Teaching Children How to Pray

My wife and I began an exciting chapter in parenting recently.  We have decided to intentionally teach our children how to pray.  There is, however, a major complicating factor.  I feel like anything but an expert in prayer.  Don’t get me wrong, I pray.  I pray several times every day, and have done so for 30 years.  I have read books on prayer as well.  But I still feel that I know very little about prayer and that sense of inadequacy has likely delayed any attempts to actually teach our boys to pray.  We have prayed for our boys and in front of our boys their entire lives.  They have also memorized quite a few verses of Scripture over the years.  But how does one teach children to pray?

I decided to defer that to the ultimate Teacher, Jesus Himself.  In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we have the best example possible of how to teach prayer.  Jesus taught His disciples to pray.  The model prayer that He used is often called the Lord’s Prayer.  What better way to teach our children to pray than to teach them the model prayer that Jesus used to teach His disciples?  So we read the Scripture passages involved to the boys and asked them to repeat the Lord’s Prayer with us. Then something amazing happened.  We discovered that our boys already knew the Lord’s Prayer.  Unbeknownst to Bonnie and I, my parents had already taught them this prayer and had prayed it with them many times.  What a wonderful surprise!  So I took that opportunity to talk to the boys for a moment about one part of the Lord’s Prayer, the part that refers to God as Our Father.  And then we prayed together.  I discovered (or at least was reminded) of two wonderful truths about teaching children to pray.

1.  We have the best resource possible in the many prayers in the Bible and in Church History.  There is no need to re-invent the wheel.  We can pray the prayers of Scripture and the Church and know that we are praying wonderful, perfect prayers.  Children can memorize much easier than most adults and love to learn this way.  Have your children pray the Lord’s Prayer (and other, similar prayers) with you as often as possible.  In the morning, at meal times, before bed are all great times to pray.  Don’t worry about how much they understand and at what level they “get it”.  After all, how much do we really understand the marvelous mystery of prayer?  It matters much more that we actually pray and turn our hearts toward God than that we have it all figured out.

2.  As we teach our children to pray, we are not in this alone.  My parents have helped us teach the boys and there are wonderful children’s ministers, workers and Sunday School teachers all around who can partner with us.  Take advantage of these resources and let each contributor reinforce the other in teaching our children to pray.

Prayer is one of the many things that is often better “caught than taught”.  Surround your children with prayer, let them hear you pray and pray with them.  Expose them to the best of prayer, in the Bible and in the history of the Church.  Encourage them to pray on their own and let them know that whether they speak words out of their own minds and hearts or use the words of great prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer, that God loves to hear the prayers of His children no matter how young or old they are.  A heritage of prayer is one of the best gifts you can ever give to your children.  Don’t drag your feet like I did, there is no reason to wait.  Teach your children to pray today.

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Moral Imagination

Exactly how do we teach right and wrong to children born under the influence of sin?  Is it by behavior modification, the right balance of sticks and carrots to nudge them toward what is good?  Do we teach them ethical values as a series of rules that govern human life?  In today’s society for most parents most of the time, that describes almost the entirety of the teaching of right and wrong.  In light of Scripture and human history, it’s also perhaps the worst way possible.  The Scripture teaches that human beings are not in need of reformation, but transformation.  We don’t need the right information communicated to us in the correct way.  We need a new heart and a new mind.  But how does this happen?  We become what we behold.  One of the greatest Scriptural statements of this reality is found in 2nd Corinthians 3:18 (see below).

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.  And this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” ESV

The Apostle Paul also refers to this in Ephesians 1 as, “having the eyes of your heart enlightened”.  Jesus used the picture of a different sense, “those with ears to hear”.  God gives people a faculty to apprehend spiritual truth that changes us for the better

Another way that we learn right and wrong is by story.  Societies throughout history saw storytelling as a primary means of teaching children virtue.  The word virtue (as opposed to modern term “values”) refers to the character of full humanity, the development of men and women as they were intended to be.  It contains the idea that people have a purpose, a place in the world that is uniquely theirs to fulfill, a station in life that in some sense is assigned to them.  This does not diminish the idea of human freedom, but disabuses of the idea of some autonomous moral agent, responsible only to be “true to oneself”.  Right and wrong is not just about the individual, but about community and one’s relationship to God.  Stories illustrate life in a way that appeal to the faculty for spiritual truth.  They give children a grid that makes moral choices make sense.  The contemporary philosopher Alasdair Maclntyre puts it this way.

