Lord Teach Us—and Our Kids—to Pray

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One of the most basic ways we love our children is through prayer. But if we’re honest, prayer is one of the hardest things to do consistently and intentionally.

Below we want to share two stories about prayer from the life of our family, and then give a few tips for capturing and leveraging everyday moments to pray with your toddler.

This post, which I wrote along with my wife, Megan, originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

God of the Details

Jared and I (Megan) typically drive to church in separate cars on Sunday morning. He heads in early to help set up and to pray with the other pastors. Then I bring—or drag—the girls in for the early service.

One Sunday, I was running late. We were late getting up. We had to wait for a train to pass. And I was worried I wouldn’t find a place to park before the service started. Then, just as I pulled up to the building, another car pulled out of its space. Immediately, I blurted out: “That was lucky!” And as soon as I said it, I felt a twinge of conviction. I’d started out that Sunday without even thinking about God and the way he guides my days.

Jared and I had recently read Paul Miller’s book A Praying Life. Miller related how he’d read an “otherwise excellent book on prayer” in which the author implied we shouldn’t pray for trivial things like parking spaces. He went on to tell what his mother, Presbyterian missionary Rose Marie Miller, had to say about it:

We met for breakfast, and when I told her what this author thought about prayers for parking spaces, she looked a little incredulous, cocked her head, started laughing, and said, “How else would you find a parking place?” (103–04)

Rose Marie Miller’s conviction about God’s intimate involvement with our lives made an impression on me. One lie we believe that keeps us from prayer is that God and the real world aren’t connected. I tend to think that the everyday stuff I do as a mom—cleaning house, getting kids ready for school, finding parking spots—don’t matter to God.

But the Bible combats the artificial distinction I make between the sacred and the mundane. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I think the only way to truly do that is to pray about normal life. The songwriter who gave us Psalm 104 confirms my suspicions. He sees God at work in everything—from the upper chambers of the heavens to the normal meals we eat every day.

God Is Accessible

One of the hardest things for me (Jared) as a dad is when our girls won’t stay in bed at night. Selfishly, I just want my kids to go away after 9 p.m. I work hard each day, and I tend to think this is something I deserve. But God knows better.

In fact, he knows just what I need, and he gave me a youngest daughter who is particularly fearful at bedtime. If you’re a parent, you know the drill. You’ve just tucked them in and turned on your TV show when there’s a knock at the bedroom door:

“Dad, will you pray for me? Will you pray that I’ll be able to sleep? Will you pray that I won’t be afraid? Will you pray . . . that the scary clowns won’t come?”

There was a season of parenting when I was considerably angry at whoever decided to run commercials for It during college football games!   

Goodness, the fears are real. And of course, we stop everything in those moments. We pray. We cuddle. And we tuck her back in. Sometimes multiple times in a night. Over time, I’m coming to see those moments less as a frustration and more as an opportunity to learn something about prayer.

Jesus encourages us to ask for anything in his name (John 14:13–14). Like children, we have permission to run into our heavenly Father’s chamber. And when we meet him, we can expect that he will be eager to see us and give what is best (Matthew 7:7–12).

Learning to Pray

God cares about everything, so we can talk with him about it all. Matt Chandler regularly talks about how parents can capture and leverage moments in the course of everyday life for the purpose of gospel-centered conversations.

Specifically, how can we capture and leverage everyday moments to help our kids—even our youngest kids—learn to pray?

Here are three suggestions.

1. When you’re happy, give thanks and adore God.

Our family says thank you to God before we eat. Megan uses this time to help us thank God for blessings we’ve received recently. Then, at the end of the day, our kids will say thank you to God for everyone in their lives—mom, dad, grandparents, pets, and so on.

Saying thanks to God was concrete and simple for our toddlers. For whatever reason, it was less natural for them to practice adoration, that is, to say thank you to God for who he is.

One way we’ve tried to cultivate this is by asking our kids what they learned in our nightly Bible story, and then encouraging them to thank God for that immediately after.

2. When you’ve sinned, tell God you’re sorry and ask for his help to repent.

When I (Jared) got in trouble as a kid, my mom made me confess my sins to my dad after he got home from work. It was a way to teach me about my need to confess my sin to my heavenly Father as well. I love the simple connection that practice made between moments of correction and prayer.

