Last summer I was privileged to attend the Family Life seminar at Andrew University. The speakers were experts in their field, and I profited extraordinarily from their lectures. My special interest was in the spiritual development of children.
I also found lots of reading material regarding this theme in the university library. In addition, there have been so many new additions lately who have taken their first glimpse of the Light of the world. I have also found these lectures very helpful and would like to share the many inspirations and ideas with others.
If we want our children to grow spiritually, we have to lead them to find a connection with God through prayer. During prayer, people open their hearts to God and tell Him their joys, their hopes, and their worries. It is through prayer that people primarily open up to receive God. Prayer liberates man of his egocentric position—an aspect very difficult for children to comprehend, which makes more sense toward the end of childhood. Prayer is also the key to the treasury of heaven. This part of prayer is being rapidly understood by children. Many times little children perceive God as Santa Claus, who fulfills all wishes. Their prayers are mostly very egotistic. In their thinking they are the center of the world, and everything turns around them.
Scientists have established that children pass through five steps independent of their religious backgrounds on their road to a mature prayer life. Every step reflects the changes in the thinking of the child, and it considers very carefully its prayer experiences.
If we understand the development stages which the children make, we can be more of help to them and can lead them to a more mature understanding of prayer. Furthermore, it has been established that children who had many experiences with prayer pass through the individual steps faster and reach a higher level of prayer sooner than those who do not have the opportunity.
Development step: 0-4-year-olds
Since we pray with babies in our home and as soon as they are able to speak, we teach them spontaneous prayer. Donna J. Habenicht describes the time span from birth up to the fourth year as the first step in the development of a mature prayer life.
The baby experiences prayer through the prayer of the mother and father. We can rest assured, so Habenicht says, that the Holy Spirit is present during these prayers and that the baby feels the warmth and closeness of God and of its family. The child learns to associate prayer with love and closeness.
Neither does it take months until the child, for example, recognizes the connection between prayer and food. As soon as it sees the food, it folds its hands by itself. It has discovered that we pray before the meal, and imitates the prayer position of the grownups. It does not mean that it really knows what prayer means, but through association and imitation, it folds its hands and expects a prayer to be spoken by someone. Often 'Amen" is one of it's first words, which is being spoken with joy and relief—"Now I can finally eat."
Prayer during family worship and at bedtime are impressions which the small child gets and it makes prayer "the talking with Jesus" to a fixed and expected part of its life.
If children at the age of two or three refuse to pray sometimes, you should not take it seriously, says Donna J. Habenicht in her book, How to Help Your Child to Really Love Jesus. One should never force a child to pray, but insist that the child sit still and be quiet during prayer. If we give the child some time, it will soon show itself cooperative again.
Now some practical ideas for parents with babies:
1. Bathing time is prayer time. While you bathe the baby, thank God for each part of its body.
2. Write a special prayer of unusual occasions into the diary of your child. For example, at birth, (later at beginning of Kindergarten, school, etc.).
3. Pray with the child before a journey. (My children pray as soon as they step into the car for a parking place for Mother.)
4. Pray aloud for healing when the child is sick.
5. Sing a prayer. Find a nice, pleasant melody and sing the prayer. During the last centuries, nursery songs had a soothing and calming effect on babies. Let us use this knowledge!
6. Put a "thank you mobile" above the crib. Hang up a mobile with family pictures on it and pictures of animals or things for which you are thankful.
Development step: 1-11/2-year olds
Though they can't speak well yet, the child wants to join in prayer because everybody in the family prays and it wants to be grown already.
1. Start a sentence and let the child complete it. For example, "Dear Jesus, thank you for . . ."
2. After the child is able to speak better, then let it repeat short sentences after you. It will not take long before the child will want to form its own prayers.
3. Craft a prayer box. Cover a shoe box with attractive gift wrapping. Glue a picture of a praying child on it. Place pictures of things which the child can be thankful for into the box and have the child choose one and speak a thank-you prayer.
4. Prayer gallery. Glue pictures of family members, church members, your preacher onto the fridge or above the crib of your child and daily let your child pray for one of these dear people.
5. Integrate prayer in your daily life: The child sees a beautiful sunset. Pray: "Thank you, Jesus, for baby's good eyes to see the sunset which you have made so wonderfully."
6. Children enjoy praising God with rattles and jubilee.
Development step: 2-3-year-olds
1. Prayer clock: Glue a picture of a small praying child onto the face of the clock in the time frame of your family worship. Children love to watch the clock ends move, and at the given time, call the family for worship.
