One of the books I discovered when my son, Nikolas, was born included a list of prayers that focused on praying about a different part of the child's body. I copied the prayers down on index cards, adding his name in the blanks to personalize them.
Every night I would work my way through the stack, praying one of the prayers as part of Nikolas's bedtime routine. As soon as he was old enough to talk, he added his own "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" prayer with a laundry list of relatives and friends to bless. After several years though, both our prayers became rote.
I often found myself having to remind Nik to slow down and think about the people he was praying for. "You are asking God to bless these people, not running through your addition tables." I wanted the prayer to come from his heart, not out of habit.
I picked up Nik's children's Bible and started in Proverbs, picking out "wisdom" nuggets I thought were most relevant to his life and the values I hoped to instill. I copied each one on a card and added a short related prayer.
Here's a sample:
Bible verse: The Lord watches a man's ways. He studies all of his paths. Proverbs 5:21 (NIV)
Prayer: Thank you God for always watching over me. Even when I make mistakes, I can be sure that you love me and will help me. I ask you to forgive me for the times I have made bad choices. I know that the next time I have a hard choice to make, I can ask you to guide me.
The first time Nik went through each prayer card, they sounded a little stiff. I don't think there was much reading comprehension. Soon, though, the verses and prayers became more familiar and Nik was able to tell me what the theme was. Since I don't want these prayers to get tiresome, I continue to add new ones based on the Psalms, the teachings of Jesus and Paul's letters to the church. Over time he'll have a good variety of verses and prayers to draw from. After he masters this type of prayer, I hope to give Nik a verse to study and see if he can create his own prayer based on it—but that is probably still a few years away.
No matter the age, prayer is one of the greatest tools we're given for making our way through life. Here are some additional ideas I've learned from other parents to help guide our kids in developing a stronger prayer life:
1. Don't keep them sheltered from the hardships of life. My neighbor Kristi was taken aback by the compassion that her seven-year-old Nathan exhibited after hearing about the earthquake in Haiti. Not only did he include those who suffered loss in his nightly prayers, but he also was motivated to donate his time helping to pack provisions.
2. Don't discourage wish-list praying. Young Katie often takes requests that are out of mom and dad's control to God. While neither parent can control the weather, God can, so he is the one she goes to when she is hoping for a snow day at school. And after the death of her younger brother to cancer, Katie started to ask God to bring her a baby sister—a prayer he answered.
3. Practice what you preach. Children are quick to pick up and disregard the "do as I say, not as I do" messages we give them when our words don't jive with our actions. While I certainly find it easier to pray when Nik is at school or after he has gone to bed, if he doesn't see me praying, how can he truly believe that I think it is vital?
4. Develop a regular prayer time AND keep it spontaneous. As a dance instructor, Sara witnesses the wisdom of the adage "practice makes perfect." at work every day. She tries to apply this same principle to her kids' prayer lives by building in regular time for prayer. Her spouse, on the other hand, wants their son and daughter to pray spontaneously from the heart whenever they are led. Both types of prayer are constructive and both should be in your child's prayer toolbox. Scheduled prayer time is the dumbbell that can build strong prayer muscles in our children. Spontaneous prayer takes a certain level of maturity to master, so we need to ask God to help us identify times when we can guide our kids to pray where they are, like when we hear about a serious car accident on the radio while we're driving home from school, or when our child comes home upset or sad over a fight with a friend.