Teaching Our Children to Pray

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“Teaching Our Children to Pray,” Ensign, Jan. 1976, 59

Special Issue: Prayer

Teaching Our Children to Pray

Sandra: As a child, the most profound experience I ever had with prayer was kneeling together with my father and older sister and brother, pleading for the life of “little Linda,” one of our four-month-old twins.

Overnight she had become ill—severely dehydrated and burning up with fever. Mother was at the hospital with the twins; Dad had come home after an all-night vigil and wearily gathered us together for prayer.

We were all alarmed and a little insecure to see him so broken—so vulnerable—in the very depths of humility.

I remember how he begged and pleaded with the Lord for the life of that little baby, the tears streaming down his face. I also remember feeling that the heavens were opened—those pleadings were heard and received.

When little Linda died, I knew the Lord had said no. I didn’t understand why, but I knew somehow it would be all right.

Now as a mother of eight children, I wonder how often our own children experience a real communication and openness with the Lord through prayer.

I know we can’t expect them to have a profound experience every time they pray—but how can we teach them to have a broken heart and contrite spirit under ordinary, everyday circumstances? To feel that the heavens are opened and the Lord is listening? These are the concerns we are struggling with and trying to fulfill.

Stephen and Sandra: As parents we are convinced that no other single activity has such a determining influence on the whole of life as does effective prayer. It can and should determine everything else, including our actions and our attitudes or responses to all that happens to us.

If neglected, everything else in life is negatively affected. If honored, everything else in life is graced. It is no wonder God commands parents to teach their children “to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.)

We believe many of us in the Church are having problems and unhappiness because we are not properly teaching our children, and before we will be released from these plaguing problems, we will need to “set in order” our own homes. Most of us know in our hearts that this is true, even though we consciously focus on “outside” problems—work, finances, Church assignments, etc. Carefully study the eleven verses of counsel the Lord gave to the First Presidency (Joseph Smith, Jr., Sidney Ridgon, and Frederick G. Williams) and the Presiding Bishop (Newel K. Whitney) along these lines. (D&C 93:40–50.) In these eleven verses the Lord declares, “What I say unto one I say unto all.”

Sandra: On one occasion Stephen was going out of town for a short business trip. It was late Friday afternoon and he was delayed at his office longer than had been expected. He dashed home and we frantically got him packed and organized.

He hadn’t had time to see or visit with any of the children, and now with the pressure of that plane leaving, with or without him, he called for family prayer.

It was not the usual time for prayer, and the children were scattered all over the house and outside I. ran to the door and tried to get the boys in from playing football on the front lawn. Someone else was in the middle of a TV show and hated to leave. One was on the telephone, resenting the interruption; another was jumping on the trampoline with friends; and someone else was taking a nap.

Stephen was totally frustrated. He shouted at the boys on the lawn, “For heaven’s sake, will you get in here—right now! When I call for family prayer that means to drop what you’re doing and come. I’ve got a plane to catch.”

Then I started in. “What’s the matter with you kids, anyway!” Our voices were rising higher and louder with each phrase.

By the time we were all kneeling together there was a dark cloud of gloom, bad feelings, guilt, and frustration hanging over us all. Nobody felt like praying. “Maria, will you pray?” A pause. “I really don’t feel like it—could you call on someone else?”

Stephen glanced around at the wounded faces and realized what had happened. He began to apologize. “I’m sorry I yelled. It’s just that I didn’t want to leave without seeing all of you, having a prayer, asking for a blessing of safety in traveling, and feeling everything was in order.”

As he went on, we all started searching our hearts. He had such a good, sincere motive. Why couldn’t I have been more cooperative and less selfish? Gradually all hearts were softened.

The prayer was short. All he asked for was forgiveness. He left immediately.

We all felt bad when he left. We all wanted a better ending to the situation, and now we really wished we could have knelt together and prayed fully and openly with a good spirit. Our hearts ached. It was too late. But we had learned something.

