Introducing Spiritual Disciplines to Our Toddlers- Prayer

I often hear friends and fellow church members express struggles with prayer as a spiritual discipline. Everyone seems to know that person who is a true prayer warrior, who prays two hours every morning while the rest of us stumble through for maybe ten or fifteen minutes.

Prayer in my own life has been something I’ve consistently tried to readjust in order to become a better praying person. I’ve journaled prayers, used lists and apps, and tried the regular-ole-sitting-and-praying approach. Recently, though, I’ve begun prayer walking around my house. I tried this after doing Kelly Minter’s Bible study on spiritual disciplines. In the prayer section, Minter mentioned that she walks around her house to pray. So, one morning after falling asleep in my chair (yet again) while praying, I got up and began circling my living room to keep myself awake while I was praying.

And it’s stuck. At 4:30 in the morning, you can find me walking in circles in the dark around my living room, just talking to God. From the outside, I’m sure I look like some sort of modern-day Miss Havisham roaming my house (minus the wedding dress, add a bathrobe). Fortunately, my husband is the only other person I know who is awake at that hour, and I’ve only startled him a couple of times. Weirdness notwithstanding, prayer walking in my house has led to a richer prayer life than I’ve had in a long time.

Praying with Toddlers

At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with teaching spiritual disciplines to toddlers. Well, if I struggle with certain spiritual disciplines myself, then it can feel overwhelming to try to institute these practices when you throw tiny people and all their impulses, energy, and emotions into the mix.

However, we don’t have to master all the spiritual disciplines to begin teaching our kids to practice them. In fact, I think it is important that they see us stumbling through these habits at times, for then we teach them other, more important, lessons about spiritual disciplines—that persistence and dedication, even in our struggles, is often more effective than mastery in spiritual formation and that because we are in Christ, God accepts us in our weakness and even gives us His Spirit to pray for us when we are at a loss (Romans 8:26-27).

With this in mind, these are three ways that we are trying to teach our kids the spiritual discipline of prayer.

1) We model prayer.

There are three ways we model prayer for our kids, but they don’t see at least two of those ways (at least not yet). What they don’t see is the individual prayer time that we practice in the morning before they get up, and the prayer time my husband and I have together before they go to bed. The latter is a practice we started right after my daughter was born when I was in the throes of a difficult postpartum period and felt desperate for prayer. The practice stuck, and now, unless one of us is traveling without the other, my husband and I pray together every night before we fall asleep (sometimes we fall asleep in the middle of our nightly prayers, but that’s neither here nor there).

Our kids don’t see these times, but I believe our personal prayer habits bleed over into how we teach our kids to pray. It would be hard for us to teach our kids something we are not practicing ourselves.

The third way we model prayer is (stating the obvious here) by praying with them. We pray before meals and with them before they go to bed. Sometimes, if I get a text in the middle of the day from someone asking for prayer, I may pray for them out loud with my kids as well. “Pray without ceasing” is something I struggle with, but our desire is to make prayer a normal part of our daily life.

2) We let our kids pray.

I was listening to a podcast one time and one of the hosts was laughing about his family’s evening prayer time with their young kids. He joked that it’s often the worst part of his day!

As terrible as it sounds, I get it. Incorporating spiritual disciplines like Bible stories and prayer can often be such a hassle. Kids squirm and scream, they get distracted, and they interrupt. There are times when I just want to get through it and check the box, instead of doing the hard work of trying to slowly steer their little hearts towards holiness. It’s often remarkable—though not surprising—how my kids will sit and listen to me read fifty books of their choosing, yet as soon as we sit down to read their Bible story it turns into an outright rumble. What should take three minutes drags out to ten.

It’s the same way with prayer. Allowing my kids to say the mealtime blessing or bedtime prayer is often chaos. But we let them do it anyway, and their prayers sound a lot like ours because they’ve heard us pray. Though I’m not opposed to memorized, rhyming prayers, we have taught them to pray like they’re having a conversation with a person (because, of course, they are). It often takes the form of a memorized prayer, but it’s one they created themselves. And though it’s chaos, it’s always very sweet and often very funny (for example, when my son thanks God for “mama’s spicy water”).

Though I’m not always confident that letting them pray is very effective right now, I hope that—even if they don’t yet understand what prayer really is—it eventually reaps long-term benefits, helping them to learn the power of prayer and true dependence on the Lord.

3) We teach them about prayer.

Though our kids see and hear us praying, and they practice prayer themselves, they don’t quite grasp the actual concept of prayer. So, while we don’t do this part as regularly as we should, we take opportunities to teach them about prayer—what it is, why we pray, and what happens when we pray.

We teach them that prayer is talking with God and that He hears us when we pray. When our kids are scared or anxious, we encourage them to pray and ask God to help them and to trust that He is with them. We regularly read in their The Jesus Storybook Bible the story about the Lord’s prayer. Our daughter is now old enough to understand basic truths about God and prayer, and I am thankful that she is learning a lot at our church that often spurs conversations at home.

Some Things to Improve

As always, there are ways we need to improve or be more intentional in our leading our kids to practice spiritual disciplines, and prayer is no exception. I mentioned above that we could do better with how we teach our kids about prayer. We can also be better models of different kinds of prayer. We don’t do a great job of modeling repentant prayer or prayers of praise and worship.

Our kids’ prayers mirror our own. Though my personal prayers include other types such as praise, repentance, and supplication, I frequently lean heavy into the gratitude part when I’m praying with my kids. I’m not sure why that is, but as a result, my kids also focus on thanking God for things, sometimes even phrasing requests as gratitude.

This is not a bad thing—of course, I want my kids to recognize and be thankful that all we are and all we have comes from the Lord. I also want them to begin learning how to recognize who God is in prayer, to ask for forgiveness, and to know that they can come to Him with their requests. I want to teach them how to listen and be attuned to the Spirit in prayer. These are weaknesses of my own that, now that I have kids to disciple, are aspects of prayer that I need to work on in my own life as I teach my kids to pray.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash