Sandra: As a child, the experience with prayer that impressed me most was kneeling together with my father and older sisters and brothers, pleading for the life of “little Linda,” one of our four-month-old twins.
Overnight she had become ill—burning up with fever. Mother was at the hospital with the twins; Dad had come home after an all-night vigil and wearily gathered us together for prayer.
We were all alarmed and a little insecure to see him so contrite in the very depths of humility.
I remember how he begged and pleaded with the Lord for the life of that little baby, the tears streaming down his face. I also remember feeling that the heavens were opened—those pleadings were heard and received.
When little Linda died, I knew the Lord had said no. I didn’t understand why, but I knew somehow it would be all right.
Now as a mother of eight children, I wonder how often our own children experience really talking with their Heavenly Father through prayer.
I know we can’t expect them to feel as if they are talking face to face with the Lord every time they pray—but how can we teach them to be humble and to feel that the heavens are opened and the Lord is listening under ordinary, everyday circumstances? These are the concerns we are struggling with and trying to fulfill.
Stephen and Sandra: As parents we are convinced that no other single activity is as important to the whole of life as is effective prayer. We believe many of us in the Church are having problems and unhappiness because we are not properly teaching our children, and before we will be released from these problems, we will need to “set in order” our own homes. Most of us know in our hearts that this is true, even though we focus our attention on “outside” problems—work, finances, Church assignments, etc.
In the Doctrine and Covenants 93:40–50 the Lord counsels the First Presidency (Joseph Smith, Jr., Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams) and the Presiding Bishop (Newel K. Whitney) along these lines. To Frederick G. Williams the Lord says, “You have not taught your children light and truth, according to the commandments; and that wicked one hath power, as yet, over you, and this is the cause of your affliction.” To Newel K. Whitney the Lord admonished he “hath need to be chastened, and set in order his family, and see that they are more diligent and concerned at home, and pray always, or they shall be removed out of their place. And in verse 49, “What I say unto one I say unto all; pray always lest that wicked one have power in you, and remove you out of your place.” [D&C 93:40–50]
How to Teach
Teaching is not just telling. Particularly is this true with children. We teach our children first by setting the proper example and showing love; second, by telling. We teach what we are. Gospel living will be ten times more effective in teaching children to pray than preaching any number of sermons.
Children learn about Heavenly Father from their parents. If they have an honest open relationship with their earthly parents, they expect to have the same kind of relationship with their Heavenly Father. We have observed from missionaries, students, and investigators that if the parents are unkind and hypocritical their children will tend to distrust their Father in Heaven. If children are fearful to be open and honest with their parents because of receiving over-reacting, angry responses, they will learn to not be open and honest in prayer to God.
Children are constantly investigating our lives to judge by our example if the gospel is true. Sometimes they reason: “I don’t care how much you know about prayer until I know how much you care about me.” Teaching by example and unconditional love, reinforced by telling, is again the key.
Different levels of prayer
Just as there are different ways in which we talk to other people, there are different ways in which we pray to Heavenly Father, some more effective and satisfying than others. For purposes of understanding and learning we select the following levels of prayer for study: learning the four steps of prayer, talking to Heavenly Father from the heart, and talking with Heavenly Father—listening, responding.
1. Learning the four steps of prayer. We teach our children to “say” their prayers. They “say” their prayers when they get up and when they go to bed, perhaps kneeling beside their parents. This is a good beginning. They are learning the most basic habit of spiritual life. We need to teach our children what missionaries teach investigators—the four steps of prayer: a. “Our Father in heaven …” b. “We thank thee …” c. “We ask thee …” d. “In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
2. Talking to Heavenly Father from the heart. If as parents we are kind and patient, we can teach a higher level of prayer to our children. We can teach them to pray from their hearts rather than to say the same words again and again, like going down some kind of checklist.
We have found some of the following ideas or types of expressions helpful in teaching our children how to pray from the heart:
Take a few moments to think about who we are praying to and why. We need to pause, to become calm and still inside.
Usually we sing a hymn before family prayer, such as “Sweet Hour of Prayer” or “I Need Thee Every Hour” or “Love at Home.”
Often we go around the prayer circle and ask each family member if he has any special needs or blessings he would like to have remembered in the prayer.
We often say to the child right before the prayer: “Think about what is in your heart and say it to your Heavenly Father.”
