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My name is Cheryl
Helping kids pray heartfelt prayers isn’t always what it seems. My friend’s nine-year-old son came home crestfallen from Sunday school one day. “What’s wrong?” his mother asked.
“They wouldn’t pray for my prayer request,” said the boy. “I wanted to pray about the panda bears in China, but they said we should pray for personal things. Why couldn’t we pray about the pandas, Mom?”
Children are motivated to pray about the things that touch their hearts—friends, family, teachers, even pets. We often smile at the innocence of their prayers, some of them quite nonreligious. But that’s the way we want them to pray—naturally. I’m sure the Sunday school teacher wasn’t trying to be insensitive; but unfortunately, he or she missed an opportunity to help the kids pray heartfelt prayers, affirm the boy’s faith and expectation, two powerful motivating factors when it comes to equipping and empowering children in prayer.
As they learn to approach their heavenly Father with their daily concerns and needs—and see Him answer—they learn to trust Him as the one who can fight their battles and those of the people they love. They learn to look to Him to provide for them, defend them, and intervene in the world in real and powerful ways. If we are not quick to listen to even what may seem like “out of the box” prayer concerns, we may miss hearing that child’s heart.
Children, after all, are closer than adults to the approach to God that Jesus tells us to take in prayer: with personal expectation and from the standpoint of a father-child relationship. “Ask and it shall be given to you,” He says in Matthew 7. “Seek, and you shall find … if you then, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!”
If you listen to children’s prayers, you find that, though they are not as articulate as adults, they pray about many of our same concerns. Hillary, a small friend of mine, was five or six when she became deeply concerned for a friend in her neighborhood. The little girl was suffering constant respiratory distress as a result of her parents’ smoking in the home. Powerless to help her friend by any physical means, Hillary began to pray that God would move the parents to quit smoking and provide relief for her friend. Sure enough, within a couple of months, without anyone saying a word to them, both parents quit smoking!
Children as young as three and four years old can be sensitive to big problems in the world such as poverty, hunger, crime, and divorce. I once attended a church service where children and youth were invited to join adults on the platform to help lead in prayer. “Would you pray for the hurting and abused children in the world?” the speaker asked, handing the microphone to a five-year-old boy. With stammering lips and a shaking voice, the child began to pray. As he continued to pray for his generation I was amazed at his clarity and focus. “God make the mothers and fathers stop fighting,” he cried. “Tell them it’s hurting their kids.” Then with tears streaming down his face, he fell to his knees. Several young children moved to pray for and comfort him as the prayer meeting continued.
Another child prayed for the salvation of young people who did not know Christ. Others prayed for revival in their schools and that our nation would return to God. The simplicity of their prayers accompanied by humility and brokenness brought tremendous conviction to the hearts of everyone in the room.
The immediacy of children’s prayers can continue through high school. When Nicole was a junior in high school she started a citywide prayer ministry called Sacred Edge. The first Friday night of every month young people from around the Phoenix area gathered to call out to God for the things affecting their generation— fatherlessness, drugs, loneliness.
These were some gutsy prayers, maybe even what some of us would consider a little “raw.” Yet I would rather see a young person pray prayers from the heart than the most eloquent rote prayer. Jesus spoke to this difference: “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition” (Matthew 6:7).
Yet memorized prayers have their place in launching our children’s prayer lives. The Lord’s Prayer is a biblical framework to help children consider topics of prayer they might not otherwise think about. When Nicole was little, we would pray the Lord’s Prayer together line by line, stopping at each point to pray extemporaneously. What are our temptations? In what ways do we, personally, need deliverance from evil? How do we need to forgive and be forgiven?
The Lord’s Prayer is not the only Scriptural prayer we can use with kids. I think of Psalm 91, which makes a great prayer for protection. It talks about God being our refuge and fortress (vs. 2). It also mentions the safety and security of being hidden under His wings and covered by His feathers and tells us that we need not fear (vs. 4, 5). This is powerful imagery that can bring great comfort to a child in times of distress. We can teach him or her to pray, from this Scripture, “Lord, cover me with Your powerful wings of protection. I know You will take care of me. Help me not to be afraid.”
Children need to know the name of the Lord is a strong tower; they can run into it and are safe (Prov. 18:10). By praying these Scriptures, they can turn a feeling of powerlessness (very common for children) into confidence that though they may be small, they can pray powerful, strong prayers in Jesus’ name and He will help them.
Scriptural prayers such as the ones just mentioned can be a great help to you as an adult in teaching your child to pray, especially if you are uncertain about your own ability to pray. Here are some additional practical ideas to help you get started, no matter how old (or how young) your children are:
When they see you pouring out your heart in a natural way to God, it will encourage them to do the same. What would a child watching your prayer life learn? If children see us praying in dull, repetitious ways, they’ll get a picture of prayer opposite to what we want them to see. But if we pray from the heart, kids will see the freshness and power of our relationship with God.
It may be extended prayer at meals, at bedtime, or a special weekly gathering. In this way, children learn to pray by listening, watching, and participating. This special prayer time will not only help connect the hearts of each family member with the Lord but also with one another.
Children need to see people of all ages in communication with God—and to hear about the answers to those prayers. Churches need to communicate to children that their prayers and concerns are just as powerful and valued as those of adults.
Children do not think abstractly as adults do. Pictures (such as those from magazines or of children in need around the world) can show them real needs and evoke the kind of emotional response that is necessary to pray prayers from the heart.
This is perhaps the most crucial point of all. That is because it is more important for them to get to know the Person to whom they are praying than it is for them to pray perfect prayers. They need to realize that prayer is a relationship, not a religious activity, nor is it a “magic” formula. It is important children understand they are praying to their loving heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ—they aren’t just wishing upon a star or thinking nice thoughts.
It’s after all the most important heartfelt prayer he or she will ever pray!
Cheryl Sacks is the best-selling author of The Prayer Saturated book series: The Prayer Saturated Church, Prayer-Saturated Kids, and The Prayer Saturated Family—How to Change the Atmosphere in Your Home through Prayer. Her newest book, Reclaim a Generation, 21 Days of Prayer for Schools, will be available soon at ReclaimAGeneration.com
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