The family gathers around the table for dinner. There are five of us, two younger than four, so it takes a while to round everyone up. Last-minute side dishes and bread appear on the table as we finish telling a story and hush so we can pray together. We reach for each other’s hands, bow our heads, and pray.
This should be a profound moment. But if you have a five-year-old, three-year-old, and one-year-old like we do, moments of prayer before eating a meal—really, any moments of prayer—can seem like the least profound moments of your day. There is laughing, fussing, crying, sneaking bites, or even sleeping during our prayers. And these aren’t ten-minutes discourse prayers, but often just a thirty-second obligator. Like anything that demands more than ten seconds of a three-year-old’s attention, praying together can be difficult.
If these moments seem hopeless to you or fruitless, let me encourage you. From what we’ve seen early on in our five-year-old and from other faithful parents, prayers that may seem frivolous and obligatory are actually important teaching moments. With patience, thoughtfulness, and a view for the long haul, prayers before meals or bed are important seed-beds for our children’s spirituality. You may end a prayer and think, They didn’t hear a word I said. That may be true, but over three weeks, three months, or three years, they can slowly learn from their parents how to talk to God, how to be thankful, and how to apply gospel truths.
Teach them how to talk to God. Our meal prayers are often the first theology lessons for our children. When we are teaching how to talk to God, we are doing theology. How we talk to God says a lot about who he is. Make no mistake, however rebellious our children may seem, their default is still to follow in example. They will know of no other way to talk to God than what they hear from us. We are creating entirely new categories of reality for little minds. Do you feel the weight of that? We should be compelled to use our words carefully.
The Bible gives us rich language to use when speaking to God. Look to the Psalms and the prayers of Paul. We don’t need to look far for language, nor do we need to be overly creative.
Teach them how to be thankful. Despite the sense of being rushed during meal-time prayers, we have an opportunity to express our profound dependence upon God who has complete authority and control over all things. Not only that, he cares for us as our Father, who does not give us a stone when we ask for bread, or a snake when we ask for some fish. The kindness of God causes Christians to be a thankful people. If we can only speak a few words, let them be filled with thankfulness!
Teach them the gospel. I don’t mean that we should go through the entire God-Man-Christ-Response outline of the gospel in ever prayer, but our prayers should be rich with truths from the gospel. You may simply start your prayers, “Father, we thank you for you Son, Jesus, who paid for our sins.” Teach your kids that it is only through the finished work of Christ that we are even able to approach God in prayer. And rejoice in the fact that we are not only able to approach, but to approach with boldness.
Whether sitting in your house, walking along the road, lying down, or getting up (Deuteronomy 6:7), these moments afford opportunities to encourage faith in the gospel in the hearts of our children.