In a daily newspaper column, Dr. Billy Graham received the following question from a seven-year-old boy. "Will God hear my prayers, or does He just hear my parents' prayers?" This question reminds us of the importance of teaching the children which God has given to us clearly, intentionally, and knowledgeably in the areas of spiritual discipline.
Why teach preschoolers and children to pray?
Jesus clearly taught His disciples that children were important to Him and that they could be taught spiritual truths. In the Gospel of Mark we read: "Some people were bringing little children to Him so He might touch them, but His disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw it, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to Me. Don't stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these'... After taking them in His arms, He laid His hands on them and blessed them" (Mark 10:13-17). Jesus welcomed the parents and the children they were bringing to Him. By taking time for the children, Jesus showed the parents and the disciples that children are valuable and worthy of our time, relationships, and instruction.
Preschoolers and children can and will learn about prayer and how to pray if they have significant adults in their lives who are willing to teach them. In the Old Testament the child Samuel was a gift from God to a praying mother. As a result of this answered prayer, Samuel was taken to the temple to be taught by Eli the priest. God spoke to Samuel at a very young age and gave him a message to give to Eli, a man who had not always been obedient to the Lord. Eli said to Samuel, "What was the message He gave you? Don't hide it from me." Samuel gave God's message to Eli, and Samuel grew and the Lord was with him. (1 Samuel 3:17-19) From this passage we see the value and importance God placed on one small boy.
How early can we teach preschoolers and children to pray?
When a child is born, there exists a potential for the child to have a relationship with his Creator. From birth the child develops physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. Significant adults need to nurture the spiritual development of preschoolers by teaching them that prayer is a way to talk to the God who created them.
We can teach the very young child about prayer by using appropriate language. In their presence we can thank God for their very lives, the provisions of life, the Bible as a gift to us from God, and the people placed in our families and church. "Thank You, God" should be the first prayer taught to the developing child. As the child grows, the prayers can be expanded to include more relationships and content. Older children can be introduced to more developmentally appropriate ways of learning about prayer and how to pray.
What are developmentally appropriate ways to teach prayer?
We teach preschoolers and children to pray by modeling and intentional instruction. Sometimes modeling is done without intentional instruction but often they are linked together. When a professor of missions at Southwestern Seminary grew up in a very poor family, he was asked by his mother to go to the nearby store and purchase food. When given the list and some money, he asked his mother if he could have money for shoes because he did not have any to wear. She replied by saying, "Let's pray." They knelt together by a chair, and she asked God for money to buy him shoes. When he got to the store, the man who helped him asked him why he was not wearing any shoes and he replied, "Because there's no money for shoes." The man filled the grocery list and also gave him a note for his mother along with money for shoes. That afternoon they went to purchase the shoes and when asked by friends where the shoes had come from, the young boy proudly answered, "From the Lord!" Years have passed and this professor still remembers the need for shoes, the prayer of his mother, and the provision of the Lord.
We teach preschoolers and children to pray by making prayer a part of each teaching opportunity at church. On Sunday mornings, I teach a wonderful class of kindergartners. At the close of each large group time, I ask the children if they would like to pray aloud. Sometimes I begin the time of prayer with simple explanations about prayer, why we pray, what kinds of prayers we pray, and how God loves to hear and answer our prayers.
We can teach preschoolers and children to pray by using our Southern Baptist missions education material which provides inspiring stories about missionaries and the work they are doing around the world. We need to use prayer calendars, maps, pictures, etc., to help the children we teach see the people around the world who need our specific prayers. The International Mission Board and North American Mission Board Web sites can give you specific prayer needs of missionaries.
We can teach older children to pray by using developmentally appropriate learning activities like the following:
- Keep a personal prayer journal with prayer requests and answered prayer.
- Read and collect a list of Bible verses and Bible stories about prayer.
- Make prayer chains and other prayer reminders to keep at home.
- Go on prayer walks in the neighborhoods and around the church.
- Hear the testimonies of other Christians who have prayed specific prayers that were answered by God.
As we teach preschoolers and children, we must keep the big picture in our minds and hearts. Research and experience tell us that what we teach and model for preschoolers and children will last a life time.
In order to prepare our children to live for Christ in the world today, we need to equip them with the wisdom and power to be found in prayer. "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths" (Proverbs 3:5-6). Jesus is not only a friend to our children but He wants to be their constant companion as they travel the road to adulthood...and learn to pray!