Praying feels more complicated than it really is. What to say to the God of the universe? What does God even want to hear from me? And what do I do when prayer inevitably merges into daydreaming or list-making? So teaching kids to pray feels unreasonably daunting—if I go cross-eyed just overcoming my own awkwardness, inadequacy, guilt, impatience, and insecurity in order to practice the spiritual discipline of prayer, how on earth can I be expected to teach it to children?
I have good news for you, friend. Kids can actually help us out here! Kids are amazing at prayer, not because they say the words perfectly or have the best possible motives for prayer—they usually don’t. But kids do have two things that we somehow lose on the way to adulthood.
Kids have direct dial into spirituality. While we adults often need to take ten long breaths or shut ourselves in a dark closet in order to focus on the heavenly, kids just seem to reside right in God’s heart and can speak to God intimately and honestly at a moment’s notice. There is research to back up the innate spirituality of children (see The Spirit of the Child by David Hay and Rebecca Nye), that “faith like a child” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 18.
- Kids do not feel like they are an imposition. They don’t worry that God will think they’re selfish if they ask to become an NFL player someday or to receive an expensive game system for their birthday. They assume that God is interested in them fully, because they are the center of the world. And guess what? They’re right—God is very interested in them. And in us.
So if the spiritual discipline of prayer is as intimidating to you as it is to me, and if you have children in your life or in your church, let them become your teachers. Learn from their uninhibited, trusting approach to prayer.
With that said, it’s also true that kids look to us to model a life of prayer. While they have a gift for it, it’s not likely that children will utilize and practice their gift unless we introduce and encourage it. Just as Jesus taught his followers to pray, the calling of any adult who cares for children is to teach them to pray as well. Considering our responsibility to teach children to pray and children’s natural propensity toward the spiritual, we can conclude that praying with children constitutes a symbiotic ministry paradigm.
In my book, The Children & Family Ministry Handbook, I wrote about prayer as an appropriate spiritual milestone for preschoolers. Although I cannot prove it, I firmly believe that the preschool years are some of the richest, most important years to instill prayer practices in children. There is no prayer like the prayer of a preschooler. These kids are just learning how to express themselves verbally. What better way to encourage this developmental milestone than by teaching them to pray? They are not yet embarrassed to pray out loud, and their sweet, simple hearts are fully attuned to God. Preschoolers are usually quite verbal and always interested in opportunities to show off their speaking skills. They are learning at a mile a minute, and they 100% trust that the things you tell them are true. In the end, all I really need in order to convince someone that preschoolers are wonderfully suited for prayer is to let you listen to one pray.
Here is are some excerpts from my book with several ideas for teaching preschoolers to pray:
- The preschool years are the ideal time to emphasize prayer. While they cannot read, they often love to learn rhyming prayers and to speak prayer requests to one another. Invite the families of preschoolers to join them in their meeting area one Sunday a few months into the school year. Allow preschoolers to demonstrate the prayer rituals you have taught them, and lead both parents and preschoolers through a time of prayer requests and corporate prayer. Speak a blessing over each family.
- Right after parents participate in this special preschool worship time, invite them to gather to debrief with you. Ask about their own prayer practices. Discuss different prayer practices such as intercession, journaling, praying in color, Lectio Divina, praying Scripture, praying through spiritual songs, and so forth. Help parents plan prayer time into their routines, and tell them how excited their preschoolers are to pray with and for them.
- Pick up a toy microphone, a candle or a beanbag, and let them pray while holding it and then pass it along. Teach them how to pray for one another, pairing them up and letting them hold hands as they say their prayers. Pray blessings over them by name. Invite them to repeat prayers after you. Learn a prayer by heart as a group and pray it together in a circle at the end of your worship time. Find as many ways as you can to pray along with preschoolers.
- Solicit prayers from congregation members in advance by asking them to write down a short prayer on behalf of young families. Then compile the submissions and give them to families. Also, solicit prayer requests from preschool families and assign other congregation members to pray for daily. Check out the Pray For Me campaign at http://www.prayformecampaign.com/.
There is no end to the creative ways we connect to God, from reading the Psalms together to using Leanne Hadley’s Listening Stones, to beginning and ending worship times with breath prayers (like this example from Sarah Bessey or like this example from UMC Discipleship), to simply asking children to sit or lie in comfortable positions and think about God’s goodness while you play quiet worship music in the background. Prayer can be scripted… or not. It can involve speaking out loud… or not. The point of prayer is to connect with our holy God, to share honestly with God and to listen for God’s love, grace, and correction. Our souls crave this connection no matter what our age, because we are made in God’s image and therefore are only whole if we are living with the Spirit of God.
In my experience, kids’ prayers consist of perfunctory requests regarding a deceased grandparent in one sentence, then a heartfelt expression of gratitude in the next. Kids in my ministry thank God that they get to go a friend’s birthday party and pray that God will bring unity to our divided country in one breath. Sometimes they’ll pray in an actor low voice tone and get everyone to giggle, and sometimes they’ll ask to be excused from prayer or want to pray silently. All of this is okay!
As adults charged with the care of kids, we must demonstrate honest, loving prayer—we lead by praying blessings over each child by name, by praying for our own concerns out loud, by taking a deep breath in and then thanking God with our exhale, and by stopping everything when a need arises and praying a simple and sweet prayer on the spot. It takes bravery to teach children to pray—but at least we have them as a wonderful example to draw from.
First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY