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"Dear Jesus ? "

Teach your children to really talk to God

One of my earliest memories is snuggling with my mother while she prayed aloud and held me close. I can still feel the warmth of her hands on my back as she began, "Now I lay me down to sleep ? " I loved the intimacy of those moments so much that I continued the ritual through out my teenage years until I left for college.

Less pleasant are the memories of me lying in my own bed, struggling in the dark to find the words to connect with my Heavenly Father. I remember praying, "Dear God, I'm sorry I sinned so much today. Please help me never to sin again." This request always produced disappointment in me, for in the next moment some malicious or jealous thought had already entered my head.

Even as an adult, I've felt ineffective in my prayer life. I realize now that although I grew up in a praying, church-going family, our prayers were mostly memorized, "poem" prayers recited at mealtime and bedtime. I also realize that those times of prayer with my mother were about connecting with her and not true communication with God. For me the "canned prayers" lacked immediacy and often fell short of conveying the burdens on my heart and the struggles I was facing in daily life.

When my son was a baby, we prayed the familiar poem prayers together. Although the ritual was comforting and helpful to him in learning that all of God's children need to talk to him, I still yearned for a more heartfelt way to pray.

Several years and a second child later, I received the breakthrough. At a weekend retreat, a mother of teenagers shared what prayer had meant in her family's life. Her most meaningful experiences, she said, had come when she taught her children the "ACTS" of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanks giving and Supplication.

My children were only 3 and 5 years old when I began to teach them this method of talking to God. At first, my 3-year-old had trouble staying focused. When she became disruptive, I would ask her to wait outside the room until we were finished. First and foremost, I wanted to teach my children that we must approach our Heavenly Father with reverence. On a night when his sister was particularly wiggly, my 5-year-old son prayed, "Lord, please help Lane get better at praying." I know God smiled, as did we!

Here's how your family can use the ACTS formula.


In order for children to understand this concept, provide a sentence to prompt their response. Begin with the phrase, "I love (or adore) you God because you are ? " The goal is to elicit from the children an attribute of God. "Praise him for what he is, not what he does," I tell them. My children have come up with: "nice," "good," "healthy," "Lord of life," "loving," "powerful." We are always on the lookout for an attribute to use in our prayers. Sometimes in church, I point out phrases in hymns and whisper, "This one would be good to use for ?adoration' tonight." We also find words of adoration in the Psalms. You can illustrate God's qualities by pointing out an act of kindness, mercy or might.


Again, offer the children a cue: "Lord, please forgive me for ? " or "I'm sorry I ? " Encourage them to be as specific as possible. Ask them to think back over the day to a time when they did wrong or were disobedient. Children don't like to rehash their sins any more than adults do. Often, the sin they confess is one they have been "caught in" and for which they have been disciplined. It's easier for them to pinpoint a sin if they were punished for it. More difficult to remember are the ones that occurred at school, on the playground, or between brother and sister with no parental intervention.

Don't force the issue when they can't think of a specific sin to confess. Instead have them pray something along these lines: "Lord, I can't thing of anything I did wrong today, but I know I did sin and that I'm a sinner. Please forgive me for my sins even though I can't remember them." Another response could be, "Please forgive me when I'm ? (disobedient, selfish, complaining)."

Be sure you participate in these prayer times as well. How their little ears perk up when it's Mom's turn to confess! Use this time to let your children know it's wrong to lose your temper, gossip on the phone or complain. In these moments, children will learn that parents are sinners forgiven by God just as they are.


Begin to teach this aspect of prayer very simply: thank God for the good things that have happened during the day. Thank the Lord for special people in your lives or for having a good day.

As time progressed, my older child began what I consider the ultimate form of thanksgiving?thanking God for giving Jesus, who died for us. What a blessing it was to hear my son thanking his Heavenly Father for this Gift.

Just as confession allows my children to hear some of my sins, thanksgiving gives me the chance to list my blessings. Each night when my turn for thanksgiving comes around, I thank God for each child and list some of his or her qualities for which I am especially grateful. They also love hearing me thank God for my husband and his good qualities. This gives them enormous security in our family's love for each other.


Supplication is a big word for little mouths, but my children quickly under stood the concept: "Is this when I get to ask God for some stuff?"

Divide this category into two parts: praying for others and praying for yourself. Before you begin, discuss who is on your prayer list and who would like to pray for each person. This gives children a sense of responsibility and participation. My children particularly love to pray for their 92-year-old great-grandmother who suffers from back pain and arthritis.

Encourage your children to seek God's help with their struggles, from warding off nightmares to having a good day at school. I use this time to pray for each of my children specifically. To hear themselves named before the Lord reinforces my love for them and my confidence in the Lord.

Although this method may sound as if it requires hours in prayer each night, I have found the opposite to be true. Praying with the ACTS formula takes no more than five to ten minutes. If it's late or we are particularly tired, each family member prays one section.

The ACTS prayer has started my children on the road to a close relationship with God. I believe we are achieving the same intimacy that I sought each night with my mother, as well as the greatest of all intimacies?resting for awhile in the Master's lap.

Lee Billings is freelance writer and college English instructor. She lives in Memphis with her husband and two children.

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