“Teaching Children about Prayer,” Ensign, Jan. 1989, 60
At some time, nearly every child asks the question, “Why does Heavenly Father want us to pray to him?” As parents lead their children in prayerful respect and appreciation, they model for them a way of life that will bring gratitude, blessings, comfort, guidance, faith, and love.
Spirituality begins with prayer. In one way or another, how we live every commandment is affected by how we have regular, sincere communion with Father in Heaven. It is impossible to measure the blessings that come to those families who have learned to make earnest, humble, continual prayer a part of their everyday lives.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has said, “I know of nothing that will ease family tensions [better] than will praying together, confessing weaknesses together before the Lord, and invoking the blessings of the Lord upon the home and those who dwell there.” (Improvement Era, June 1963, p. 531.)
As we explain prayer to our children, we may include (1) expressing gratitude, (2) pleading for unity and love, (3) asking for help in time of need, and (4) seeking strength to resist or overcome.
Gratitude. Through prayer we can express our gratitude to our Father in Heaven for his kindness and blessings. As we express thanks for each other, our home, and our special times together, our children will not only feel our appreciation but will also learn to express theirs. We can also thank our Heavenly Father for the Restoration, for the beauties of nature, for a safe journey, and for particular blessings given to our family.
Unity. One of the great blessings received in a prayerful home is added family strength. Great bonds of love develop as we sincerely seek the Lord through prayer in behalf of ourselves and our children. Praying as families brings us together both physically and spiritually in a way that can help us handle difficult times.
A father who found it hard to express his love for his family was able to communicate his feelings through prayer. His daughter, who had misinterpreted her father’s manner as indifference, was thrilled as her father prayed, “Bless my lovely daughter to do good.” A shy young man who saw himself as weak and afraid felt pride and self-esteem when his father and mother thanked God for their “kind, gentle son.” (See Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 37.)
In turn, it is comforting to know that we as parents can receive guidance and understanding from an all-wise, all-loving Father in Heaven. Through prayer, we can better understand our children and their individual needs. We can receive insights to help us teach and discipline them.
Prayer unites family members with each other and with the powers and influence of heaven. It can also enable us to feel a continued closeness to children who have married or who are away serving missions or attending school. We can also experience this closeness with our extended family as we pray for our relatives.
Need. Prayer can also be a great source of comfort when we have a special need or a problem to solve. We can pray for family members who have lost faith or testimony. The Apostle James wrote, “Pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16.) We can pray about choice of employment, large purchases, how to help a neighbor or serve well in our Church callings, and about the best way to approach family history or temple work.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that as our needs vary, so does the intensity of our prayers, and he referred to the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane:“‘And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.’ (Luke 22:44.)
“Now here is a marvelous thing,” continued Elder McConkie. “Note it well. The Son of God ‘prayed more earnestly’! He who did all things well … teaching us, his brethren, that all prayers, his included, are not alike, and that a greater need calls forth more earnest and faith-filled pleadings before the throne of him to whom the prayers of the saints are a sweet savor.” (Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 8.)
Resistance. Through prayer we arm ourselves and our families with great power against the influence and temptations of Satan. As we pray devoutly for the ability to discern good from evil, our homes will become places of peace and love, fortified against the adversary. We will also receive spiritual strength to overcome temptation.
We have been commanded to pray in secret, in our families, and in public. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord gives his disciples instruction on praying—in secret and with motives that are pure. (See Matt. 6:5–15.)
As we withdraw each day to speak in private with the Lord, we have an opportunity to gain the strength and insight necessary to best fulfill our role as parents. Our children in turn learn the value of spending time alone each day in prayer as we share some of our spiritual experiences with them.
Church leaders have counseled us to have family prayer twice daily, in the morning and in the evening. The head of the family designates who is to be voice. On special occasions it may be appropriate for each member of the family to pray vocally in turn until everyone has had a chance to say a prayer.
