Five years ago, I walked my son Charlie to his first day of kindergarten. I thought I was ready; I really did. I held his hand and then had to let go as he ran the last half block, overcome with excitement, his backpack slapping away with his footsteps and his shouts.

Then we took him to his classroom, where he triumphantly found his seat and waved goodbye to me, and as I walked out of the school I felt untethered. Hot tears started to sting my eyes, and I thought, He’s all alone in there. How will he cope? What if someone is mean? What if he doesn’t like his lunch? What if there is no mom around when he needs one?

This year’s first day of school was remarkably easier, but I still found myself wondering the same questions. Both my boys are older and able to figure out the school lunch conundrum, and even a bit of long division, but still, my fears remain.

The Bible tells us that fear is not from God. It surfaces in our lives, and we smush it down, or try to deal, or end up totally succumbing to it. Some people (okay, me) find fear to be constantly on call some days. I know it’s not in sync with the Holy Spirit’s desire for my day, so, anytime those fearful thoughts and aches and pains crop up, I know we are not aligned. Because I swat at fear so often, this knowledge makes me even more afraid that my faith is a mess. But honestly, it’s progress, not perfection over in my world.

Sometimes when my prayers are about my children, I need a little more direction.

I know the spiritual answer to fear is to pray and meditate on the Word, to keep in constant contact with God, who understands these fears. But sometimes when my prayers are about my children, I need a little more direction. I find myself praying, vaguely, “Lord, help my kids to have a great day at school. Help people to be nice. And if my boys are not kind, could you please take care of that, since I won’t be there? Thank you.” This is the best I can do on some days.

On our most hectic mornings, as I push them out the door with their gigantic backpacks and lunch boxes and instrument cases and late homework, such a prayer is probably better than nothing. But I can do better than “better than nothing.” My children deserve it. My God certainly should inspire it. And I need it—because the act of prayer is a continued conversation with Jesus, and I don’t feel like surface conversations really suit.

This is when I start to lean very heavily on that “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” verse in Romans 8:26. There is a lot of groaning, mostly about my kids being kind and sharing with others and not learning any more bad words from that one kid in their class. And since God is so very kind and loves to share, God gave me some specific ideas in terms of back-to-school prayers for my kids.

One of God’s most repeated requests is that I be patient with prayer. God wants me to trust the act of prayer itself, to trust that my prayers are heard upon first uttering. When I start to rev up to repeated and terse mutterings because I am not so sure God listened, I need to practice trust. “Put it in the God box,” my friend Lee would tell me. “Don’t take it back and unfold it and keep editing or adding to it. Leave it in there. God can read.”

God respects the type of prayer that we say again and again because we simply must ask again.

But here’s the twist (and with God, there is so very often a twist): God blesses fervency. God understands repeated prayer. God respects the type of prayer that we say again and again because we simply must ask again, please—because it’s so important. I think, for me, the difference was figuring out that I didn’t need to repeat myself just because God didn’t care the first time around. Instead, I can echo my prayers because a chorus often feels comforting to sing again and again (and again), like we do in church. Not because we’re afraid to end the song but because the continuation seems like breathing.

I also started realizing that my prayers for my kids are not supposed to function as Band-aids for my feelings. I know this probably seems obvious, but for some of us it can be tough to understand that the majority of our communing with God should not be . . . all about us.

So I actually sat down with my eight- and nine-year-old and asked them what they wanted me to pray for them, this year at school. We weeded our way through requests for easy homework and super-nice teachers and got into the nitty gritty: “I want to have at least three sick days this year!” Henry told me adamantly. “I can stay home and watch Star Wars and drink 7-Up!” (This happened to his brother last year after a bad bout with strep, and Henry is still jealous.)

I made notes in my prayer journal and then showed them the list. And I made sure they understood that someone was praying for them over the practical ins and outs of their school day. Every day. I did explain, however, that I draw the line at asking for sickness. My journal sits open on the kitchen table every morning as the boys slurp down their Cheerios. That way they know Mom won’t forget—because she wrote it down. And then, of course, Mom forgets. And God understands.

God shows me other ways to pray. God shows me the class pictures that are stuck up on the refrigerator: twenty tiny images with gap-toothed smiles and hair that sticks up. And I don’t just pray for my boys when I see those images but also for one or two of the other kids in the class. Maybe the one with the super-big hair bow and the pink Hello Kitty shirt. I relax into it while I put away the milk and eggs, and I remember other kids need prayer too.

Or I pray when I drive by the elementary school on one of my errands. Or while I put away the endless pairs of shoes that seem to migrate all over our house. Or I sing Toby Mac (the boys’ favorite Christian artist) at the top of my lungs in the car, and the prayer is shouted in the lyrics about shining bright and speaking life.

And of course, I pray over each child after bedtime. It is then that my prayers cycle back to the helpless ones that mothers utter when they watch their children’s eyelashes flutter against their cheeks, so deeply asleep. “Please. Keep them safe. Please, let them be kind. Please, let others be kind to them.”

The prayers are heard. God is there.