Teaching Children to Pray

Sarah is a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. She wrote this essay for the Protestant Reformed Scholarship.

“Our Father which art in heaven…” These words along with the rest of the Lord’s Prayer fast become a part of a covenantal child’s vocabulary in his first few years of life. It is essential that covenantal children are taught to pray because prayer is a necessary part of a Christian’s life. The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 45, Question and Answer 116, teaches that God requires Christians to be thankful, and prayer is the main way for a Christian to show thanks to God. Prayer is also necessary because God gives His blessings of His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who sincerely and continually ask those blessings of Him and are truly thankful for those blessings. Since prayer is so important, covenantal children must be taught from a young age to pray. The home, school, and church all play an integral part in teaching covenantal children how to pray. Instruction is begun in the home when children are very young and is continued in the school and in church, both working together with the home.

Children should begin to learn to pray in the home, and the home lays all the groundwork on which the church and school build. It is a good practice that many parents undertake to teach their children to pray a simple prayer before mealtime and before bedtime. As soon as the children are able, parents should instruct their children to pray, “Lord bless this food and drink,” or “Now I lay me down to sleep,” or something similar. Parents should guide the young children at first, helping them repeat the prayer, and slowly on the children will be able to repeat their prayer more and more on their own. When teaching children these prayers, parents should encourage the children to keep their eyes closed and their hands folded. Although young children do not fully understand the words that they are praying, teaching them these prayers is still important. For one thing, children begin to see that Christians can approach God in prayer with requests for their daily needs and also for forgiveness of sins. Also, when children fold their hands and close their eyes, they have a small understanding that God must be honored and approached with reverence.

As the children get a bit older and can understand more, parents can begin to teach their children why they are praying before they eat and before they go to sleep and why they must keep their eyes closed and hands folded. Parents should explain to children that in their simple prayers, children must ask for the Lord’s blessing and forgiveness. Christ instructed us in Matthew 7:7 and also in Luke 11:9 to “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Parents should also explain to their children that everything comes from God, and that when they pray, they thank Him for those gifts, including their food, as Psalm 50:14 gives instruction to offer up thanksgiving to God. Children should also understand why they end their prayers with, “For Jesus’ sake.” Parents can teach that sinners are very unworthy, but that God will hear their prayers for the sake of Christ.

If they are able, parents should also begin teaching children the Lord’s Prayer before the children begin school. The Lord’s Prayer is so important because it outlines what children and all Christians need to pray about. The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 45, Question and Answer 118 states that we must pray only for things God commands us to ask of Him. Although children cannot fully understand this prayer, they can begin to understand some things, such as how God is our Father. Because children have earthly fathers, children can see and somewhat understand relationships between fathers and children. Fathers should explain to their children that they as earthly fathers do not compare to their heavenly Father and that although they might fail their children at times, the children’s heavenly Father will never fail them. In Luke 11:13, Christ stated that if earthly fathers, who are evil, can give good gifts to their children, the heavenly Father will definitely not deny His children what they ask of Him.

Covenantal children’s instruction of how to pray is further continued in the church, and this instruction in the church works in cooperation with instruction in the home. Once the children begin Sunday school, the Sunday school teacher can support the home in teaching children to pray as he or she helps the children learn the Lord’s Prayer and reminds them to keep their hands folded and eyes closed. The Sunday school teacher can explain to the children that they have to remember to close their eyes and fold their hands because they are praying to God in heaven who deserves to be treated with reverence.

The church must continue its role in teaching covenantal children to pray through catechism, especially when children are in junior high and are taking lessons in the Heidelberg Catechism and studying the Lord’s Prayer. In catechism, the minister should go through each part of each Lord’s Day, instructing the children in why prayer is necessary, what is needed in a covenantal child’s prayer in order to be acceptable to God, what God commands them to ask for, what each phrase and petition of the Lord’s Prayer means, and what the Lord’s Prayer teaches about all prayer.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 45, Question and Answer 117 lays out what is needed in prayers to be acceptable to God. First, children should be taught that prayer must come from the heart to the one true God only as He has revealed himself in His Word. God needs to be addressed properly in truth, not in a “fox-hole prayer,” when God is really not in a person’s mind. John 4:24 states that we must worship God in spirit and in truth. Second, children must be taught that they must know their sins and need for salvation in order to humbly approach the divine Creator. Third, children must be convinced that God will hear their prayer, although they are unworthy of it, for Christ’s sake. In John 14:13, Christ said that whatever His people asked in His name, He would do. Fourth, children should be instructed that prayers must include only what God commands them to ask of Him, which includes all things that are necessary for the soul and body.