Stephen and Sandra: Teaching is not telling. Particularly is this true with children. Teaching is primarily modeling (example) and relating (love), and secondarily telling (precept). If our precept teaching is consistent with our modeling or example, it will be heard. If not, it probably will not be heard. As Emerson put it, “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”

The fundamental principle of teaching our children to pray, therefore, is to be truly praying people ourselves. We teach what we are. Are our prayers earnest, deep, meaningful, and two-way? Are our lives anchored and committed by them? Are we changed through them? We teach what we are.

We have concluded that it is supremely important to have both personal and husband-wife prayers before greeting the children in the morning. In those prayers we seek to get our own spirits in tune with the Lord’s Spirit so that we are at peace within ourselves and between ourselves. Once we feel the Spirit, we then attempt to walk through our day in our mind’s eye. We determine our attitudes and responses to unpleasant situations or a difficult child. To use computer language, we try to “program ourselves” with true principles and commitments while under the divine influence of the Holy Spirit.

For instance, if you have the tendency to yell at your children when they disobey or at your spouse when he or she doesn’t meet your expectations, even though you rationalize your actions while “in the heat of the battle,” you know within that such a belittling approach is foolish, futile, and self-perpetuating (the more you do it, the more you’ll have to do it). Yet you still do it, it becomes a habit and others develop habitual ways of defending themselves against it. Children become threat deaf. They (and spouses) yell back or walk out or “get back” in some other way.

Through deep, meaningful prayer we can “spiritually create” a far more effective response. We can “see” ourselves reacting on the basis of the Savior’s nature and principles. Through such an approach, “line upon line, precept upon precept,” we can become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4.) “When a man works by faith he works by mental exertion instead of physical force. It is by words instead of exerting his physical powers, with which every being works when he works by faith.” (Lectures on Faith, 7:3.)

There is no doubt that such gospel living will have ten times more impact in teaching children to pray than any number of practical techniques.

Children’s first source of knowledge of God is human—their parents. The second source is divine—revelation from God. (Study Joseph Smith’s Second Lecture on Faith.) We have observed from missionaries, students, and investigators that if the first source is distorted (unkind, hypocritical), so also will be the concept of God in the minds of the people. They will then pray with this wrong conception of God. If they are fearful to be open and honest with their parents because of receiving overreacting, angry responses, they will learn to not be open and honest in prayer to God. Their divine communications will likely be as mechanical and protective and manipulative as their human communications.

We are persuaded that children’s divine conceptions are largely a product of how their parents treat them, particularly under conditions of stress. Teaching by example and unconditional love, reinforced by precept, is again the key.

Children are constantly investigating our lives to see if the gospel is true. “I don’t care how much you know about prayer until I know how much you care about me.”

Just as there are different levels of human communication, there are different levels of divine communication. Perhaps it’s more a matter of degree, but for purposes of analysis we arbitrarily select the following three levels:

1. Mechanical prayer

2. Meaningful one-way heartfelt expression

3. Genuine two-way communication.

As parents we need regular experiences at the third level in order to understand and appreciate the orderly sequential growth through these levels and also to develop the sensitivity and skill with our children to facilitate these growth processes. Consider each one.

1. Mechanical prayer. We teach our children to “say” their prayers. So they learn to “say” their prayers. They are acquiring a helpful discipline. They “say” their prayers when they get up and when they go to bed, perhaps at their parent’s knee or side. They should see their parents call everyone together for family prayer and perhaps sense a higher level of prayer. They should see and hear a blessing offered on the food at each meal. In this home God is recognized, acknowledged. They sense this. This is good. It is a good beginning. They are acquiring the most basic habit and discipline of spiritual life. We need to teach our children what missionaries teach investigators—the four steps of prayer:

  1. “Our Father in heaven …”

  2. “We thank thee …”

  3. “We ask thee …”

  4. “In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

2. Meaningful one-way heartfelt expression. If as parents we are kind and patient, open and grateful, we can teach a much higher level of prayer to our children. We essentially are teaching them to pray from their hearts rather than to say the same words again and again, like going down some kind of checklist.

