Every fall after my oldest child reached school age, I had to deal with a new harsh reality: school + structure = the need for self-discipline. Suddenly we couldn’t sleep in then stay at the pool all day then meander to the park for T-ball practice after grabbing chicken sandwiches at the drive-through. I couldn’t slough off deadlines or meal prep or carpool; these responsibilities multiplied and clung to me like pills on an old sweater.
But the combination of schedules and stress forced me to seek God’s help. I needed prayer more than I needed a vegan smoothie or aromatherapy, and so I made time for it. After leaning into God’s grace for my survival, I used my prayer time to ask God to bless my family.
Praying “For” or Praying “With”?
I wish I had Erica Renaud’s book Pray with Me back then. I only prayed for my kids, but Erica recommends also praying with your children so they learn the art of conversing with God. Just as they need to practice math, she says, kids need to practice prayer, whether they venture into an away-from-home environment or homeschool.
She writes, “[We should be] raising children to be active and discerning members of the body of Christ who are awake, aware, and in tune with the voice of God in a culture that is moving further away from Him.… Our job as parents is not to “get our children saved.” It’s to teach our children how we love God. It’s to disciple them into a genuine relationship with Him, where they depend on Him, trust Him, and live for Him alone. If we never teach them to pray, we miss the whole point of salvation—to know Jesus and have a loving relationship with Him” (pp. 27, 37).
Pray with Me also includes advice from other sage parents. Erica quotes Mark Batterson, a father, pastor, and author, who has developed a prayer philosophy that he shares in his own book Praying Circles around Your Children:
“Praying for your kids is like taking them for a ride; praying with your kids is like teaching them to drive. If all you ever do is pray for your kids, they’ll just stay in the backseat. Your kids will become spiritual codependents who ask you for a ride anytime they need to get somewhere spiritually. But if you teach them to pray, they can download directions themselves and make their way to wherever it is that God wants them to go.”
Moving Beyond “I Spy” Mealtime Prayers
I love praying with toddlers because they peek. At our mealtime prayers, each child would offer a prayer about what he or she was thankful for. The beginning of my young children’s lists seemed to flow naturally with “thank You, God, for this food and my sister and Chase [the dog] and”—then at least one eye would pop open and the child’s inventory would continue—“the new pillow on the couch, the books, tall trees, and grape salt shakers.…” I call these the “I Spy” prayers because young kids pray for concrete things they can see and touch. For toddlers and preschoolers, listing things to be thankful for comes naturally as does repeating a prayer that a parent says aloud. But as children develop emotionally and spiritually, prayer maturity may not happen as spontaneously. Kids need some coaching.
In Pray with Me, Erica describes the moment she realized she needed a new approach to move her toddler son toward more “advanced” prayers. She writes, “[I]t seems that as soon as they grow out of that stage, we have little to offer in the way of teaching prayer. While they grow and mature, our method stays the same. We continue with the same approach from their toddlerhood: model prayer at dinner and maybe pray with them at bedtime. Our illogical hope is that their prayer life will mature even though we’ve continued implementing infant techniques.”
One part of the solution Erica found to remain enthusiastic about praying with her children was to focus on a child’s strengths. Most young children have a natural empathy and boldness in their approach to prayer. As you encourage your children to pray aloud for things other than the food before them, take note: their simple honesty and faith-filled prayers may be something that you want to emulate. Jesus himself observed it, saying, “Whoever humbles himself like [a] child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4).
By enjoying prayer time with your children, you’ll all grow closer to God. You can pray about those deadlines and meal prep and carpool schedules. They can pray about their fears and their friends and their hamsters. Your kids will not only learn from you, but you just might learn from their wholehearted, simple prayers as well.
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Marianne Hering is an editorial Jane-of-all-trades: ghost blogger, children’s book author, content writer, picture-book coach, developmental editor, magazine article writer, and copyeditor. While on the staff with Focus on the Family, she helped launch the popular Clubhouse and Club Jr. magazines in 1987 and edited their children’s books for more than a decade. She is the fiction acquisitions editor for Brio magazine and manages the parenting column “Hacks & Facts” for Focus on the Family magazine. She recently joined David C Cook as a developmental editor for Esther Press books. Perhaps the “chapter” in her career she’s enjoyed the most is writing The Imagination Station book series for children ages seven to ten, which has more than one million cumulative sales.