Children should be further instructed in catechism in an explanation of the parts of the Lord’s Prayer to receive a better understanding of prayer itself and how to pray. Children first need to be instructed how to address God properly as their Father in heaven. To fully understand this, children need to know how God came to be their father in Christ, and how God cannot be conceptualized in earthly terms. Children then need to be instructed in what petitions they must pray about God and about their earthly needs. First, children should be taught as stated in the Heidelberg Catechism to pray for God to grant them permission to know Him and to praise Him and for God to direct their lives to praise and hallow the name of God. Second, children should be taught to pray that God will rule them and preserve His church. Third, children should be instructed to pray that God’s will be done, not men’s will. Fourth, children must be taught to pray for all things necessary for the body, understanding that their efforts will not do them any good without God. Fifth, children need to be instructed to pray for forgiveness for the sake of Christ. Sixth, children should be taught that they are weak in themselves and need God’s help to resist all spiritual foes.

The school compliments the role of both the home and the church in teaching covenantal children to pray. With a good foundation established in the home, children enter school with some basic knowledge about how to pray, even if they do not have a full understanding. When children begin school, teachers should help children learn the Lord’s Prayer if children do not already know it, and also continue to encourage children to pray reverently and humbly, with closed eyes and hands folded. Also, right from the beginning, teachers should provide good examples as they pray when the day begins, before lunch, after lunch, and at the end of the day. In this, children learn to ask the Lord’s blessing for the day and for the food and to give thanks for the Lord’s care and for his provision of food at lunch. In listening to teachers’ prayers, children learn that they must pray to the one true God, humbly, with confidence, and for the necessities of body and soul.

Even in the younger grades, teachers can teach children to pray by having them pray for devotions. Especially in the lower grades, but even through junior high and maybe even sometimes in high school, teachers should encourage students to write out their prayers before they have to pray in class. By writing their prayer out, children have to think about the prayer, and cannot come and pray unprepared in devotions. Students should think through what they should pray for and what they should give thanks for.

At the beginning of the year, when a teacher introduces the idea of the students taking turns for devotions, a teacher should instruct and remind the children of specific things a student should include in prayer. One example of an acronym a teacher could use is ACTS. A prayer should begin with expressing praise and adoration for God, who, according to Jeremiah 23:24, fills the heavens and the earth. After God is praised, sins need to be humbly confessed, so that a sinner can be humbled and see how great his need is for salvation. “T” is for thanksgiving, following confession, in which a person expresses thankfulness for deliverance from sins and for all other blessings. Finally, “S” is for supplication, in which God is asked for, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, all things necessary for our spiritual and earthly needs.

Teachers also can teach children how to pray through teaching the students in Bible class about God and His attributes, about how great man’s sins and miseries are, and how Christ died for His people’s sins and how His people belong to Him, and how thus God’s people have confidence that God will preserve His people unto the end. By understanding the truths about God as He has revealed them in Scripture, children can better understand how they ought to approach God in prayer.

The efforts of the home, school, and church in teaching children how to pray are not isolated efforts, but each work in conjunction with each other. When teaching children to pray, parents, ministers, and teachers should begin with Jesus’ instruction on prayer. In several passages, Jesus instructed his disciples on how to pray. In Matthew 6:6-13, Jesus taught his disciples to pray not to impress men or with vain repetitions, but to pray in the manner of what now is called the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew 7:7-12, Jesus instructed that God’s people must ask for God’s blessings and that God will provide. Using these and other passages in God’s inspired Word, along with the teaching of the reformed confessions, especially the Heidelberg Catechism, parents, ministers, and teachers can build up a solid foundation in teaching covenantal children how to pray. However, one must never lose sight of the fact that none of these efforts would be successful without the grace of our heavenly Father.