We have found some of the following ideas or types of expressions helpful in teaching our children how to pray from the heart.

a. When we call for prayer, we are interrupting the lives of many people involved in various tasks and projects. Everyone has his mind focused on what he was doing, and we need to take a few minutes to prepare ourselves for prayer. Stephen may say to the children, “Let’s take a few moments to think about who we are praying to and why. Let’s quietly think about what we are doing—about the things we are grateful for.”

We need to pause, to become calm and still inside. Otherwise we bring the rush of life into our prayers, keeping us at the mechanical level.

b. Usually we sing a hymn before family prayer, such as “Sweet Hour of Prayer” or “I Need Thee Every Hour” or “Love at Home.” This gives the children time to gather around mentally as well as physically. It helps to bring some unity and harmony and order to the entire situation. The family seems to enjoy this, although we sometimes omit it if time pressures are too heavy.

c. Often we go around the prayer circle and ask each family member if he has any special needs or blessings he would like to have remembered in the prayer.

Cynthia may ask for a clear, alert mind in preparing for an exam in school; Maria might request that she be blessed to play well at a piano recital that evening; Stephen may need help in passing off a merit badge for Scouting; Michael Sean and David might ask that they give their best efforts in their Little League baseball game that day; Catherine could ask us to pray for our dog’s injured leg; and Colleen may want us to remember her chicken pox. Sandra might need guidance in preparing her Relief Society lesson and Stephen, inspiration in his Church assignment. This process helps us to be aware of everyone’s needs and to pray specifically.

d. We often guide the child right before the prayer: “Think about what is in your heart and say it to your Heavenly Father.”

“David, what are you really grateful for? How has the Lord blessed our family and answered our prayers? Let’s think about it and then just talk to your Heavenly Father as you talk to me. Don’t worry if you don’t say everything everyone else says. Say what you really feel in your heart. Heavenly Father loves and cares for you just as I do, even more so.”

e. In appropriate ways we commend them for spontaneous, heartfelt expression. Yet we are careful not to cause them to gear their expressions to our ears and for our reward. “Your Father in heaven is pleased when you tell him how you really feel.” “That was nice, honey. Your Heavenly Father loves to hear you pray to him in that way.” When we do this, we sense the children feel doubly appreciated. Most of them, most of the time, want to be voice in our family prayer.

f. Model praying with a specific purpose. We let our children see and hear how our own prayers are uniquely bent to a specific purpose or need or situation. Maybe some prayers are only expressions of gratitude, with no requests. Other prayers may focus on one special need. Some prayers may be just a few sentences long—or one, “Please help us, dear God.”

Sandra: I recall driving up the canyon with Colleen, our four-year-old. Suddenly, after being deep in thought, she asked me why our family didn’t have a new baby.

I explained to her that we wanted one very much, but that we didn’t always get what we wanted. I told her that it was Heavenly Father who sent the babies to families, and Mommy and Daddy had been praying to him and asking if he would let us have another one someday.

Her face lit up with understanding. “Well, let’s pray some more. Let’s pray for one right now.” I pulled the car over to the side of the road and Colleen prayed, determined and loud, appealingly—positive that her request would be granted. She continued to pray, night and day, and reminded everyone else to do so. We were blessed with a baby in September. Our whole family feels like Colleen’s faith and persistence brought it to us.

g. Stephen and Sandra: Sometimes we have found our children offering essentially the same mechanical prayer in every situation. We believe this is due in part to our own “vain repetitions” and also in part to their becoming tired and/or bored in listening too long to general prayers, however sincerely expressed.

When we notice mechanical prayers, we make a real effort to break them up. They can become so habitual and reinforcing as to work into people’s consciences and make them feel guilty and uncomfortable if they are not “on their knees” or “in the right spirit” or “in the right place” or if they don’t remember the entire checklist—loved ones, missionaries, leaders, etc., etc.

