Growing up, I don’t specifically remember being taught to pray. There were no formal, sit-down lessons; no whiteboard charts and venn diagrams; no family “practice sessions” around the fireplace. Prayer was simply a part of our family culture, woven into the day as naturally as meals, rest, and conversation.
Today, as a mom to three children, I’ve often looked back on my childhood and thought about how my parents handled teaching their children to pray. My personal tendency when it comes to teaching spiritual disciplines in our home is to look for a single, sure-fire option. But like most things in parenting, my own parents showed me that helping a child learn to pray is a combination of things built over time; small daily inputs that add up to a robust foundation for a child to draw on the rest of their lives.
Here are five ways to encourage your child to grow in their love and understanding of prayer.
1. Create a safe space for your child.
It seems that no matter how old we get, prayer—particularly with others—can feel a bit scary. An important first step in any home is to create a safe space for your child to learn what it means to talk with God. Don’t get frustrated if your youngest children are praying silly or irreverent prayers about the dog or the rug. Trust that the same God that’s working in your heart is working in your child’s.
Ultimately God is the one who matures them out of rote or immature prayers. If necessary, find time away from the specific moment to correct a misunderstanding in an age-appropriate way, or have a conversation with them to broaden their vision for what prayer can be. Above all, show them they can talk with God any place, any time, about anything on their hearts.
2. Teach your child a basic theology of prayer.
Sometimes, the most foundational questions feel the most difficult to answer. Help your children to see that prayer isn’t complicated—it’s simply “talking with God.” As they grow, you can unpack that statement to help them gain a more robust understanding of the phrase. Take time to trace the theme of prayer through scripture. See where the heroes of the faith, like Hannah, Jonah, Nehemiah, David, and Paul have prayed. What did they pray about? Who did they pray to? When did they pray? Why did they pray? How are they able to pray? By exploring themes like these you’ll lay groundwork for answers to questions long after your children leave your home.
3. Allow your child to ask questions.
Like adults, children usually have a lot of questions about prayer. “Why do I have to close my eyes?” “Is there a right way to pray?” “Why do we pray at meals?” These are good questions and natural to ask. Even the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray in Matthew 6. Allow your child to ask questions, and offer them the best answers you can. If you don’t know the answers, be honest! Then look them up and learn together.
4. Give your child language for prayer.
Even as adults we can get stuck not knowing what to pray about or feeling confident that we can truly bring what’s on our mind to God. Help your child see how God’s people have always talked with him. Study The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, the Psalms such as Psalm 23 or 121, or the prayers in the epistles such as Ephesians 3:14–19. Teach them hymns or puritan prayers that offer topics and language from people throughout time.
Through conversation and modeling, help your child understand that nothing is too grand, sad, scary, or wonderful for God. Through prayer we confess, repent, show gratitude, and cry out for help. We don’t have to have the perfect language, never say, “um,” or sound perfectly eloquent. We can come just as we are.
5. Show your child that prayer is endlessly creative.
Just as we want to teach our children that prayer can be simple and uncomplicated, we can also teach them that there are many wonderful ways to practice this spiritual discipline. Give them a prayer journal or keep one as a family, practice praying back the names or attributes of God, take an evening and go on a prayer walk, memorize scripture and pray it back as a group, or spend time praying for various countries, governments, missionaries, or classmates. Show your children that they can pray silently or out loud. They can pray alone, or with friends or family, or even corporately with their church.
As parents, we can provide our children with a bedrock understanding of prayer to build on when we offer them a childhood filled with encouragement and support in the practice of this important and lifegiving spiritual discipline. But ultimately, our first priority is to pray faithfully ourselves. In the cultivation of our own prayer life, we can pray for our children’s hearts to be inclined toward prayer and that God would give us wisdom to raise our children to know him. Trust that over time, with small inputs and daily devotion, God will deepen and develop a love for him in our children’s hearts and, with it, a desire to talk with him.