2. Open eyes, close eyes. The child should open its eyes wide and tell you all the things they see. Then they should close their eyes and tell you what they see now Explain to your child that we close our eyes so we can think better about God and speak with Him. Most of the time, we pray with closed eyes, but sometimes if we thank God for everything we see, we keep our eyes open.
3. Thank-you chain. Cut strips of colored paper and glue small pictures (for which the child is thankful) on it. Glue the strips into a chain.
4. Pray after a reprimand. E. G. White also writes that after we punish our children, we should pray with them. I find it especially important to the child after its punishment that you love it. If one speaks a short prayer asking God for forgiveness for the child and ask Him for the needed strength to do right, one can often feel the relief of the child. It is very important at the conclusion of such a prayer that there be hugs, kisses, and a smile.
5. Bible verse as prayer. "0 give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever" (Ps. 136:1).
6. Prayer chain. Every member of the family brings a special request. Through that action, the little child gets the impression that his prayer is equal to the grownup ones.
Development step: 4-year-olds
1. Prayer in need. When you hear the sirens of a fire engine or an ambulance, say a prayer. Explain to your child that someone is in great need and danger, and that you want to pray for this person.
2. Prayer recipe. While your child helps you in the kitchen with the baking, then explain to him: "When we mix all ingredients together, that reminds me of prayer. In our prayer we also mix different ingredients. We say thank you for some things (place the flour into the bowl); we praise God (add sugar); we tell God something which we have experienced (a little water); we ask something of God (add salt); and at the end, there comes lots of obedience to it (add remaining ingredients). That's how a prayer is made.
3. Prayer bouquet. Every cut flower in a vase depicts a prayer request, e.g., the red flower symbolizes the request for someone's safe journey. The blue blossom symbolizes that this person may have a good time during his vacation. The yellow blossom means a healthy return. After you have prayer with the child, tie a ribbon around the bouquet of flowers and give it to the person for whom you have prayed.
Development step: 5-7-year-olds
Children of this age have only a vague idea how the prayer reaches up to God. Many children of this age believe that the prayers fly or jump up to God. Unanswered prayers of 5-7-year-olds cause them difficulties more then to some older children. They believe that God could not answer their prayers because they did not express or formulate it correctly. Furthermore, they think that if many people ask for a certain thing, the faster the answer will come. Many children in this age group believe that because they themselves pray, that all other people and even the animals pray.
It is important not to get stuck with the one-sentence prayer like: "Thank you, Jesus, for the good food." We taught our little one the simple prayer, but we should not miss the challenge to motivate the child to step forward in his development. Children of this age have to hear a prayer model which will help them reach the next steps inspiring them to grow It is an art to find the balance between the prayer of a small child and the prayer of an adult.
There are some practical possibilities on how to support the child during this time in his prayer life.
1. Explanation of the partial view of prayer. The 5-7year-old is fascinated by the different aspects of prayer. Therefore, explain to your child how to understand the request and thank-you prayer and what intercessory prayer means. Its interest will also be directed toward the "public prayer" which is being presented in church every Sabbath morning. Explain the different aspects of the pastoral prayer: praising God, gratitude, confession, asking for forgiveness, prayer for convalescence for the sick . . . . If you quietly question the child after prayer on Sabbath—"Did you hear the praise?"—this will help him to listen better during prayer, and he will have the feeling of being enclosed. Soon he will proudly proclaim: "This was a thank-you prayer; this was a praise prayer . . . "
2. Prayer book. Take multi-colored paper and make a little book. Choose praying children for the title picture or a pretty picture of Jesus. Keep a page for each area of prayer. The following model is simple, and children memorize it easily. Our prayer shall consist of the following:
a) Thanks for the blessing from God
b) Ask that He will help us and others
c) Confess sins and request forgiveness
d) Ask Jesus to help us love Him more
e) Thank Jesus for His love for us and that He prepares a heavenly home for us.
The different sections of the book may be drawn, or use personal photos loved by the children, or cut out fitting pictures from newspapers. The prayer book does not have to be complete in order to start using it. Choose to begin with only a part and add more parts as the child grows in understanding. This way it becomes more aware of that prayer is communication with God.
