My son climbed up on the wide deck railing that doubled as a bench and sat down next to me. Just beyond a strip of bushes and ferns and an area of beach we couldn’t see, the lake sparkled back at us. “I’m sitting quietly, listening to Jesus,” I said. “I’m so glad you’ve joined me. Maybe you can do some quiet listening too.”
The moments that followed slipped from commonplace to sacred. I’m not sure how much time passed, but it must have been more than twenty minutes. We sat quiet and still, listening and breathing. I wrote. He watched. We prayed. It was one of those times when the veil between heaven and earth is thin, made thinner in this case by sharing these moments with my precious little one. The nearness of the Spirit was palpable.
My son told me later that he was talking to God about nature—paying attention, noticing, giving thanks.
I gave thanks for the gift of sharing the sacred. I knew I needed more, and so did he. Why hadn’t I done this more frequently, giving him both a model and a vocabulary for encountering God in different ways?
I suppose I’m not alone in this. There are many well-meaning adults who have never stopped to think about the prayer lives of the children around them. Perhaps they’ve naively diluted a child’s capacity for prayer to a rote recitation for the evening meal, pleas for a lost pet, or bedtime petitions that take on the same form night after night. Perhaps even the most faithful adults have been guilty of discounting the childlike faith with which a young person encounters God.
Yet those who have spent significant time with groups of kids will likely tell you that kids often have an innate intuition, an inquisitive nature, a sensitivity to spiritual things, and a malleable spirit. They have all the tools they need for a rich and meaningful prayer life. In fact, I would guess—if given the language and the freedom—many kids would identify a relationship with prayer that has much less to do with the words they are saying and far more to do with being, exploring, and experiencing.
Prayer practices are simply different ways of communicating with God. They’re the ways we listen for the heart of God and share our own hearts.
Even our youngest kids can begin to learn and explore different prayer practices. Prayer practices are simply different ways of communicating with God. They’re the ways we listen for the heart of God and share our own hearts. As we think intentionally about the spiritual formation of children in a world that is increasingly noisy and distracting, we can help our kids gain deep roots, strong branches, and fresh air so they can thrive. Prayer practices foster a climate for doing just that.
1. Silence. I didn’t even mention this practice in the blog post I wrote last year on prayer practices because it’s so hard and overwhelming for many adults. All the more reason to introduce it to kids early and give them the opportunity to practice it in bite-sized amounts. This prayer practice can be introduced by simply pulling a child onto your lap and sitting for a moment without talking. As they grow, begin to give them a language for sitting in silence, like, “Let’s take a moment to be quiet. Maybe we will hear the birds or the wind. That’s good for us. Maybe we’ll sense something from God. That’s good too.” On our day at the lake, my seven-year-old didn’t need me to hold him. He just needed an invitation to come and sit.
2. Breath prayer. The simple act of breathing in and out deeply can become a prayer. Combined with simple phrases, a breath prayer can be instrumental in calming anxiety, in reminding us who we are, or in voicing our trust in God. Here are some simple ideas for breath prayer to get you started: You are (inhale) my peace (exhale). Or, In you, oh God (inhale) I put my trust (exhale).
Not long before the scene at the lake, my same little boy was feeling overwhelmed and anxious by the events of the day. I was too. It had been challenging for all of us.
“I just don’t think I’m going to be able to go to sleep, Mom,” he’d said. “There’s too much on my mind.”
I said, “Take a deep breath in, and then let it out slowly. Let’s continue that deep breathing and add some words to it as a form of prayer.”
That day he chose the following for his breath prayer: You are (inhale) with me (exhale). You won’t (inhale) leave me (exhale).
It was a fitting prayer for both of us. He slept like a rock.
3. Praying in nature. This practice is often instinctive for kids. Spending time in nature evokes feelings of gratitude, awe, and wonder. The research surrounding feelings of awe is fascinating. Scientists have connected the feeling to lower stress, increased humility and generosity, improved health, a sense of having more time, and a greater connection to other people. Additionally, simply listening to birdsong can have a tremendous impact on mental and emotional health. Praying in nature is no different. The simple truth is that one of the best ways to connect with the Creator is to spend time in creation. Whether we’re noticing the fuzzy legs of the bumblebee, the view from up in a tree, or the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, praying in nature helps us tune our minds and hearts toward the mind and heart of God. Kids are often best at taking the time to get outside and pay attention, to listen and let thoughts flow in conversation with God. As the adults in their lives, our job is to simply give them plenty of opportunities to do that and the space to share what they may be experiencing.
4. Praying through creating. Praying by creating can take lots of forms. Almost any act of creation can become a prayer when the artist’s heart is turned toward the Creator. I know a pastor who taught his son to pray as he was building with Legos. Together, they would build a cross and then add blocks around the cross to represent different prayer requests. The work the artist creates can be an expression of a prayer request, a way to occupy the hands while the mind and heart are listening, or a means of illustrating what they’re sensing from the Spirit. Setting the stage by providing time, a lump of Play-Doh, and the opportunity to create can open wide the doors of a child’s heart.
5. Prayers of the people. I suppose it could be easy to discount prayers of the people when thinking about ways kids can learn to pray. In this particular case, I’m referring to the traditional prayers of the church. The language of these prayers can be complex. Sometimes they’re memorized before the words have meaning. However, the spoken prayers of the Christian tradition can be a vibrant part of a child’s prayer life. They remind us that we’re part of something far bigger than just ourselves—both in time and in space. They help us engage in the broader community. They teach us to pray corporately. They can be stored in our minds and hearts, popping up when we least expect them or when we lack our own words. The Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or an excerpt from St. Patrick’s breastplate might all be good places to start. Don’t worry if the language seems too abstract for little people. Simply provide meaning by offering age-appropriate meanings, such as, “When I pray the Jesus prayer, I’m asking Jesus to be extra close to me.”
Prayer practices are just that—something that takes practice.
Prayer practices are just that—something that takes practice. They require regular participation, but it doesn’t have to be formal or stiff! They simply require the adults in a child’s life to seek out opportunities for participation or to name them when they arise. An awareness of the gift of prayer in its many forms helps the youngest and oldest among us experience deep and meaningful relationship with God.