We certainly spend a lot of time teaching our children how to put their clothes away, change the toilet paper roll, and say please and thank you. Teaching them to pray is even more important!

I began teaching my children to pray when they were very small, but as they grew, I realized the need for more instruction in prayer when I began to notice repetition in their nightly prayers. For several nights in a row, they prayed, “Lord, I just thank you for this wonderful day today, and I pray we’d have a wonderful day tomorrow. Amen.” So I decided to ask them if they had anything else they wanted to talk to God about.

I noticed that if I made suggestions, they were very open to adding them, but they were reluctant to initiate deeper conversation with their Maker. So I concluded that perhaps they needed intentional training in prayer.

The truth is, all of our children need intentional training in prayer. Other than teaching them simple prayers they can memorize and recite, which is often what we do with very young children, what might intentional training in prayer look like?

Follow Jesus’ example

Though Jesus modeled prayer, He also gave His disciples some practical training in how to do it. Both Matthew and Luke record a teachable moment when Jesus told His disciples how to pray.

In Matthew 6, Jesus initiates the lesson by teaching them what prayer is not. Basically, He tells them:

  • Don’t pray publicly just so you can be seen by others and thought spiritual (verse 5).
  • Don’t babble on, repeating the same words over and over (verse 7).

In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (11:1b). In each account, Jesus then teaches them the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew 6:9-13, it reads like this:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.

Jesus didn’t intend for them merely to repeat these words over and over. In fact, He had just warned them not to babble on and on, repeating the same words as the pagans did. Instead, He was teaching them some basic elements that should be included in our dialogues with our gracious and loving God. The acrostic ACTS captures these elements. It stands for the following: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

These were big words at the time for my then 5-year-old daughter, 8-year-old twin daughters, and 11-year-old son. So I asked God to help me teach them to pray in a way that would go deeper than their surface prayers for a good day without being insincere, fancy words they simply repeated with little understanding.

Teaching ACTS

Here’s how I broke down the acronym ACTS for my kids:

Adoration. Sometimes my children could be silly when we closed our eyes to pray. Thought I didn’t want them to think that God and prayer aren’t fun, I did want them to know that when we get quiet to pray, we need to remember that God is holy—which means “set apart.” When we talk to God, we need to remember we are addressing the God of the universe and praise Him for who He is.

I thought about how my children could praise God each day in a way that wouldn’t get rote or mechanical. I got a piece of construction paper, and we spent one night brainstorming words that describe God, such as powerful, loving, awesome, holy. They had fun coming up with these words.

Then I asked them some of the names for God found in the Bible. With a little coaxing, they thought of Rock, Shepherd, Jesus, King of kings. Soon we had filled the page with different ideas. I bought a cute white frame and hung up the list in their room. At bedtime they could each pick one of the things on the list to begin their prayer.

Confession. This part turned out to be the most surprising. The first time we talked about confession, none of them could recall any bad thing they had done that day. I was floored. I had a long list for each of them fresh on my mind! I held back as long as I could, but then I asked one of them, “What about hitting your sister today?”

“Oh, yeah.”

Then on to the next child: “Remember how you threw that fit and got in trouble this morning?”

“I had forgotten about that.”

They were all very willing to confess their sins to God and were even excited that they had something for this part of the prayer. They just needed some training and direction.

Thanksgiving. Giving thanks came more naturally. They were always grateful for the “wonderful day.” Now we tried to be more specific. What are we thankful for? Yes, we had trips to the park, friends over, and new toys. But we talked about some basic things that we often take for granted: freedom to worship, our own copy of God’s Word, clean water, food, eyes to see, legs to run.

Their tender hearts were telling their Creator that they had much to appreciate. Children don’t always remember these blessings in day-to-day life when surrounded by ads and commercials tempting them to want more. But at night when their hearts are soft, they often recognize God’s provision when a loving parent reminds them of all He has done.

Supplication. Big word. I told them we were basically just asking God for things. He invites us to ask with shameless persistence. We can ask for things we need or want, but we also want to pray for others. A friend of mine shared a great system that she used to help her kids remember what they were praying for each day. We made another poster for the wall that looked like this:

Monday: Missionaries. Here we wrote the name of two specific families we know and support. We prayed for their children and tried to remember to share any details about their families we received in regular prayer updates in e-mails or letters.

Tuesday: Teachers. Each child prayed for his or her own school teacher. We also listed the names of their piano teacher, Sunday school teachers, and coaches. If they didn’t know what to pray, we asked God to give their teachers wisdom and endurance. (They can always use a little more of that, right?)

Wednesday: Widows and orphans. We prayed for specific ones we knew. We prayed for Great-Grandma, a woman at church, and for little Alex and Robelina, whom we support through an organization that provides opportunities to sponsor needy children. (Our son and the twins have since been able to meet Alex personally on mission trips to Guatemala. It was incredible for them to meet the boy we had prayed for on so many Wednesdays.)

Thursday: Those who don’t have a relationship with Jesus. The children had plenty of people who were school friends, neighbors, or extended family members whom they hope will accept Jesus’ gift of salvation and choose to follow Him. It made the celebration that much sweeter when we saw a family we had been praying for in our neighborhood place their faith in Christ.

Friday: Friends and family. We listed all the cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, and each child picked one or two special friends to include. Living in Ohio with my family in Texas and my husband’s family in Canada, praying for family helps my kids feel more connected with people they may get to see only once a year.

Seeing progress

After we implemented our new approach to prayer, we found that our kids’ prayer lives were growing stronger. It hasn’t been a perfect system. Still, the kids have learned that prayer is talking with God about anything and everything. They have practiced remembering who He is, where they fall short, and what they are thankful for, and they have asked for God’s help for others.

Though we no longer have the lists on the wall, they have long since moved past talking generically about a “wonderful day” to deeper connection with Christ. (We’re still working on that toilet paper roll, though!)

Adapted from Total Family Makeover: 8 Practical Steps to Making Disciples at Home, by Melissa Spoelstra. Copyright © 2016 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.