Sometimes kids are overwhelmed by getting “in trouble.” I’ve seen some children experience a bit of Romans 7: “I know you told me to wait until the cookies were cool, but I really wanted them!” In those moments especially, I think it’s important to stop, model for our kids what it looks like to confess that sin to God, and then ask the Holy Spirit to change their sinful desires: “God, help me to want to obey like you want me to obey.” 

We can have a similar practice when we sin against our kids as well. The next time you lose your temper with your toddler, take time to stop, confess what you’ve done wrong, and ask your son or daughter to pray for you.

3. When you need help, ask God to intervene.

One of the best ways to practice continual prayer is to identify the moments when emotions—both yours and your kids’—are the most intense, then stop wherever you are and take that emotion to God. Whether it’s fear about scary clowns or anxiety over parking spots, God cares about it all. 

In addition to the moments of intensity, it’s important to cultivate moments of daily dependence through regular requests. We all need help, and we need it all the time. Nightly, we pray a kid-friendly adaptation of Luther’s nightly prayer as a blessing over our kids:

God, thank you for our daughter, and for watching over her today. Help her to grow up to love and trust Jesus. Please help her to have godly friends and a godly husband when she grows up. Please watch over her tonight and protect her from Satan and his schemes. Amen.

The “godly husband” part wasn’t really a part of Luther’s prayer, but Megan’s dad added it when she was growing up, so we kept up the tradition. In those intentional times of daily prayer, you can also ask your child if there’s anything you can pray for them about. Even if there’s nothing on most nights, keep asking. You’re modeling for them from an early age that God and you both care about their entire life.

The Lord cares about everything, so we can talk with him about it all. Teaching our kids about prayer begins with that simple conviction.

Nine Questions and Answers about The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible

The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible is a gospel-centered, Bible storybook for toddlers and preschoolers with 52 Bible stories retold in a simple and compelling way. Here's nine key questions and answers that will help you learn more:

What makes your book different from other Bible storybooks? Some Bible storybooks miss the meaning of individual passages because they focus on the big picture. Even more often toddler story books miss unifying biblical themes because they’re focused re-telling individual stories. A few Bible storybooks—like the ones by Marty Machowski and Sally Lloyd-Jones—do both well, but they aren’t geared toward early readers. That’s what makes this book different. Through the faithful re-telling of key stories, toddlers and early preschoolers will hear the good news of God’s love for them clearly expressed in ways that will speak to their young hearts.

What led you to want to write a Bible storybook for toddlers and first readers? As I said above, there are a number of excellent gospel-centered resources for young children—great story books and curriculum, but few of them focus on toddlers and first readers. When teaching this age group, I found myself reaching back to resources from the seventies and eighties—storybooks by Ella Lindvall and Ken Taylor. I saw a need, and I wanted to provide a more contemporary resource for ages two to five.

Can children that young really learn the gospel? Yes. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” He meant kids of every age. You see, children often learn the language of faith before their faith is fully realized. As soon as kids start talking, we can help them learn a beginning vocabulary of faith.

What do you mean by “a beginning vocabulary of faith”? In The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible, kids will learn the name of Jesus as well as the names of other key Bible characters. They’ll also learn basic Bible words like sin, promise, Jesus, Savior, pray, and forgive.

What are the special features that will help keep beginning readers engaged? In all 52 stories, one key truth is highlighted in bold letters. Each story also ends with a question that parents and caregivers can use to further reinforce the truth. Brightly colored illustrations highlight each story and add fun teaching elements of counting, opposites, patterns, and object recognition to keep the youngest child’s attention.

Does the book have a central theme? Yes. The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible traces God’s perfect promises through thestories of the Old and New Testament. Our youngest children will see how our good and all-powerful God always keeps his word (Num. 23:19). The way he fulfills his promises is better than anyone could have imagined!

Why 52 stories? One for every week of the year. In addition to being a helpful resource for family devotions, I wanted this book to be a helpful tool for Sunday School and children’s ministry classrooms as well. Since there are 52 stories, you might consider teaching one story per week as part of a one-year Bible curriculum for toddlers and young preschoolers.

When I’m telling stories to young children, what should I do to keep the gospel central? As you read the story, help the children identify with the characters who need God to save and rescue them. Then, as you tell the story, make God the main character. Keep who he is and what he does to rescue and save front and center as you tell it.

