Like many expecting mothers, I started reading parenting books while pregnant in preparation for all the trials and tribulations I knew would be coming after the birth of our son. One of the books I discovered was on praying for your child. In it there was a list of prayers that focused on praying about a different part of the child's body. As soon as Nikolas was born I copied the prayers down on index cards, adding his name in the blanks to personalize them.
Every night I would work my way through the stack, praying one of the prayers as part of Nikolas' bedtime routine. As soon as he was old enough to talk, he added his own "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" prayer with a laundry list of relatives and friends to bless. After several years though, both our prayers became rote.
I often found myself having to remind Nik to slow down and think about the people he was praying for. "You are asking God to bless these people, not running through your addition tables." I wanted the prayer to come from his heart, not out of habit.
As soon as Nik learned to read, I realized it was time to help him learn how to pray more fully for himself. I went to the bookstore in search of a book of prayers for early readers. I found several children prayer books, but most of them were thematic—featuring one prayer for bedtime, one for mealtime, and one for when a friend was sick. Many included famous prayers that were written in a very sing-song rhyming style. I was hoping to find prayers that had a more general theme that could be used every day, and were formatted in a way that encouraged a more conversational style of prayer.
I came back home a little discouraged, but also motivated. Perhaps, I could come up with some prayers that would better meet my expectations. Since I wanted to keep it on a beginning reader level, I picked up Nik's children's Bible. I started in Proverbs and picked out "wisdom" nuggets I thought were most relevant to his life and the values I hoped to instill. I copied each one on a card and added a short related prayer.
Here's a sample:
Bible verse: The Lord watches a man's ways. He studies all of his paths. Proverbs 5:21 (NIV)
Prayer: Thank you God for always watching over me. Even when I make mistakes, I can be sure that you love me and will help me. I ask you to forgive me for the times I have made bad choices. I know that the next time I have a hard choice to make, I can ask you to guide me.
The first time Nik went through each prayer card, they sounded a little stiff. I don't think there was much reading comprehension occurring. Soon, though, the verses and prayers became more familiar and Nik was able to tell me what the theme was. Since I don't want these prayers to get tiresome, I continue to add new ones based on the Psalms, the teachings of Jesus and Paul's letters to the church. Over time he'll have a good variety of verses and prayers to draw from. After he masters this type of prayer, I hope to give Nik a verse to study and see if he can create his own prayer based on it—but that is probably still a few years away.
No matter the age, prayer is one of the greatest tools we're given for making our way through life. Here are some additional ideas I've learned from other parents to help guide our kids in developing a stronger prayer life:
1. Don't keep them sheltered from the hardships of life. While the mama bear in me wants to protect Nik from hearing about all of the bad stuff that happens in the world, I know that this will hinder his ability to develop a compassionate heart. There are certain things I would rather he not see on the five o'clock news, but if I can support him as he sees and hears about these tragedies, I can turn them into teachable (and praying) moments. My neighbor Kristi was taken aback by the compassion that her seven-year-old Nathan exhibited after hearing about the earthquake in Haiti. Not only did he include those who suffered loss in his nightly prayers, but he also was motivated to donate his time helping to pack provisions.
2. Don't discourage wish-list praying. Listening to your daughter ask God for the expensive brand-named handbag you won't even splurge on for yourself may cause you to cringe, but prayers like these won't create a materialistic, shopaholic monster. Sally, the leader of my moms' group, knows firsthand not to underestimate any child's prayer. Her daughter Katie often takes requests that are out of mom and dad's control to God. While neither parent can control the weather, God can so he is the one she goes to when she is hoping for a snow day at school. And after the death of her younger brother to cancer, Katie started to ask God to bring her a baby sister—a prayer he answered with an awesome blessing who has helped the family during their grief.
3. Practice what you preach. Children are quick to pick up and disregard the "do as I say, not as I do" messages we give them when our words don't jive with our actions. While I certainly find it easier to pray when Nik is at school or after he has gone to bed, if he doesn't see me praying, how can he truly believe that I think it is vital? My friend Debbie's son Michael has joined her several times to visit ailing relatives in the hospital. Although out of her comfort zone, she has initiated group prayer with relatives in the waiting room on more than one occasion. In the same way, I am trying to put my own prayer life on display for Nik in hopes that we both will grow into strong pray-ers.
4. Develop a regular prayer time and keep it spontaneous. As a dance instructor, Sara witnesses the wisdom of the adage "practice makes perfect." at work every day. She tries to apply this same principle to her kids' prayer lives by building in regular time for prayer. Her spouse, on the other hand, wants their son and daughter to pray spontaneously from the heart whenever they are led. Both types of prayer are constructive and both should be in your child's prayer toolbox. Scheduled prayer time is the dumbbell that can build strong prayer muscles in our children. Spontaneous prayer takes a certain level of maturity to master, so we need to ask God to help us identify times when we can guide our kids to pray where they are, like when we hear about a serious car accident on the radio while we're driving home from school, or when our child comes home upset or sad over a fight with a friend.
5. Support them in finding good role models. Once children reach later elementary age the influence and knowledge of those outside the home often carries more weight than parents'. That's why it's important to surround your family with a community of faith so they are exposed to others who can share with them an example of a strong prayer life. Several years ago, my sister-in-law Susan was in the middle of a very messy divorce. Her two kids have always attended church and are blessed to be enrolled in a Christian school and an active youth group. Susan contributes this consistent exposure to other prayer "teachers" as vital in helping them turn to God for comfort and guidance at times when it seemed like they had no one else to turn to.
Raelynn Eickhoff is a freelance writer living in the suburbs with her husband and son.