How to Help a Child Pray

One afternoon, when my son Nathan was six, he announced that he had prayed and asked God to bring his friend Asa over to our house to play. I was tempted to call Asa’s parents and arrange for him to come over, but I didn’t. I also thought to temper my son’s confidence, but I held my tongue.

Then, as I stood in my dining room, looking through the window, a car pulled up and stopped in front of our home. The passenger door opened, and Asa jumped out and ran across our front yard. He had asked his mom to bring him over to see if Nathan could play.

Few things thrill a parent’s heart more than hearing a child pray with earnest faith. But how do we help our children get there? What builds their confidence to call out to a God they cannot see? And along the way, how might we guard against formalism and hypocrisy in prayer? Given how many books are written to help us adults pray, our kids will need a little help.

Model a Life of Prayer

Our children are watching us; they learn far more from our example than we realize. So, as you might expect, our example as praying parents and grandparents is our most important training tool. The best way to teach your children to pray is to demonstrate a praying life yourself.

I grew up watching my parents and grandparents pray. I loved to spend time at my maternal grandma’s house and have always been an early riser, so I was already up when she would get down on her knees and pray. On Sundays, when we visited my dad’s parents after lunch, we would interrupt their afternoon prayers if we arrived too early. Today, I have burned in my memory the picture of my grandparents and Aunt Gene sitting around the coffee table in their living room, praying.

My dad led us in family prayer. His confidence in calling out to God for help is where I first learned to trust God. I will never forget the difficult Friday morning when he gathered the children together to pray for my mom, who was in the hospital awaiting heart surgery. He shared the sad news that my mom had suffered a stroke after a heart catheterization before surgery. She could not speak and had become paralyzed on one side of her body. Through tears, my dad called us to pray.

I was sixteen at the time and prayed with confidence for God to heal my mom. The doctors gave us hope; though they canceled her upcoming surgery, they said my mom could recover and gain back her function within six months. Later that day, the doctors reported my mom’s full recovery and rescheduled her surgery for the next week.

With my own children, we prayed consistently for the salvation of my brother. It became a prayer my children often repeated without prompting. More than a decade later, at my father’s funeral, my brother announced his saving faith in Christ and attributed it to my father’s example. That taught my children about persistence in prayer better than any lesson I could give.

“The best way to teach your children to pray is to demonstrate a praying life yourself.”

The more we love Jesus, the more that love will spill out into our prayers — even traditional prayers like the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24–26). While such prayers have their place, let’s be sure to pray with our hearts bent toward God. Do your best to consider God himself as you pray, rather than simply repeating something you’ve memorized. Your children can tell the difference.

Teach the Way of Prayer

In addition to modeling prayer, teaching our children about prayer is important. Consider four lessons you can teach your children to help frame their understanding of prayer.

1. Prayer is talking to God as Father.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them a simple prayer that encouraged them to approach God as their Father. Review the passage with your children and walk through the prayer to help them understand each part. (If you use Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:1–4, you can also include the disciple’s request.)

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. (Luke 11:2)

God is our Father in heaven who, like a good earthly father, is ready to hear us. A great way to begin our prayers is to tell God how wonderful he is and pray for God’s kingdom to grow.

It is through believing and trusting in Jesus that we come to know God as our Father. We trust God as Father by believing in the gift of his Son. Through his death on the cross, the temple curtain was torn, opening the way for those who believe to become children of God.

Give us each day our daily bread. (Luke 11:3)

God wants us to ask him for daily needs like food, shelter, clothing, and grace to obey his commands — the things we need to help us follow him each day.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. (Luke 11:4)

We can confess our sins to God in our prayers and ask him to help us forgive those who have sinned against us.

And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:4)

We all face temptations to keep sinning. God invites us to pray that he would keep us away from these temptations.

2. God always hears us, but he doesn’t always give what we ask for.

God gives us what we need, not always what we want — but as long as we are trusting in Jesus, he always hears us. Consider teaching your children these Bible verses:

The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. (1 Peter 3:12, quoting Psalm 34:15)

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:3)

This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14–15)

3. We don’t need to use long or eloquent prayers.

God already knows what we need before we ask him. Consider what Jesus taught:

When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7–8)

4. The Psalms can teach us how to pray.

Teach your children that the Psalms are the recorded prayers of David and other Old Testament saints, given to lead us in faithful prayer. Among the most helpful psalms you can pray with your children are Psalms 1, 23, 63, 100, 121, 139, and 150.

Image the God of Prayer

Finally, alongside modeling prayer and teaching about prayer, image the God who hears prayer.

The generous, loving, patient earthly father teaches with his life that God is a generous, loving, patient heavenly Father. But the selfish, short-tempered dad has hammered a deep dent in his children’s understanding. Remember, God compares his willingness to hear our prayers with a father granting his son’s request (Luke 11:11–13).

When your children ask, “Dad, can you play catch with me?” or, “Can you tell me a story?” what is your typical reply? While we need not always say yes, we should strive to be known for saying yes. One of the greatest ways we as dads image forth the character of God is by welcoming the invitation to be interrupted and demonstrating a history of saying yes to our kids.

So, what do you do if you are an angry, impatient dad? I found myself in that place when my oldest children were in grade school. After confessing my sin to my wife, I pulled our family together and confessed to my kids. I shared that I had become an angry dad, and because of my poor example, we had become an angry family. I asked my children to forgive me. My wife followed with her own confession, and my four older kids did the same. From that day, we pledged to help one another and prayed for God’s help. Guess what? God answered our prayers with an outpouring of grace.

It is important to remember that we can train our children even through our failures. When we live godly lives, we provide an example for our children to follow. But if, when we fail, we confess our sins and run to the cross, we demonstrate the application of the gospel to our kids and help them know what to do when they fail. Whether by our godly example or by our confessed sins and failures, we can say to our children, “Come follow me.”

Unconfessed anger and impatience will mar our children’s view of God. But when confessed, those same sins showcase the gospel and give our children a well-worn path to the cross. Your humble prayers for forgiveness, like the tax collector’s, stand in stark contrast to the prayers of the Pharisee who thought he could do no wrong (Luke 18:10–14).

Praying with Daddy

I’m still an early riser, and I spend my time praying in the early morning. When our oldest children (twins) hit kindergarten, I realized that they rarely saw me pray. So, I started waking them up, one at a time, early in the morning to join Daddy to pray. Once in the family room, I would ask them, “What do you want to pray for?” Then I would pray out loud for their request and invite them to pray out loud. If they got stuck, I would help. After we finished, I would carry them back to their room and slip them under the covers. The whole process took about fifteen minutes, and I only did this once a week. But over time, all my children learned prayer by praying with Dad.

If you’ve been slacking in your devotions, start back up with daily Bible reading and prayer. Once you’re up and running again, consider inviting one of your children to join you. They will never forget praying with Daddy in the morning.