer would have two qualities.
First, prayer would happen at regular, predictable times. Everyone would gather to pray seven times a day.
Second, those prayer times would be built around written prayers. The Psalms and other parts of the Bible would give you words to speak to God.
These ideas may seem counter-cultural, but both represent fifteen centuries of wisdom.
First wheel: Create a daily cycle of prayer with your kids.
Find the times when prayer fits throughout the day so prayer marks the rhythm of your family’s life. If together you ask God’s blessing before meals, and give God your troubles at bedtime, your kids will get used to praying four times a day.
This is not all of what prayer should be, but it is a crucial part. What you are aiming for is a habit of prayer.
If your kids don’t feel right eating or falling asleep without talking to God, you’re making progress.
Second wheel: Start with good pre-made prayers.
Sometimes we think rote prayers are second class, a step down from praying in our own words. The monastery reminds us that we need all the help we can get to learn to talk to the Creator and Ruler of the universe.
Our family uses a few table graces and the kids know them by heart. My favorite is Psalm 145:15-16, which I learned at a Benedictine monastery: “The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, to give them their food in due season. You open your hand and fill every living creature with blessing. Amen.”
At bedtime we each share something that they are thankful for and respond together, “Thank you God!” Someday we may change the response to the refrain of Psalm 136: “His love endures forever!”
Biblical words teach us to pray in deeper and broader ways than we sometimes can think of ourselves. The Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and other biblical prayers give your kids a deep well to draw from when they talk to God.
2. Learning to Pedal with St. Teresa of Ávila: Know Who You’re Talking To
Once your kids are accustomed to rote prayers, it’s time to learn to talk to God more naturally. There is no better teacher than Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582).
Teresa starts by studying who God is in Scripture. Then she thinks about who she herself must be in relation to this portrait of God. Conversation flows from clear understanding.
Two of her favorite portraits of God are “King” and “Bridegroom.”
Talking to God as King
If God is King, you need to be His obedient subject. You are not God’s equal. You approach with humility, even trembling, to the foot of the throne. You speak respectfully.
You can also take confidence: The King invites you to come and make your request. The King has the power and authority to grant what you need.
See how thinking of God as King can shape your prayer life?
Talking to Jesus as Bridegroom
If you think of Jesus as your Bridegroom, then you realize you are the beloved bride. You are lifted to his level, side by side, in joyful intimacy.
You can pour out your love and devotion, or your pain and sorrow, knowing He will respond with tenderness.
See how thinking of Jesus as Bridegroom can shape your prayer life?
Take up one particular way the Bible portrays God at a time. Talk about it with your kids. Show how you talk to God in that role. Invite them to share their own prayers. The better they know who God is, and who they are in relation to Him, the better they can pray.
Soon they’ll be able to ride all on their own.
I would love to hear from you in the comments: What are your struggles and successes teaching your kids to pray?
Gary Neal Hansen is author of the award-winning book Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (InterVarsity Press, 2012). He would love to connect with you on his blog (GaryNealHansen.com) where he mines the best of the Christian past, seeking wisdom for our changing world. He lives in Dubuque, Iowa with his wife and two small children, and serves as Associate Professor of Church History at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.