Hallelujah! In the name of the Lor' Jesus pray... thank you Lor' Jesus for the yummy noodles. Kamsahamnida,* amen."
Covering her eyes with folded up hands and peeping between her fingers, my three-year-old says grace before her meal. "Amen!" The rest of the family responds with delight as we witness Anna developing a good new habit.
Why do we make such a big deal over saying grace before a meal? We try to include God in as many aspects of our daily life as we can think of so that our children may come to know God as early as possible. We consider a quiet but faithful life in the Lord to be more of a success than any other accomplishment of this world. Therefore, we want to instill the habit of prayer in our children because it is the best way to establish a close relationship with God.
How can we help our children establish the habit of prayer even before they begin religious education classes? In this article, I'd like to share with fellow parents some reflections on this task.
Set the Example
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children... (Deut 6:5-7)
We know that children learn best by watching and imitating those closest to them. Naturally, if we want our children to pray, we must first become praying parents. We want to let our children know that prayer is as much a part of our family life as brushing our teeth every day.
How early should we start? Try fetal education—though, of course, I would recommend that parents start praying even before their child's conception. According to medical reports, fetuses begin to hear around the fifth month. The sound of prayer has been familiar to both of my children since they were in the womb, because today it never bothers them, even when they are sleeping. In fact, to them the sound of prayer is one of the best lullabies.
In addition to observing close family members praying, it is very beneficial for young children to be familiar with prayer in the church environment. The sooner your children get used to group prayer, the easier it will be for them to begin praying as well.
During group prayer, hold your infants or have them nearby while you pray, even if they are sleeping. As they get bigger, you can try letting them sit on your lap while you kneel and sit on your heels to pray. There will come a period of time when your children are too big to sit on your lap but are too young to kneel next to you or stay close by without disturbing others. At this time, instead of joining the rest of the congregation during prayer, you may have to pray in the nursery so that your toddlers will not be zigzagging around praying church members.
Don't worry if you have not been paying too much attention to nurturing a prayerful life in your children or if you are new to the faith. It's never too late to start, no matter how old or young your child is. Different age levels require different strategies. This article focuses mainly on preschoolers; nevertheless, there are some principles at the end of this article that can be applied to any age group.
Talk About Prayer
Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deut 6:7)
How can we include God in every aspect of our daily lives, as the verse above commands us to do? One of the best ways is to encourage prayer in the family as often as possible.
In any good relationship, open communication is absolutely essential. Likewise, our Heavenly Father wants us to speak to Him at all times. Prayers do not always have to be at a set time during the day. Rather, we can help our children say a short prayer whenever there is a need.
For example, a few months ago, we received a phone call telling us that Harmony, Anna's grandmother, had taken a fall and fractured her hipbone. Right away, we told little Anna and we said a prayer for Harmony. We also prayed for Harmony every time we said grace or during our nightly prayers. One day, about five weeks after Harmony's fall, we mentioned to Anna that we were going to visit Harmony. Anna quickly responded by saying, "Oh, Harmony fell and her side hurts (rubbing her hip). We need to pray for her." At that point our daughter knelt down and said a short prayer for her grandmother. My husband and I were amazed and very thankful for her newly learned lesson.
Another way to reinforce the practice of prayer in children is to tell stories about it. My three-year-old has always enjoyed the Bible stories I tell her from illustrated children's Bibles. I simplify the stories to focus on the main teachings, pointing out that people in the Bible pray just like us. In addition to Bible stories, children may also enjoy contemporary stories. These can be our own or other people's testimonies. If I can't think of a testimony to tell Anna, I sometimes make up stories about how prayer helped a little girl just like her.
Set up Routines
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:8-9)
Children crave the security of routines. Try to begin the habit of prayer as early as you can. I began to teach my newborns to say grace before each feeding by holding their tiny hands together and saying simply, "In the name of the Lord Jesus we pray. Thank You, Jesus, for giving the baby milk to drink. Hallelujah! Amen."
By the time Anna began to eat from a high chair, I made sure that she folded up her hands and bowed her head while I said grace before her meal. She would join in the prayer by saying "Amen" right after she heard the cue word, "kamsahamnida," before the end of the prayer. Anna did go through a rebellious period when she refused to join in the prayer. But then, once she got over that, she became the "prayer police"—that is, she made sure everyone at the table was praying or she would command, "Pray!"
Our family also goes through nightly "rituals" before bedtime. We all kneel and listen to Daddy pray, thanking God for the day and asking Him for a good night's sleep for us and our loved ones. Now, as we go through the same prayer each night, our three-year-old can recite the names of the people we are praying for. Sometimes she'll add Grandma's two dogs to the prayer list. After we pray, we sing Barney's "I Love You" song before we kiss each other good night.
The Five P's of a Praying Child
There is no formula that can guarantee that a child will love to pray, but I would like to suggest a few principles for mutual encouragement. I call them "The Five P's of a Praying Child": Practice, Patience, Praise, Pleasantness, and Prayer.
Practice. As with all new skills, a toddler needs practice before mastery. Parents must provide plenty of opportunities for children to practice without the fear of humiliation or rebuke. Begin with simple tasks such as joining in with "Amen" at the conclusion of a prayer. Slowly move on to "repeat-after-me" short prayers. Then, as the child acquires more vocabulary and understanding, allow the child to say his or her own prayers.
Patience. Expect refusals, giggles, partial cooperation, and the like. Parents must ask God for daily doses of patience in order to maintain a normal level of mental health, especially as the child gains more independence with age. Remind yourself that God will not be offended by your youngster's act of noncompliance during prayers. Sooner or later, your little clown will actually take the initiative to pray. The key is to not give up!
Praise. It is always good practice to praise your child in whatever endeavor he or she is taking toward worship. Children thrive with positive reinforcement. Another aspect of praise is in the form of music. Children love to sing songs of praise. Don't forget that praise is also an important form of worship.
Pleasantness. Remember to make prayer, or any kind of worship, as pleasant as possible for your children. Prayer need not be a chore or a bore. At the dinner table, we let Anna decide who should say the grace—herself or someone else. During our nightly prayers, we make it a privilege for everyone to gather in prayer. Often, a dose of creativity helps tremendously.
Prayer. Last, but most important, we parents must first be praying warriors ourselves. Our children need to know that we value prayer in our own lives and that we are praying for them, no matter how old they are.
I must admit, many times my husband and I feel like we are totally in the dark in this parenting business. But we know that the Lord Jesus is our best consultant and example. We are so thankful for having the opportunity each day to learn together with our children. May the Lord continue to grant each of us the patience and wisdom necessary to guide our children into a prayerful life.
*Kamsahamnida means "thank God" in Korean.
"Family Altar"is dedicated to providing practical, biblical insight for parents who face the challenge of raising a family in today's fast-paced and variant society. Please direct comments on this article or questions about parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org.