Something happened to my son Charlie between eight and nine years old: he started to realize his own lack of divinity. This sounds like heady stuff, but in actuality it just meant that he was more aware of the times when he messed up. After a particularly trying afternoon involving loads of bad behavior from both of my boys, I snapped. “YOU NEED TO GO TO YOUR ROOMS RIGHT NOW. REALLY. GO THERE AND TALK TO JESUS. DON’T COME OUT UNTIL HE’S CLEARED YOU.”

We all needed a break. Later, when I slowly climbed the stairs to Charlie’s room, I found him on his bed, awash with tears. It seems he actually had been talking to Jesus. But I guess the conversation hadn’t gone the way Charlie planned. Jesus does that sometimes. He doesn’t stick to our plan. It’s tough.

Charlie lay on the bottom bunk of his bed, staring at the Star Wars poster above him. Big, fat tears rolled silently down his cheeks and onto the sheets. I looked around for a place to sit on the floor, but it was covered with books, and since Charlie looked so very forlorn, I decided wedge myself in beside him on the bunk—one inch from the edge, holding on for dear life. Bunk beds are hard.

“Charlie, what’s going on?”

He blinked rapidly and answered, “I prayed. But it just felt dumb.” I nodded and started to organize my notes in my head about how to respond, but Charlie spoke again. “And I’ve prayed about all this before. Nothing happens.” Two more tears slid down. I un-smushed my arm from his side and wiped them away. “I pray to be better,” Charlie continued. “But I keep messing up.”

And there you have it. My son had just had his own Romans moment. This is hard at nine years old. It’s tough at any age. Charlie had come up against himself, and he didn’t like what he saw. What kind of nine-year-old wants to indulge in self-reflection? It’s really uncomfortable. Also, he was undertaking an entirely new and risky venture: praying, very specifically, for help.

When they were little, my boys’ prayers were often cute lists of their favorite things: “Thank you, Jesus, for my cats. Thank you for corn on the cob with butter. Thank you for somersaults.” And so on. Then, as they grew up a bit, they would sprinkle in a bit of the bless yous: “Please bless Grandma. And Grandpa. And thank you for all the money they send me.” Their prayers were so adorable that I would itch to grab my phone and Instagram the moment, which sort of waters down the point of prayer. But it does make for a lot of cuteness on social media. #smallchildpraying #thebestthingever

Occasionally, my husband and I have clumsily wielded prayer time as a teachable moment. I like to think of this as secret-ninja praying. We just can’t help ourselves. We dose our kids up with sneaky discipline whenever we can. “Don’t forget to ask for forgiveness about the pinching,” I’ve whispered, after particularly rough afternoons. Because I’ve found that prayer works so much better when it’s directly scripted from your parents—the very ones who put you in timeout earlier for misbehaving. This makes praying extra fun. #sarcasm

But prayer is a living, breathing thing, and it grows, right along with my boys. I try leaning back and letting the boys lead during our nightly devotions. Their prayers still place our cats at the top of the list, but it’s a start.

Eventually, most of Charlie’s prayers will become a private conversation between himself God—as they should. But of course, I have plans for these prayers too. I’m thinking prayer journals and great revelations and deep follow-up discussions with Mom about Jesus and love and everything in between. (I know. I never said I didn’t have control issues.) I just can’t help it. I pictured Charlie kneeling by his bedside and talking to Jesus on a daily basis, little miracles vibrantly unfolding all over the place in his life, like flowers. But this afternoon, Charlie’s prayers were a little . . . droopy.

And then he told me the hardest part: “I prayed. But he’s not there. It’s just me, talking.”

I know prayer is not just about our feelings. And I know there are times when it feels like I am praying to four walls and a ceiling, and the loneliness of that is heartbreaking. But I know, too, what to do in times like these: carry on. Keep trying. Understand who Jesus is in all of this—his omnipotence, his reality, despite our feelings. But how in the world do I explain that to a nine-year-old kid? I tried. I really did.

“Charlie, he is listening. He does hear you. Even when you feel like he’s miles away, he is right there with you.”

Silence. Charlie continued to stare at the ceiling—the same one that had so coldly ignored him moments before.

“Charlie, sometimes our prayers seem one-sided, but we keep trying, right?”

Blinking. Silent.

Sigh. “Okay, Charlie. Sometimes praying is just . . . crummy.” The blinking stopped, and Charlie turned to me. I nodded. “Yep. You heard me. Sometimes, when I pray, I don’t feel like it does any good. Sometimes it feels like God is off on some other end of the galaxy doing stuff that matters. And sometimes I am just tired and want God to zap me and fix me right now, you know?”

I squeezed his hand, and finally he spoke up. “Why doesn’t he answer? Why doesn’t he make me be good?”

He nodded. This kid had not been this quiet in a long time. I squeezed his hand, and finally he spoke up. “Why doesn’t he answer? Why doesn’t he make me be good?”

I realized right then that I had been praying, like crazy, during this entire conversation—because my son was telling me he thought he was bad, and God needed to fix that. God simply had to fix it, right now. I took a deep breath and answered, “You are good. You are precious and loved and lovable.” My words seemed so empty, and I pictured them softly plinking against his exterior and dropping to the floor. Then I just hugged him. And we both stared up at the bunk above us, in silence. I felt droopy.

I wish I had a tidy ending to share, with a story about how Jesus showed up for Charlie in an obvious way. “Hey, I got your message, and you’re all fixed!” But I will tell you this: A day later I explained to Charlie how much, and how fervently, I had prayed during that conversation. How, as I had stroked his hair and cuddled him, I had been praying hard and that, all the while, I kind of felt like I was talking to the Star Wars poster. Charlie smirked.

“But don’t you see, Charlie? That’s how I know God listens. That’s how I know prayer works. Because God showed me in that very moment exactly how you felt. That was his answer.”

Charlie tilted his head to the side and eyed me silently. He does this when he is thinking deeply, and the content of our conversation certainly deserved some of that. And then he smiled.