“When we kneel in family prayer, our children at our side and on their knees are learning habits that will stay with them all through their lives,” said President Spencer W. Kimball. “If we do not take time for prayers, what we are actually saying to our children is, ‘Well, it isn’t very important, anyway. We won’t worry about it. …’ Unless planned for, [prayer] never seems to be convenient. On the other hand, what a joyous thing it is to establish such customs and habits in the home that when parents visit their children in the latter’s homes after they are married they just naturally kneel with them in the usual, established manner of prayer!” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 253.)
Our attitude before and after we pray is important. To act as if prayer were merely a necessary interruption of our daily activities and to approach it with a “let’s get it over with” attitude is to greatly minimize its meaning in our lives. To fail to prepare to speak with the Lord will often result in mechanical, lifeless prayers that accomplish nothing. Likewise, to rush from our prayers, never giving them another thought, will make them far less effective and meaningful in our lives.
One family tries to make family prayer a calm, worthwhile experience by having a transition time before they pray. “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. [We] may say to [our] 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 grateful for. …’
“Often we go around the prayer circle and ask each family member if he has any special needs or blessings he would like 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 … Sandra might need guidance in preparing her Relief Society lesson. … This process helps us to be aware of everyone’s needs and to pray specifically.” (Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 61.)
Sometimes, too, family prayer time helps establish an atmosphere in which we can do things together that don’t seem to happen at other times. Ann Banks wrote, “Our teenage son was tense and sullen whenever we tried to discuss any problem with him. We decided it was important to plan the discussion when he would be most receptive, and that seemed to be at family prayer time in the mornings. It was then that the house was quiet and we shared a humble, sincere feeling. We found the tenseness eased when prayer preceded our discussions.” (Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 37.)
The most important way to teach children to pray is through example. As they hear us pray, so they will learn to pray. Besides family prayer, we can pray with each child alone at various times.
Small children can repeat the words of a prayer after an older member of the family. If we are careful to pray specifically about things that are meaningful to them, and to avoid pat phrases, they will not get a mechanical view of prayer.
Primary children learn the four steps of prayer:
“Our Father in Heaven …
“We thank thee …
“We ask thee …
“In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
This basic structure helps a child remember the essentials of prayer and introduces the formal “thee, thou, thy, thine” references that should be used in approaching Deity.
A mother made the following comment after a memorable experience with her child: “One evening I was listening to our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter as she was praying. She was asking Heavenly Father to bless her blanket, her kitty, the trees, and other things that made up her world at that time. I began to wonder if the Lord heard such insignificant little prayers and instantly received a very strong witness through the Spirit that our Father in Heaven was very aware of my daughter and her prayers and that he loved her and knew her well. That spirit stayed with me through the rest of her prayer and gave me a greater feeling of reverence for prayer and for this child that was mine to rear.”
In addition to teaching children how to pray, we need to teach them how to recognize answers to prayers. We can tell them how we have received answers to prayers and show them examples from the scriptures. We can explain that answers may come in an impression, a feeling, a sense of warmth or peace, or a still, small voice. They may come as we read the scriptures.
As we model for our children the proper attitude of prayer, we need to be more willing to be taught as we approach our own prayers. We must close off the “noise, the confusion, and the cares of the world” so we can “be still, and know that [He is] God” (Ps. 46:10), explains Arthur Bassett. Once we have established that stillness, we must draw upon our own powers of concentration to exert ourselves to the utmost, “[focusing] deeper and deeper into the recesses of the soul. …
“Vital prayer is never a three-minute pause on the way to a good night’s sleep. Rather, we need to invite the Lord into our thoughts and, in the light of his guidance, subject our life-style to our most penetrating scrutiny. At such moments of total concentration on our part new thoughts may flow into our minds.” (Ensign, Jan. 1976, pp. 32–33.)
Once children have been introduced to the basic elements of prayer and its importance in spiritual growth, we will want to continue learning about this marvelous gift together and perfecting our prayers as we perfect our lives in obedience, praying together that His “will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10.)