We try to teach by example and precept that you can pray anywhere, anytime—and that you should. “Pray always” to us means a constant, subconscious commitment to and awareness of the Lord, so that his purposes and principles govern our every action, word, and thought, plus a frequent conscious renewal of that relationship and commitment in prayer.

We generally find prayer is a golden teaching moment. On a one-to-one basis the children are very open to comments such as:

“Son, you can pray while you’re walking.” “You can pray with your eyes open.” “You can pray out loud or silently within.” “You can pray for help to get out of a bad mood.”

“Son, learn to go alone at least once a day where no one else can see you or hear you except your Father in heaven. I do this, son. Sometimes I go. …”

h. After family prayer it may be appropriate to remain kneeling for personal prayers, as is common among missionaries. Or you might say to your children, “Why don’t each of us go to a very private place for personal private prayer for a few minutes?” The Savior taught his “children” (disciples) to do this. (See Matt. 6:5–8.)

We find praying alone, out loud, sometimes helps to discipline and focus our minds, but that it doesn’t seem necessary once we’re in the spirit. Words then seem to limit deeper-feeling expression.

i. We have often tried to teach our children to pray in terms of their needs, rather than their wants: “What is best for my character, my development, my spiritual growth, even if it’s a hard experience for me?” The Lord knows what we need—we know what we want. This is one excellent reason for regular scripture study. The Lord is constantly dealing with his children in terms of their needs, not their wants.

This is pretty hard doctrine for any of us, and it was especially hard for our teenage daughter. Being elected cheerleader of her high school seemed to be the most important need in her life. She had worked for several months, practicing every day doing cartwheels, flips, splits, and cheers, till we were all relieved when the final cuts came. There were tears every time one of her close friends was eliminated and hope surged as she progressed to the final election assembly. “Oh, Mother, I’m praying so hard to win. The Lord says you can ask for any righteous desire of your heart and this is mine.” It seemed a reasonable request to us, too. She was firm and solid in the Church and socially popular in a very sophisticated and large high school. We thought she would be a good influence for the Church.

At the final assembly tryouts things went beautifully. She was in great form, her cheer was original, she was well known and received as much or more applause than anyone else. She seemed a cinch to be one of the five winners.

She was absolutely crushed when she lost. It was only by a few votes, but she lost.

“Mother, you just don’t know how important this was to me,” she sobbed. “It’s one of my lifetime goals. Why did the Lord let me down when I prayed so fervently? It wasn’t just for myself. I was going to use this office as a good, solid influence for the Church. I study the scriptures every single night. I do missionary work constantly. I stand up for the Church in every situation; I work my head off in the ward and on the stake youth council and then one time I ask for help—what do I get? it isn’t as if I didn’t do my part. I practiced for six months. I couldn’t have tried harder.”

Sandra remembers, “I was a little disillusioned myself. So good. So faithful. So deserving. I didn’t have too many answers, but I told her there must be a good reason and through prayer and study she would come to understand why.”

The very next month she was asked to be one of the high school seminary officers. All of the seminary council had made personal sacrifices to serve. The seminary president had been asked to give up running for student body president; this was a hard decision for him. They said they really needed our daughter’s creativity and missionary talents to draw people, and this year was a crucial one for gaining a positive stronghold.

That year she had many profound spiritual experiences. She developed deep, meaningful friendships and was a positive influence in helping several people come into Church activity.

Later she told me that she gradually came to an understanding of herself through fervent prayer and study of the scriptures. “I wanted to be cheerleader more than anything else, but the Lord knew I needed this other experience more. I needed more spiritual growth. It was a hard experience, but I know in my heart it was right.”

3. Genuine two-way communication. In two-way prayer we listen and respond to what we hear. In many of our one-way prayers we counsel the Lord, directing him around the heavens and the earth, telling him whom to bless and how.