Development step: 7-9-year-olds
With completing the year, many children have abandoned the naive faith of their early childhood. They have recognized that "Santa"—God does not give them everything they want. They know by now that not all people pray and the animals not at all. Some children forget to pray, or they are too tired, or they have everything they need and don't want to ask God for anything.
They believe that God can't listen to and answer all prayers at one time, that's why one needs to stand in line, so to say. If their prayers have not been answered, they believe they have spoken too quietly, or they have been bad, or it was a dumb prayer.
Even though they pray for their personal things, other people become more and more meaningful. They pray for freedom and for the poor and sick.
During these prayers the first trace of doubt starts to surface: "Does God really listen to my prayer?" Their answer is: 'When I value God highly and respect Him, then He will hear my prayers and value them." Stimulation for 7-9-year-old children:
1.Be transparent in your prayer Iife. One can help children during this development phase by modeling for them a personal heart-changing prayer. Confess your own mistakes and ask God for forgiveness. This is a prayer which is always being positively answered by God. Ask for help for your personal spiritual growth. Instead of asking God for a special answer to prayer, present your request and ask God for His suggested solution of your problems.
2. Intercessory prayer. If you pray for the concerns and needs of your fellow human beings, then you will discover the importance of intercessory prayer. The use of intercessory will help the child gain more mature, satisfying understanding of speaking with Jesus.
3. For this age group, friendship has become more real and comprehensible. Now they understand better if you explain to them that praying is like speaking to a friend. Jesus is their special friend: He never fights with them; He never leaves them; He never pushes them aside; He loves them; He is always there, and He likes to help them. Jesus, as their friend, fits exactly into their maturing understanding. They are on their way from being a grandchild to becoming a child of God.
Development step: 10-12-year-olds
The 10-12-year-olds are of the opinion that prayer is a fully private and personal matter that enables one to speak to God about private things which one would not so easily talk about with other people. Prayer has an intimate character. Ten- to twelve-year-olds pray spontaneously when they are lonesome, worried, excited, or when they are in difficulties.
Positions of aid for this age group:
1. Family prayer diary. This is a steady reminder of how God cares for us, how He hears and answers our prayers.
2. Personal prayer diary. When children are 10-12 years old, they would like to have their own prayer diary. Each entry should be dated, and there should be a blank space left for God's answers to prayer.
Development step: 12-14-year-olds
Many children now recognize that prayer changes them. Prayer becomes valuable to them, and it is not only there to ask God for a favor. Older teenagers, on the other hand, doubt the effectiveness of prayer. Nevertheless, they pray as a matter of custom. During this time, hope gives way to doubt that God hears prayers, whether or not it makes any sense at all to pray. The young person finally sees God as a personal friend with whom he can communicate and to whom he can entrust his fears, his desires, and his worries. A prerequisite for the helping position during this time is: A leader must know the way himself or else how will he lead his army? If we ourselves lead a living prayer life and really rejoice and enjoy a close relationship with our Lord, then our children will catch our enthusiasm.
However, if we limit our prayer life to routine prayers: "Lord, bless this food," and only pray at worship, then our children will get the impression that prayer is not that important. As in all other stages of development, so also during this time, our example is highly essential for the spiritual growth of our children. As you have certainly noticed, the practical suggestions become fewer as the children became older. The reason for this is because the young person does not get around the fact that he has taken his own spiritual development and his own prayer life into his own hands. We can promote and support, but the last decision must be made by the individual himself, the maturing young person.
In conclusion I would like to pass on the prayer of some parents who know that all human endeavors are incomplete but who nevertheless are certain that God loves their child and they are confident that it cannot fall out of God's hand.
Only two things of lasting value we can pass on to you: roots and wings, security and freedom. In all relevant books, you find that we must give you security and the feeling of being loved. But we are just human beings and as parents we are real beginners. Times might come when we no longer feel a strong love toward you and when the rough everyday life tears holes into the fabric of our family.
"Father in heaven, please equip us then with Your love! We still make many mistakes, but You are perfect.
"To mediate freedom is more difficult. Instinctively we wish to guard our child, protect it, shape and educate it, for it is surrounded by so many dangers.
"But in all of our loving care, you, little man, must be you. You ought to grow up into a unique personality, to which God has determined you and should not become the bad copy of another person.
"Lord, help him to discover his own gifts and to unfold them. And when we have done all we were able to do for him, then give us the courage to step back and to allow him to fly. We want to trust You that Your arms will hold him no matter wherever his way leads him."