Over the course of thirty years in parish ministry, I believe more than three hundred people have in a variety of ways asked me, “How can I learn to pray?” These people have ranged in age from about eight to eighty. They represent the whole spectrum of society, from homeless to millionaire, from Ph.D. to high school dropout. Each time the question that always flitted across my mind was, “Why haven’t you learned to pray already?” The truth is obvious: no one, not their parents or grandparents, not their teachers or clergy, ever took the time to teach them. To my mind, parents are the ones who should take the primary responsibility, in teaching their own children how to pray. If you’re a parent does that task seem massively formidable? Well, it’s really not if it is approached in an appropriate way.
I’d like to make five suggestions. First of all, if you want to create an environment enabling your children to grow up knowing how to pray, become a person of prayer yourself. Children can smell hypocrisy a mile away. How can you encourage your children to pray if you yourself are not a person of prayer? I have a friend, now a priest, who grew up in a home where there was no explicit religious faith. When she was about eight-years-old her mother had to have an operation, and she was sent to stay with her grandmother. It was a very anxious time for them all, and the first night there she couldn’t sleep. She heard some rustling in the living room in the middle of the night and she crept downstairs and peeked in. She saw her grandmother kneeling in front of the couch in fervent prayer. Today she says that was the most important moment in her life, because in that moment she knew that her mother would be okay, and that God was real and she knew someone who could teach her how to have a relationship with God.
The second suggestion is simply to take the time to pray with your children. Not just a blessing at meals, although that is important. I mean truly invest some time in their spiritual development. In the morning would it be possible to perhaps get up ten minutes earlier and talk with them about the events of the coming day? Are they anxious about something at school? Have they had a fight with a friend? You could pray together about an event before it actually happens. What about at night? Would it be possible to take the time to review what took place during the day, and offer those situations to God? This is how a relationship with God can become part of your child’s identity.
There are other times when it is appropriate to pray with our children. When your small child falls down and scraps his or her knee, have you ever taken the time to kiss it better? What about taking the time to pray about it? When they achieve some triumph or receive some gift, wouldn’t be okay to say a prayer of thanksgiving? The only thing it demands from us is to be conscious of God, and take the time to do it. If we are willing to invest this kind of attention with our children, they will grow up surrounded by prayer. It will become part of their identity.
A third suggestion is to teach our children to pray responsibly. If we turn to God as if he were some kind of fairy godmother or Santa Claus in the sky who is there to give us what ever we want, or if our modeling of prayer for our children is asking God to let us find a parking spot in front of our favorite boutique, don’t bother. Responsible prayer is to teach our children just what it is God wants us to receive when we pray. When we’re anxious, it’s appropriate to pray for God’s peace. When we are angry, it is appropriate to pray for God’s patience and love. When we are confused, to pray for God’s wisdom. When we are afraid, to ask God for courage. When facing despair, to ask God for hope. Would you like your children to have these things? Peace? Patience and love? Wisdom? Courage? Hope? How can we give them to children?
It is important to tell our children that God will not do everything. If we are in a proper relationship with God, he will equip us to go out and live responsible lives. As John Wesley wrote, “Pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you.”
A fourth suggestion. Actually teach our children to do the praying. We are not teaching our children to pray if they are just observing us pray, if they are simply the audience listening to our prayers. If we do that, we are developing children with a spiritual life that is like a cut flower. What happens when we’re not there? We must work to root our children’s spirituality. They must learn to pray for themselves. We can encourage them, and nurture them so that they can learn to stand on their own, fixed in the love of God and able then to bear fruit throughout the whole spectrum of their lives.
Finally, a fifth suggestion: we need to learn to teach our children the consequences of prayer. When we ask God for something, he can answer in three ways: yes, no or wait. Very often the most fearsome answer is when God says yes. We need to teach our children that when we open our lives to God, we our giving ourselves to him. We are turning our will over to his will. What he wants for us may not be what we want for ourselves.