I became a Christian in college and was floored that you could pray to God—and he would hear you! I had never heard of such a thing! Like a newborn baby, I inched along in prayer, not sure what I should or shouldn’t do. In some ways, I had the innocence of a child because I hadn’t learned prayer clichés that allowed me to coast along without meaning what I said. But it was also scary at first to pray out loud. Maybe you’ve experienced some of the same things, either having been a Christian all or most of your life, or having come to faith later. Our covenant children have the privilege of being raised to know God from the beginning, and it’s a wonderful testimony for them. We have the privilege of teaching them his ways, including how to come to him in prayer.
Involving your kids in the family’s prayer life is the best way to teach them to pray. You learn to pray by praying; it requires practice. Of course, Jesus himself warns his disciples against praying like the hypocrites who only want to be seen to be praying, or those who fill up their prayers with empty words that mean nothing (Matt 6:5-8). Prayer is not a task to be mastered, or a secret formula, or a way to impress others. Prayer can flow freely from the lips, and sometimes it’s nothing more than our silent hearts bowing before God. But we can always learn to pray more in line with God’s will, to be more honest with him, to be more joyfully subject to him. So our kids will learn what prayer means as they listen to us pray, and as we encourage them to pray. They will pick up on what we value and what we do, more than what we say. So let both our teaching and our practice be good!
God’s majesty and distinction from us (or transcendence) and his presence and nearness (or immanence) should direct our worship and prayer. Let us not see God as so removed from us that we forget he is keeping us in the shelter of his wings. And let us not think him so familiar that we forget he is holy and it took Jesus’s death on the cross to reunite us.
As such, it is good to have some prayer times where our children have to be still and calm and respectful. God is mighty and majestic and holy, and we must come before him with reverential awe. But God is also near to us, a tender Father, and he calls us his children and friends. We have prayer times where I tell the kids to shout to God as loud as they can, telling him what they’re thankful for. They’re encouraged to be boisterous and happy, rejoicing like David in the streets, which God commended (2 Samuel 6:14-15).
We also want to mirror God in valuing our children’s hearts and the things that matter to them. This doesn’t mean encouraging self-centeredness, but we want them to know how intimately God is involved in their lives and how much he wants them to come to him as their Father. In our morning family worship time,* we ask each child, even the 2-year-old, what they want to pray for. Their answers are often pretty serious, including praying for friends with illnesses and for Christians who are in prison in other countries for their faith. But if they say they want to pray about having something yummy for lunch, or playing outside, we pray for that too! Let their child-like prayers be valued and heard. Let them come to God with all their heart open to him, in faith that he loves and hears them.
In our dining area, we have a giant pad of paper (the kind they use in school-rooms) with a list of people we are praying for, and a space for everyone to write or draw what they are thankful for—our Prayer and Thankfulness Board. At meals, we include one or two of these people/requests in our prayers and cycle through the list. It’s a way of making these needs constantly visible so they are constantly part of our lives. You can put a prayer list anywhere in the house, and set up a routine of praying at any time: in the car, before bed, first thing in the morning. I find it extremely helpful to embed prayer into the things we already consistently do. I’m not naturally a routine-driven person, but I find that creating simple, attainable routines for these spiritual disciplines means we will actually do them.
We also help our kids memorize common prayers like the Lord’s prayer and others from Scripture. Memorized prayers should not be the sum total of our prayer life, as we are also encouraged to come before God spontaneously and with all our needs and praises. But they are a valuable part of helping us focus on what God has told us to desire, and the full counsel of Scripture.
All of these suggestions and ideas are to stir your imagination for what your family’s spiritual life can look like. This is not meant to burden you: pray out of joy, not guilt. Certainly pray even when you don’t feel like it, because your deepest desire is to be connected to God, and discipline means following the deepest desire rather than the fleeting feeling. But find what works for you and your family, within the bounds of Scripture’s teachings, and do that.
Ultimately, we want to guide our children into a personal relationship with the Lord that they themselves own. We want them to earnestly desire fellowship with God in his word and in prayer, pursuing it themselves vigorously. We teach them within the context of our family’s spiritual life so that they will grow in truth and grace, and eventually launch into the adult world as committed followers of Christ. That’s why it’s essential to have the mindset of our home being both a haven and a launching ground. Hold their hand when they are young, and never fully let go of them, but help them to take bold steps forward on their own.
*Note: there’s nothing magical or more spiritual about doing family Bible and prayer time in the morning! Do it at lunch if everyone is home, do it at dinner, do it before bed. Pick a time that works for you to be consistent about coming before the Lord together.