Should Children Be Allowed or Encouraged to Pray?
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
That was the first prayer I remember praying. I prayed it each night with one of my parents before going to sleep. Somewhere along the way I stopped praying that prayer and started praying my own prayers. But that prayer was said with the heart of a child that sincerely wanted to talk to God but didn’t necessarily know how.
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about the idea of children praying and all the theological implications behind it. As a theology student I can say I have not. As a parent I can say it never occurred to me. That is, until I read an article by Tim Challies in which he answers a question about whether or not it is appropriate to let kids pray.
The thought that perhaps there was a theological basis for not allowing kids to pray was almost an affront to my sensibilities. I recalled the tender words of Christ when He told the disciples not to forbid the children from coming to Him. Jesus wanted to talk with the kids, to hear what they had to say. Why would anyone hold the opinion that kids should not be encouraged to pray?
This thought comes from the reality that many kids are not born-again and show no signs of redemption. For this reason there is concern that we are giving kids the false idea that God listens to unsaved people; when the Bible clearly teaches He does not. Two verses in particular make this clear:
Proverbs 28:9 says, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.”
Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
So if God does not listen to the unrepentant, unregenerate prayer, what is the value in having kids pray? Furthermore, are we doing damage by giving kids the impression that God can hear their prayers before they have repented?
I won’t pretend to be an expert on this subject. In fact, I have been teaching my kids to pray since they were very young. So clearly I am of the opinion that there is value in a child talking to the Almighty Creator of all things. Maybe that value is in the simplicity that is often lost in my own prayers; and the reminder that I need to be thankful for “spaghetti, juice, and treats.”
That being said, I am leaning on some wise counsel from a seasoned theologian that has given thought to this issue. The article by Tim Challies not only carries his own thoughts on the matter but those of John Piper. When asked if children should be taught to pray, Piper responds:
“Yes. I think we should teach our children to pray as soon as they can say anything. … I can’t discern when a child is being spiritually wrought upon by the Lord. … I can’t tell precisely when his faith becomes his own and authentic, I don’t want to wait too long before I start treating him as a believer. …Also, practically, it seems right to put the vocabulary of prayer into a child’s mouth from the very beginning. That way, when his faith is born, he has a whole vocabulary, orientation, and habit that the Lord can use. … You have to build the disciplines of the Christian life into your children from the beginning, all the while praying that they are going to grow up and mean what they say.”
Those are wise words. Challies acknowledges the wisdom in those words by his agreement and adds that the Bible never forbids parents from teaching their kids to pray, or attend church, or read their Bible, or talk about Jesus, or anything else saved and sanctified people do. On the contrary, the Bible encouraged parents to engage in meaningful spiritual disciplines with their children. Look at these verses:
- “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7)
- “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” (Psalm 34:11)
- “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.” (Proverbs 29:17)
- “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
Is it true that God doesn’t hear the words of an unrepentant heart? Yes. But teaching our kids to pray instills in them a spiritual discipline that will be critical to their spiritual growth, one day. The key is understanding that though our kids are not saved yet, that with diligent teaching (and prayer on our parts as parents) God can gently draw them to himself. Once that child surrenders to the grace and mercy of Jesus, he or she will need to be able to communicate with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If prayer was central in the child’s life growing up it will be easier, more natural for the child to stay faithful in this spiritual discipline.
I enjoy hearing the prayers of my kids. The carefree way they speak, the unbound freedom of their thoughts as they talk to God is a continual lesson to me. It reminds me that I am to come to my Heavenly Father as a child, with abandon. So I ask my kids to pray each night before bed (and at meals, and family gatherings…whenever). I want them to talk to God as naturally, and simply as they talk to me.
Maybe God doesn’t hear the prayers of my kids. But maybe they have started their faith journey and God now hears those unedited prayers. Either way, the absolute necessity of prayer in the life of a believer makes it easy for me to encourage them to pray daily. One day I believe (and trust God) that their prayers will be those of God’s child talking to their Heavenly Father.
Click here for some fun ideas on how to engage your kids with Bible learning.