In talking to pastor Cristian Modan, the religion teacher and chaplain at Mihai Ionescu School in Bucharest, I wanted to find out how we should teach children to communicate with God.
When is it best to start teaching our children to pray?
When we pray daily, our children notice this from when they are babies. Even if they do not understand, they notice the attitude, position and tone of our voice and understand that something important is happening. Then, as they understand more and more words, they can participate in prayer. At first they may be encouraged to say “Amen” and then repeat simple prayers after their parents. Later, they can repeat certain ideas to their parents, but in their own words, until they can pray by themselves.
Let’s not forget to encourage them to pray on their own, not only with their families. Although it may seem surprising to some, it is easy to see that for children, prayer is something natural, a long-awaited and desired moment.
What can we say to children about prayer so that we can pass on a healthy first teaching about its meaning?
We can tell them that prayer is a way of talking to God, a way of showing Him that we love and respect Him. Jesus taught the disciples to address God as “Father,” so it is not wrong to encourage children to speak to God as they speak to us, their parents. We can adapt our prayers into simple words by sincerely telling God our joys, worries, and desires, and our prayers will be a model for them.
In your long experience with children, what is the most important thing they need to know about the God we teach them to pray to?
It is important to pass on to children the conviction that God loves them. He is always by our side and helps us to learn to be citizens of His Kingdom. A life of faith will not always be easy, but God does not reject us if we sometimes make mistakes, if we are sometimes confused or have doubts. He is perfect, but people, even believers, are not perfect, so our example must be Jesus Christ.
Is it good to teach children to always pray the same prayer? What are the advantages/disadvantages?
The Lord’s Prayer prayer is Jesus’ response to the request of the disciples who asked Him to teach them how to pray. However, both later disciples and Christians understood that this prayer was a model and not a formula to be repeated all the time. However, because not all children can pray freely in public, it is better for them to say a learned prayer than not to pray at all. On the other hand, younger children do not understand some of the words and ideas in “The Lord’s Prayer.” For this reason, I suggest that you could design and teach them some simple prayers, including a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer adapted to their age. In time, they will become accustomed to praying in public, and it will no longer be necessary to say a prayer they have learned by heart.
What should we avoid when teaching children to pray?
Children make mistakes more often than adults but they are sensitive to how we react to their mistakes. I think we should avoid making fun of them or commenting negatively on their prayers. Appreciation and encouragement are two essential ingredients in education so I urge you to make full use of them.
On the other hand, I think it is wrong to force children to pray when they do not want to. Forcing them to pray in public when intimidating people are present is even worse.
How do we encourage a child who believes that God does not answer his prayer?
I think the best encouragement for them might be an account of our prayer experience. We can tell them about prayer answers that we received later than we expected or answers that were different from what we asked for, but that turned out to be much better than what we wanted. If we choose those answers in which we have seen the Hand of God and affirm our conviction that God always answers prayer, we will be able to help them to trust Him unreservedly. If they are older, let us remind them of the answers they have received from God which they may have forgotten.
Is it worth encouraging a child to pray for a loved one who is sick: a grandmother/grandfather, a kindergarten/school friend, a suffering pet? Or is intercessory prayer for adults only? How do you help a child to not be disappointed if they receive a different answer than the one they want?
Jesus had only words of praise for children’s faith and even urged the disciples to follow their example. It seems natural for children to pray for the sick and even for animals. In my experience, children do not have as many worries as we might think about why God does not always act according to our expectations and prayers.
They are much more willing to accept His answer, whether it materializes in the total or partial healing of the sick or whether they do not heal. Our role may be to assure them that God wants the greatest good for all people and that sometimes this will only be accomplished in His Kingdom. Let us encourage them to pray under any circumstances and they will see many of His miraculous answers. This way, they will learn to trust God even when His answer is different from what they would expect, and their faith will increase.