“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…, that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words” (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Edition Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p.216)

A final way is in the example we as parents set.  Children learn by watching the way others act.  We give them cues whether we intend to or not.  Is there a place for rules and principles?  Of course, but they are nowhere near sufficient.  We teach our children best by facilitating opportunities for them to behold God’s glory and experience His presence.  We teach them by telling them stories that fire their imagination with struggles of good and evil, heroism and betrayal, redemption and rescue.  We teach them by living out right and wrong in front of their eyes.  This does more good than lectures and rules, rewards and punishments.  Our children are not a mere set of behaviors to modify, but men and women in the making, ready to be drawn into the great adventure of living.

Teaching Moments

Last night my wife experienced an incredible moment with our oldest son.  We had returned home from a church event where the boys had an opportunity to spend time with some of their friends.  My oldest had spotted a friend that he wanted to go and greet, one he hadn’t seen in some time.  As he began to approach he suddenly felt insecure and backed away.  He was quite troubled by this experience and didn’t know what to make of it.  Bonnie noticed his anxiety and asked if he was OK.  At this point he isn’t quite old enough to really express what he’s feeling with much detail.  But Bonnie grasped pretty quickly what the issue was.  She spent the next few moments talking with him about why we all sometimes feel insecure and how to deal with it.  She reminded him of what a wonderful boy he is and how it is God’s love for us that gives us our security and identity in every situation.  It was amazing to watch.  A holy, teaching moment that unfolded right in front of my eyes.

How do we multiply moments like this with our children?  Two words come immediately to mind.  Attentiveness and discernment.  Bonnie noticed something in our son’s demeanor that piqued her interest.  She followed up.  She gently probed to get the relevant story.  It amazes me how easy it is for parents (myself included) to miss the obvious.  Most children aren’t sophisticated enough to mask their feelings.  They may not be able to communicate them clearly, but they don’t hide them well at all.  We must pay attention to what’s going on and engage with our children.  Next, we must discern what is really going on.  It goes beyond interpreting our children’s words and understanding what they are trying to say.  It is discerning with the help of the Holy Spirit what isn’t being said and what is at stake.  Insecurity is an attack on identity.  It is an arrow at the heart of our children.  It is a lie that says you aren’t loved and valued.  It says that to be accepted and loved you have to be someone other than yourself.  It is a spiritual issue that requires a spiritual response.  The antidote for a lie is the truth.  We must learn to embrace the truth about our identity and to teach it to our children.  Bonnie reminded our son of who he is.  She reminded him that he is loved by God and that provides him identity and security.  Truth overcomes lies.  It sets us free.  When attentiveness meets discernment and truth is spoken to our children in love – then a genuine teaching moment happens.

Don’t miss the opportunities to share these moments with your children.  Tune in to their hearts and engage them in the moments when they need reminders of the truth of who God made them to be.  Allow the Holy Spirit to place a holy finger on the issue at hand.  And cooperate with His Word for the issue that sets us free.  These are holy, teaching, connecting moments that have eternal value.  Oh, and by the way, they bring a lot of joy along for the ride as well.

3 Ways to Engage Your Child’s Heart

One of the ongoing battles of parenthood is seeing beyond the immediate.  It is so easy to live in the world of unfinished schoolwork, messy rooms and sibling squabbles.  One can play and replay endless cycles of correction and behavior management.  But as a parent, my most important task is the shepherd my children’s hearts toward God.  That is much more than behavior modification and enforcing boundaries.  It involves engaging them at the level of the heart.  This challenges a parent to slow down and notice what is going on beyond the crisis of the moment.  How can I engage my child’s heart?  Let me offer 3 simple ways.