What kinds of things did you learn about God’s Word or about yourself while you were writing? One Bible truth I didn’t know is that the Ark of the Covenant went in the midst of the people (Jos. 6:9) when they marched around Jericho (not out in front as I originally wrote down in a first draft—thank God for good editors!). That fact illustrates a key truth for me. To accomplish what God has called me to as a parent and a Christian, I desperately need God to go with me—in my midst—every day. I pray this book will encourage that kind of desperate faith for you and your family too.

Introducing The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible

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The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible is a gospel-centered, Bible storybook for toddlers and preschoolers with 52 Bible stories retold in a simple and compelling way. This new book traces through the stories of the Old and New Testament how God keeps his promises in surprising ways— better than anyone could have ever thought or imagined!

Each story highlights for young children God’s story of redemption through Jesus and the unexpected ways God’s grace and mercy are revealed throughout the Bible.

Children will hear the good news of God’s love for them clearly expressed in ways that will speak to their young hearts. Brightly colored illustrations highlight each story and add fun teaching elements of counting, opposites, patterns, and object recognition to keep the youngest child’s attention. Each story ends with a question that parents and caregivers can use to further reinforce the story.

Identity & Shame: Reflections on the Bible and Childhood Development, Part 2

I often need reminding how much I can benefit from another person's perspective. We're all a bit egocentric. But have you ever played hide and seek with a toddler? 

You announce, "Go hide!" Then a 2 year-old quickly shuts his eyes and throws his hands over his face. He really thinks that because he can't see himself, you can't see him either. Two weeks ago, I introduced a new series where I'm recording my reflections on the Bible and early child development. The first stage was the infancy stage (from birth to 24 months). Today, I'm going to think through the (slightly overlapping) toddler stage (from 18 months to age 3).

At this age, children are really coming into their own. By 18 months, typically developing toddlers use words, numbers, and even toys to communicate. They'll demonstrate that a picture of a dog,  the printed word “DOG,” and saying the word “dog” all represent a dog. But toddlers aren't just learning how different symbols can "stand for" the same concept. They also manipulate symbols through creative play. An older infant / early toddler might pick up a block and pretend it's a telephone. A three year-old may pretend a set of checkers is a tray of cookies. This is because toddlers are growing in their personal understanding of themselves and their place in the world. By naming things ("This checker is a cookie"), a toddler is saying, "I know what's up. I can make my way." 

Toddlers are so focused on growing as individuals they have trouble "walking in someone else's shoes." That's why playing hide and seek can be so funny. Toddlers are egocentric. They'll often play near other children but not with them in a cooperative way. This is not selfishness necessarily. It's called parallel play, and it's just a matter of developmental perspective. They aren't quite ready to see things from another person's point of view. 

Erickson's "Autonomy vs. Shame" Stage

Erik Erikson called this “Autonomy vs. Shame." When a child starts to use symbols and play creatively, he is saying: “I'm an individual apart from mom and dad. I'm autonomous.” When toddlers are developing appropriately, they are learning many new skills for themselves—walking, talking, and toilet training. They're forming a sense of individual efficacy and a sense of right and wrong. Henley observes, “Two and three year olds want to do things for themselves. To help a child this age develop a sense of autonomy, adults can look for things the child can do on her own. Show the child what she can do: brush her teeth, wash her face, pick up toys, put on Velcro-fastened shoes, and many other things." As a child learns to be independent in these small ways, she feels a sense of pride: “Look what I can do!”

Of course, a sense of autonomy comes with difficulties. Children at this age begin to exert their will. Toddlers quickly learn to say, “No.” This means parents sometimes have to walk the difficult road between affirming their toddler's new skills and teaching him his limitations. After all, there are many things a young child is not capable of doing, and there are many things he is not allowed to do. We must learn to let our kids express their will (and even their anger) but in a respectful way. This is allows them to grow in independence, but within the care and protection of parents.

If a child is not allowed to begin doing things for herself, she will develop an exaggerated sense of shame and self-doubt. The same can happen if she’s constantly critiqued and put down. But, according to Erikson, the child who is able to master new skills and navigate the dialectic of shame and autonomy will acquire the virtue of a confident will.

The Test of Identity: Will I Try to Make Myself or Root MY Identity in God's Story?

