But until recently, I've never really taught our children how to pray. I tried to show our preschooler through example, but it's become clear this is not enough. Too often, her prayers are about her wants - not about praising God or asking for help for others. I want to help change this.
What is an Acceptable Prayer?
Any heartfelt prayer is acceptable,. However, our best example of what a "good" prayer is comes from Jesus. In fact, before Jesus prayed what we now call "The Lord's Prayer," he said, "This then, is how you should pray." (Matt. 6:9)
Jesus then asks for God's will to be done.He asks for provisions.
He asks for forgiveness of trespasses (or debts).
This then, is the model we should use when teaching our children to pray. It's okay to ask God for things, but we should also ask for God's will to be done, ask him for forgiveness, and offer him praise.
Helping Kids Remember
The trick is to help kids remember this model. Older kids can memorize The Lord's Prayer, but it's also useful to have a visual guide children can look at while praying.
Over at The Greatest Mission Trip You'll Ever Take, Deb Burton offers an excellent idea for such a visual guide. She calls it "The Circle Prayer." (Click on the circle prayer illustration for an enlarged image.) Children begin with the center circle, which is themselves, then work their way to the outer circles, which includes immediate family, extended family, friends, church, and the world at large.
I plan to amend this prayer circle somewhat, so more elements of the Lord's Prayer are included. And since my four year old is only beginning to read, I'll use clip art images to represent each circle.
Another idea is to create a prayer list with your child. For older children, some gentle leading on your part can help shape this list. (Try studying The Lord's Prayer first.) But let them write it out and decorate it as they wish. For my preschooler, I'll use photographs or clip art images to represent each of the people she might pray for. For example, photographs of family members should be easy to find. A digital photo of your church would be another good addition, or a National Geographic photo of needy children in other parts of the world.
But Remember...Although it's great for Christians to use The Lord's Prayer as an example, and while visual aids can be quite useful, it's also important for children to know that prayers should come from the heart. That means it's quite okay to pour your heart out to God without following any particular format. And it's certainly not ideal to fall into such a habit with your prayers they loose meaning.
There are also plenty of other types of prayers. Try looking through the Bible with your child to find other great examples. For example, Jesus, his disciples, and the apostles prayed for the sick and persecuted (James 5:13 - 16 and Hebrews 13:3, for example), as well as leaders of the church and missionaries (as in 1 Thessalonians 5:25). What other sorts of prayers can you and your child find?