1.  Enter their world.  When is the last time you stopped what you were doing to watch your child work or play?  By work, I don’t mean doing a chore that was assigned to them – but something that they love to do.  Put down the remote, let the laundry go unfolded for awhile longer, put your priorities on hold for a bit and just watch them.  Next, without intruding in the flow of what they are doing, talk to them while they are at work or play.  Ask them questions about what they are doing or thinking.  Let them share with you some of their inner delight.  When you do this, you are communicating to them that you love what they love because you love them.  If possible (and if invited), work or play with them.  Every person longs to share what they love with someone else.  Give your child the gift of allowing them to share it with you.

2.  Share something that you love.  Your children may not love (or even like) the same things that you love.  But they do love you.  Take time to share with them why you love the things that you do.  The reason your children may not share some of your favorite things is that they don’t understand why it is special to you.  Explain it to them, without getting upset if they don’t jump on board your bandwagon.  Even if they don’t take up your love, they will at least understand you better.  Children long to understand their parents.  They want to know you so much more than you might think.  They may simply think that you plunge into some hobby or activity (or book or movie or game) as a way to fence yourself off from them.  Unfortunately, for too many parents that is true.  Make sure that it isn’t true for  you.

3.  Tell them why you love them.  Most parents tell their children that they love them.  But have you told them why?  What is it about their personalities that delights you?  What is about them that makes you smile?  When is the last time you told them that?  (By the way, this works with spouses too – but that is a different post)  Be specific.  And make it something that goes to the heart of their character and identity.  My oldest son, for example, has an incredible sense of justice and fairness.  He intensely wants to see the good guys win.  That is a big part of who he is.  My middle son observes everything.  He notices all sorts of things that other people miss.  What a gift.  My youngest has more determination than almost anyone I know.  He does not give up easily and has a hard time taking no for an answer.  That will serve him incredibly well in almost anything he will ever do.

Every investment that you or I make in the hearts of our children is invaluable.  It is layer of protection against the attacks on their identity that are sure to come.  And the joy of connecting deeply with them cannot be replaced.  Engage them today.  You will be glad that you did and so will they.

A Child’s Vocation

I love watching my boys play.  It is endlessly entertaining and also instructive.  They so easily enter into whatever role their play demands.  One moment it is a super-hero, the next a cowboy, then a ninja and so on.  A story develops throughout each moment and the boys are totally immersed in that story and completely committed to it in that moment.  It seems random if one isn’t really paying attention, but the play is full of purpose.  Within the imagination is the learning of an incredible range of morality, value and meaning.  The common themes include heroism, justice, loyalty and teamwork.  They re-enact these themes over and over, rehearsing them in different ways so that the framework gets firmly established.  These stories become written into the fabric of who they are and who they want to become.  It is life-giving for them.  At this point in their growth, it is as important as they air they breathe and the food they eat.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of squabbles over toys and who’s in charge of what.  But that’s just part of the picture.  It is merely filling out the details of the story.  And the story keeps going.

So what does this have to do with vocation?  Everything.

Vocation means calling.  It means living out the purpose for which you were created.  It means hearing God’s voice and acting on it.  Most of all, vocation is finding your place in the biggest Story of all.  That Story is the the Story of God’s redemption of fallen humanity in Christ.  It is the Story of the liberation of creation.  Heroism, justice, loyalty and teamwork are all needed in this Story.  Where can one learn these virtues?  One place is the great stories, the types of stories that children want to re-enact in their imaginations and in their play.  And just maybe, the more fuel and space we give our children to do just that the more they will be open to hearing the call of God to take their place in the Greatest Story of all.

One more thing.  I’m not a little boy anymore (although I do often act like one).  But what if one of the best ways for me to open up my heart and mind to hear God’s call is to engage those same imaginative muscles that adults all too often let atrophy while we take care of “more important things”.  Do you think I can learn something from my boys?  I certainly hope so.