We believe in two basic principles in teaching children this level: first, having them experience the satisfaction of two-way communication with us; and second, helping them understand how to listen to the voice of the Lord, and how to recognize it.

A person’s satisfaction with something is primarily a function of his expectation, over which he has control, and secondarily a product of his realization, over which he may not have control.

We need to create accurate expectations in our children’s minds regarding how the Lord speaks to us so they will recognize his voice and feel satisfied when they hear (sense, feel) it. Prayer will then become deeply meaningful and satisfying. Otherwise, if they expect something more dramatic and physical, something mysterious and strange, and don’t realize their expectations, they will pray only out of duty, not desire. Their prayers will become mechanical monologues. Talking to oneself, to the ceiling, or to the mattress is boring and unfulfilling.

We need to teach our children that the Lord speaks to us in many ways, but more particularly through his servants, the prophets, ancient (scriptures) and modern (conferences, writings), and through his still, small voice. We teach them that their heart is the ear of the spirit and that their conscience is His voice. President David O. McKay taught that for those in the Church in the line of their duty, the Holy Ghost normally speaks through the conscience. To a group of seminary and institute people, Elder Bruce McConkie of the Council of the Twelve once used a radio analogy, suggesting that the transmitter is the Holy Ghost, we are the receivers, and the Spirit of Christ represents the radio waves. Moroni taught that the gifts and powers of the Spirit come by and through the Spirit of Christ. (Moro. 10:7–17.)

Stephen: Once after I spoke on listening prayer at a Ricks College devotional, a coed approached me and asked, “Brother Covey, what’s the difference between a heartburn and a burning in the heart?” She was really asking what many of us have pondered: “How do I really know God is answering my prayer? Maybe it’s my own wish or want or psychological need that I warmly feel and project onto God, calling it his answer.”

I asked her if she had felt anything in her heart when we all paused during the speech to listen to our own consciences in response to the questions, “What do I need to do to draw closer to the Lord? to be a better family member? a better student?”

She answered, “Oh, yes. I know so many things I should do.”

“Well then, sister, I suggest you forget your question for now and just do those things. As you do you’ll become more acquainted with his voice and that will be the answer to your question.”

After a pause I sensed some disappointment and observed, “You didn’t like that answer, did you, Sister?”

She answered, “No, I didn’t. I have no excuse anymore.” She was escaping the confrontation of her real spiritual needs through intellectualizing about God and his ways.

A year later, after another devotional speech at Ricks, she came up and asked if I remembered her. I said I didn’t. She then identified herself as the one who was confused about “heartburns and burnings in the heart.”

“Oh, yes, whatever happened to you?”

She answered, “I am no longer confused. I know the difference. I did the things my conscience told me to and became acquainted with the voice.”

I pressed her regarding the things she did. She said she stopped procrastinating her studies and work, that she started to sincerely study the scriptures and to pray from her heart, that she was more cheerful and helpful at home, that she had “made up” with a couple of people she had become estranged from. She went on and on.

A year later, after a “Know Your Religion” speech in California, she came up and said, “Would you be interested in a third installment?” She went on to testify that “to listen to and obey my conscience was the most practical religious lesson I have ever learned. It has changed my life.”

One day I was teaching this lesson to my daughter Maria. “Honey, listen in your prayer to your conscience. Then respond to what you feel or sense.” She questioned how to do this. I suggested that whenever she asked for a particular blessing, she also ponder the law on which that blessing was predicated (D&C 130:20), and then the Lord would speak to her heart through her conscience. She did this and said nothing new was given, for “I already know what I should do.” I asked her where she got that knowledge. She answered, “In my Sunday School class.” I pointed out that Sunday School was part of the Lord’s kingdom, with the express purpose of teaching the gospel, and that the true principles she had learned there were lodged in her heart and mind. I told her that the Holy Ghost would bring those principles to her remembrance as she needed them to meet the demands of each situation. We studied together 2 Nephi 31:18–20 [2 Ne. 31:18–20] and 2 Ne. 32:1–5 and John 15:26, and she came to understand one of the central processes of personal revelation. She was both disappointed and elated—disappointed to have the more dramatic mystery surrounding revelation eliminated and elated to sense the Lord was listening and speaking to her and that the process was very simple. She also felt she was responsible for doing the thing the Lord required. She had no escape.

