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Teaching Our Children to Pray
January 11, 2016
I am especially excited about this blog post. Why? Because it is in response to a Patreon supporter. What does that mean? It means that I have committed to interact at varying levels with those who choose to support me (you can see more details towards the bottom of this page). So, here is a question from one supporter:
It’s good to teach our children to pray, we all know that. But what about having them pray aloud in public or family settings? Should we allow or encourage this? What’s the place for the mealtime prayers of kids who aren’t (or probably aren’t) yet showing clear evidence of conversion?
I appreciate this question because it reflects the writer’s desire to have a good influence on his children while doing so in wise, God-honoring ways. It also places high value on the importance of genuine spiritual conversion and acknowledges the reality that children—even the children of believers—are born in sin and need salvation. It acknowledges that prayer is properly a privilege of those who have been saved. Lying behind the main question is this one: When else do we ask and even encourage people to pray when we have little certainty about the state of their souls?
I think the Bible gives us some guidance on how and when to teach our children to pray. While it is wise to be discerning with our children as they grow up and to not give them a false sense of security if they’re not actually Christians, I don’t know of any place that the Bible warns parents to beware of teaching children to pray too early. Rather, we are told to teach them and this includes not just facts, but also practices. By encouraging our children to pray, we are teaching them the language, the practice, and the importance of prayer.
John Piper answers the question, Should Children Be Taught to Pray Even If They Haven’t Professed Faith? and he says,
Yes. I think we should teach our children to pray as soon as they can say anything. … I can’t discern when a child is being spiritually wrought upon by the Lord. … I can’t tell precisely when his faith becomes his own and authentic, I don’t want to wait too long before I start treating him as a believer. …
Also, practically, it seems right to put the vocabulary of prayer into a child’s mouth from the very beginning. That way, when his faith is born, he has a whole vocabulary, orientation, and habit that the Lord can use. … You have to build the disciplines of the Christian life into your children from the beginning, all the while praying that they are going to grow up and mean what they say. They may mean it at age 2. You just don’t know.
I consider that wise counsel, and especially this: “Pray that they are going to grow up and mean what they say.” We can acknowledge the likelihood that our children are praying as if they are Christians before they are Christians. That is okay. As I said earlier, the Bible doesn’t warn parents against teaching such things to their children too soon. On the other hand, in both the Old and New Testaments, parents (and especially fathers) are told to teach their children to obey the word of God (which includes the practice of prayer). Consider these verses:
- “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7)
- “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” (Psalm 34:11)
- “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.” (Proverbs 29:17)
- “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
Children imitate their parents and typically value what they value—for good or for ill. Consider this example and advice from Dr. James Dobson in his book, Bringing Up Girls:
Begin teaching your children to pray as early as possible. My parents and grandparents took that responsibility very seriously. The first word I learned to spell was Jesus. And believe it or not, I began trying to pray even before I learned to talk. I had heard my parents praying during their private devotions, and I began imitating the sounds they made. My mother and father were shocked and wondered how that was possible for a child at thirteen months of age. The moral to the story is that your children are observing you too and are influenced by everything you do.
Of course, as you teach your children to pray, you should also teach them to delight in God, honor his Word, and pursue holiness. You should teach them that they are born in a state of sin and alienation from God and that prayer will merit them nothing if they do not personally apprehend the promises of God. You should teach them to take advantage of the great privilege that is theirs by virtue of being born into a Christian home where they hear the gospel. You can even warn them of the consequences of rejecting this privilege. Proverbs 28:9 says, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.” Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” But just because something can be pursued wrongly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pursued at all.
Let me close with two notes. First, if you’re looking for a book to read to your children on prayer, consider R. C. Sproul’s story, The Barber Who Wanted to Pray. It will teach some of the how and why of prayer. Also, heed this counsel from Fred Sanders which he shares in The Deep Things of God: “Many parents have decided they should teach their children to pray to Jesus because Jesus is so concrete and personal for young minds to focus on in their prayer. I cannot say if this is sufficiently wise from a developmental standpoint to warrant systematic deviation from the examples in Scripture or to sidestep the logic of Trinitarian mediation and teach children to pray against the grain. If you do choose to teach your children to pray to Jesus, you should have a plan for when you are going to introduce them to the biblical model of prayer.” The biblical model is, of course, to pray to the Father by the Son through the Holy Spirit. A child’s “dear Jesus” prayers are sweet and innocent, but not entirely aligned with the biblical pattern. Teach them to pray to the Father, just as Jesus did.
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