On the human level, no one is better placed to teach children to speak to God and hear from Him than their parents. So how do we go about helping children pray?
Here are three guidelines:
There’s praying that sounds like a prayer and real prayer. We should never teach children that prayer is a formula – it isn’t. Real prayer is something natural and normal, so we must teach children how to pray, not what to say.
We must explain and model that prayer isn’t a ritual; it’s part of a relationship with Jesus. Real prayer is an unrestricted connection of togetherness with God. So, we should teach children to pray informally and intimately.Teach children to pray informally and intimately ... about everything in all situations. Click To Tweet
Because real prayer is innate, there’s no right way to pray, no bounded procedure or form, and strict guidelines shouldn’t limit it. Nor is prayer a method (though prayer should be consistent with biblical principles and informed by God’s Word). Prayer should happen anytime (cf. Ephesians 6:18), so we must teach children to pray constantly about everything in all situations (cf. Romans 12:12).
We must also guard against mediating children’s prayers. When children pray, we shouldn’t stand between them and Jesus. Real prayer isn’t supervised (though children do need guidance). God can and will connect directly and appropriately with children. So, we shouldn’t interpret or revise a child’s communication with Him.
Significantly, if we want Jesus-connected children, we must help them share their thoughts and feelings. One way of doing this is to encourage children to verbally or non-verbally (e.g., drawing, journaling or writing God a letter) process their emotions with God (cf. Philippians 4:6-7).
Helping children pray is more than teaching them to say, ‘Dear God’ and ‘Amen.’ Telling children to sit still, close their eyes, and say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry’ misses the mark. Real prayer happens when a child opens their heart and life to Jesus. We facilitate this by teaching children to pray conversationally – by encouraging them to chat with God.
Children know how to engage in dialogue with others. They talk, listen, explore ideas, share opinions, and make decisions. Chatting with God is like chatting with friends or family. Tell children God wants to hear about the big and little things – what’s in their heads and hearts.
To begin, you may need to suggest things children can discuss with Jesus (the Psalms provide many examples). Let them know they can share what makes them glad or sad, ask questions, talk about their activities, or download why they’re angry or annoyed. Permit them to tell God about silly and serious things. Help them realize God’s interested in their everyday ordinary or out-of-the-ordinary lives.Tell children that God knows what’s in their hearts, and even if their words get jumbled up, He knows what they want to say. Click To Tweet
The choice of words children use in prayer isn’t important (“with all kinds of prayers” Ephesians 6:18). After all, the Holy Spirit empowers and directs their prayers (cf. Romans 8:26-27). So, tell children that God knows what’s in their hearts, and even if their words get jumbled up, He knows what they want to say.
A key to helping children pray conversationally is letting them see and hear us pray. So, open your mouth and chat with God while driving, fixing a meal, cleaning or gardening. Yes, this may sometimes feel awkward. But sharing thoughts and feelings with God aloud empowers children with examples they can emulate and integrate into their lives.
Another key to helping children pray conversationally is encouraging them to pray Scripture – to use God’s Word to inform and form the content of their prayers. One of the ways to have a great conversation is to build on what the other person has said. Chatting with God about His Word does just that. I’ve written briefly about this in Family Prayer.
Jesus wants children to “listen to his voice” John 10:2-5. He’s already speaking. What we must do is teach children how to recognize His voice (cf. Job 33:14). An excellent way to do this, as author Rachel Turner suggests, is to use the word “catching” because “it helps children to picture the approach we need.”
Catching implies an attentiveness to receive. While God primarily uses the Scriptures (cf. Romans 10:17, 1 Thessalonians 2:13), He isn’t restricted to words. As children’s ministry trainer and author Becky Fischer says, “I teach children that God’s voice isn’t always a voice.” He also communicates with pictures in our minds, guided thoughts, visions, dreams, emotions, and feelings (c.f. Joel 2:28, Matthew 2:13, Philippians 4:7). Sometimes it’s a gentle whisper (cf. 1 Kings 19:12), though it’s rare to hear God’s audible voice.Because every child is unique, they don’t catch God’s voice similarly. Click To Tweet
Because every child is unique, they don’t catch God’s voice similarly. Some will hear Him best when there’s solitude. Others will sense in their gut or conscience that He’s nudging them to do something. Sometimes, it’s a feeling of warmth on the inside. Other times a verse pops into a child’s mind. Whatever they experience should be validated and neither over nor undervalued.
We must also teach children how to discern God’s voice from other voices. Does it sound like the God of the Bible and draw the child to Him? What they hear from God will never be something harmful or detrimental. It will be true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (cf. Philippians 4:8).
Like adults, children may struggle to hear Jesus’ voice. If they do, corroborate their reality, suggest they tell God about it, offer help, encourage them to persevere, and let them know He loves and wants to connect with them (cf. Luke 18:1).
© Scripture Union, 2023