Stephen and Sandra: The adversary would like to plant wrong conceptions in our minds regarding personal revelation, tempting us to look past the mark (Jacob 4:14) so we will deprecate ourselves, unconsciously deny the Spirit, and perhaps become sign seekers. Yet ministrations of the Holy Ghost are of a higher order of revelation than ministration of angels. Angels minister by the power of the Aaronic Priesthood (D&C 13). It takes the Melchizedek Priesthood to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost. More blessed is he who believes and has not seen than he who believes because he has seen. Nephi was frequently directed by the Spirit. Laman and Lemuel were “past feeling” the Spirit and needed an angel to shake them into an awareness of what they should be doing. They were neither changed before the angel came nor after. Nephi was changed and had a spiritual mind and listening heart. He had learned mighty prayer. The divine dialogue was his daily meat.

We are trying to teach our children to run their actions and attitudes and plans by their consciences to see if they square up. We are trying to teach them to ask basic questions and listen to their consciences for the answers, such as, “What do I need to do to be closer to God?” “How can I be a better member of the Church?” “How can I better prepare for my mission?” “How can I do better in school?”

We encourage our children to first seek the Holy Spirit by asking for it and allowing it to guide their expressions and listening.

We are trying to teach them to continually educate their consciences through paying close attention at Church meetings and by studying the scriptures—really feasting on the words and the love of Jesus Christ. Then their consciences become repositories of divine principles that the Holy Ghost will bring to their remembrance to guide and direct their paths. We are encouraging them to memorize many key passages that are filled with wisdom pertaining to their present opportunities and challenges. We review these in family home evening.

We are trying to teach them that we do not receive more light and knowledge until we are true to the light and knowledge we already have. In other words, let’s just obey our consciences and if we need more, the Lord will give it to us in his way and in his time, not in our way and in our time.

Finally, we are encouraging them to respond to what they “hear” in prayer by committing themselves to obey the divine principle or directive given and then to “report back” on that commitment in a later prayer.

We find such a relationship based on communication requires infinitely more courage and humility, determination and self-honesty, than one-way prayers from the heart. Such true living and communication is also infinitely more satisfying, sanctifying, and empowering.

Once a person discovers the possibility of a dynamic, living relationship and communication, once he learns the special meaning of mighty prayer, he is never the same again. All things, including relationships, are changed and made infinitely more alive and beautiful.

“What is the most important thing you have ever learned in your life?” we quizzed Cynthia on her eighteenth birthday. Without hesitating she seriously answered, “To build your life on the Lord Jesus Christ. To put your faith and trust in him, to draw on his power, to depend on your relationship with him to pull you through collapsed dreams, disappointments, and disillusionments. It gives you the security you need. It helps you understand and know who you really are, not who other people say or think you are.”

“How did you learn this?”

“From the things you’ve taught me—but mostly through studying the scriptures and deep personal prayer. I know that people are often fickle. They will let you down and disappoint you—but you can always rely on the Lord. Depend on him. I feel I know him and have a real relationship through prayer.”

For those brief moments we felt well-rewarded, relieved, and somewhat astounded that, after all, some things were getting through.

But the final scores are not in yet. We experience disappointments also. It is not easy. It is a continual struggle, a constant effort. But we are very encouraged that law, not luck, governs, and that we can obey law if we so choose.

In sum, we find we are about as successful in our efforts to teach our children the genuine dialogue level as we are in our praying and living at this level.

We feel so thankful for the Lord’s patience and long-suffering and for our opportunities. We intend to continue to try to listen, to commit, to obey, and to teach.

Illustrated by Del Parson