When Satan slithered into the garden, he didn't just call God's trustworthiness into question. He tempted Eve to think life apart from God is better than life lived with him. “You will be like God,” he said (Genesis 3:5). Satan wanted the woman to believe that if she took what God prohibited her eyes would be opened. He promised a new awareness about life--“You will be like God, knowing good and evil." He promised her a self-determining will and autonomy. She'd decide for herself what was good and evil. That second temptation is what I call the "identity test." We're all confronted with it. It begins very early. Will I try to make myself? Will I construct my identity by my own self-determination? Or will I root my self-understanding in God's story? 

Eve took Satan's bait. In evaluating the fruit as “good” (compare the refrain, “God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1), she usurped God’s role in determining what is best. “Desirable” is the same word used in the prohibition against covetousness in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:17). Eve supposed the tree’s fruit would get her wisdom, insight, and success without God's help. That's the height of pride. 

But Eve's confidence and self-assertion didn't get her what she wanted. It didn't set her free. When they ate the fruit, our first parents immediately fell into deep shame. Shame is what we feel when we refuse to root our identity in what God says. We feel exposed, because our independence from God always results in emptiness. And it can't be remedied by merely affirming ourselves. That's because real shame isn't just about what we've done. As Christian counselor Mike Wilkerson points out, it's about who we are in relation to God. We must own our our sinful independence and admit that God's point of view is better than our own. The identity he gives us is more true than the identities we try to create for ourselves. Unless we submit to his story, we're hiding behind fig leaves... or maybe just closing our eyes and pretending we can't be seen. 

How Do We Help Toddlers Root Their Identity in God?

Now those who are trained in psychology or education probably think I'm confusing my categories. Erikson made a distinction between a sense of autonomy, which is first experienced during the toddler years, and an understanding of identity, which one discovers in the teenage years.

But my choice is intentional. I want to point out that our identity isn't something we achieve by hitting a new developmental marker. It's discovered and received as a gift. We can help both toddlers and teenagers resolve their shame by helping them root their individuality and identity in the story of God. You see, the only way to deal with our shame is to see Jesus was exposed for it and turn from our selfish autonomy to him. So how can we help toddlers have an identity rooted in God when it's so developmentally difficult for them to see the world from another's perspective? Is there a way? Here are some thoughts:

  • Cultivate joy in learning new skills. There is joy for a toddler in learning a new skill and showing off. Don't squash it. We need to cheer when they go in the potty and dress themselves. Enjoy their skill and uniqueness as God’s creation (Psalm 139:13-18). Laugh with them. But go beyond just praising them. Praise God for them. "I'm so glad God gave you to our family!"
  • Cultivate a sense of wonder. Children are naturally curious. As one pastor says, “Children are created to be dazzled. Our desire as Christians is to bring up a generation of children that are dazzled by God." I would add, "...and by the things he's made." We want our toddlers to be captured by the beauty of God's world. Unplug from your iPhone and pull the plug on PBS Kids and Netflix. Get outside and wonder in the world God made you to enjoy. Play with your kids and receive them as a gift from him.
  • Read them the story. According to child psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, a "narrative" function emerges in children by age 3. Toddlers start making up stories about daily events. Then, as they grow, kids begin to make up stories about themselves. Hearing and telling stories gives kids a sense of rooted identity.  We want their identity to be rooted in the story of the gospel (Psalm 78). So pick up the Jesus Storybook Bible and Ella K. Lindvall's Read Aloud Story Bible and start reading stories to your kids today. 

And one more thing...

Perseverance and Vulnerability: Brokenness is the pathway to wholeness

We can rejoice when our kids learn new skills. We can enjoy playing and reading with them. But seeing them grow to have an identity rooted in Jesus involves more than putting on a happy face. It's one thing to write about how toddlers are "coming into their own," but it's another to live with it. Parents must give their children consistent boundaries. But how do you stay consistent without giving in to infuriating anger--especially when your two year-old keeps pushing the limits again and again?

The devil offered Jesus comfort in the place of suffering endurance: “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:8-11; Luke 4:5-8). To give in to this temptation would have entailed a redefinition of Jesus' identity. Satan wanted Jesus to take up his sovereign authority while sidestepping the cross. But Jesus knew who he was. He accepted the identity given to him by the Father (Luke 3:22). If he'd avoided the cross, he may have been honored as king, but we could not be saved.

We can remember who we are when we're at our wits end with the "terrible twos." We are God's beloved ones. That's our identity. Jesus loves you--the real, broken you. So press in with perseverance. And when you do give in to anger, be open and confess your sins to your toddler. Our children need to see that it’s possible to be fully known and still fully loved.