In appropriate ways we praise them for heartfelt prayer. “Your Father in heaven is pleased when you tell him how you feel.”
We let our children see and hear how our own prayers are sometimes for a special purpose. Some prayers may be just a few sentences long—or one, “Please help us, dear God.”
When we notice that the children are saying the same thing over and over in every prayer and not thinking about what they are saying, we make a real effort to help them break the habit. We try to teach them that you can pray anywhere, anytime.
After family prayer it may be appropriate to remain kneeling for personal prayers, as is common among missionaries.
We have often tried to teach our children to pray in terms of their needs, rather than their wants: What is best for my character, my development, my spiritual growth, even if it’s a hard experience for me? The Lord knows what we need—we know what we want.
The Lord is constantly dealing with his children in terms of their needs, not their wants. This is pretty hard doctrine for any of us, and it was especially hard for our teenage daughter. Being elected to a leadership position at her high school seemed to be the most important need of her life. She had worked and prepared for several months. “Oh, Mother, I’m praying so hard to win. The Lord says you can ask for any righteous desire of your heart and this is mine.” It seemed a reasonable request to us too. She had a testimony of the gospel and was socially popular in a large high school. We thought she would be a good influence for the Church.
When the voting time finally arrived, it seemed certain that she would be one of the winners. She was absolutely crushed when she lost! It was only by a few votes—but she lost!
The very next month she was asked to be one of the high school seminary officers. All of the seminary council had made personal sacrifices to serve. The seminary president had been asked to give up running for student body president; this was a hard decision for him. They said they really needed our daughter’s creativity and missionary talents to attract people, and this year was a very important one for the growth and development of the seminary program.
That year she had many spiritual experiences. She developed deep, meaningful friendships and was helpful in bringing several people into Church activity.
Later she told me that she gradually came to an understanding of herself through prayer and study of the scriptures. “I wanted to win that election more than anything else, but the Lord knew I needed this other experience more. I needed more spiritual growth. It was a hard experience, but I know in my heart it was right.”
3. Talking with Heavenly Father—listening, responding. IN TWO-WAY PRAYER WE LISTEN AND RESPOND to what we hear. In many of our one-way prayers we mistakenly counsel the Lord, directing him around the heavens and the earth, telling him whom to bless and how.
Help children to understand how to listen to the voice of the Lord. We need to create accurate expectations in our children’s minds regarding how the Lord speaks to us so they will recognize his voice and feel satisfied when they hear (sense, feel) it. Prayer will then become deeply meaningful and satisfying.
We need to teach our children that the Lord speaks to us in many ways. He speaks to us through his still small voice through his prophets, ancient (scriptures) and modern (conferences, writings).
President David O. McKay taught that for those in the Church in the line of their duty, the Holy Ghost normally speaks through the conscience. To a group of seminary and institute people, Elder Bruce McConkie of the Council of the Twelve once used an analogy suggesting that the radio transmitter is the Holy Ghost, we are the receivers, and the Spirit of Christ represents the radio waves.
Stephen: Once after I spoke on listening to answers to prayers at a Ricks College Devotional, a young woman approached me and asked, “Brother Covey, how do I really know God is answering my prayer? Maybe it’s my own wish or want that I warmly feel and I want it to be God’s answer.”
One day I was teaching my daughter Maria how to listen to answers to her prayers. “Honey, listen in your prayer to your conscience. Then respond to what you feel or sense.” She questioned how to do this. I suggested that whenever she asks for a certain blessing, she ask herself if she has done everything possible to earn and deserve that blessing. (And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. D&C 130:21) Then the Lord will speak to her heart through her conscience.
Maria did this and she said that nothing new was given, for “I already know what I should do.” I asked her where she got that knowledge. She answered, “In my Sunday School class.” I pointed out that Sunday School was part of the Lord’s kingdom and that the true principles she had learned there were lodged in her heart and mind.
The Holy Ghost brings those principles to remembrance when we need them to meet the demands of each situation. “For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.” (2 Ne. 32:5)
Responding to the voice of the Lord. We are trying to teach our children to live their lives by their consciences. We are trying to teach them to ask basic questions and listen to the Lord for the answers, such as “What do I need to do to be closer to God?” “How can I be a better member of the Church?” “How can I better prepare for my mission?” “How can I do better in school?”
We encourage our children to first seek the Holy Spirit by asking for it and allowing it to guide their expressions and actions.
We are trying to teach them to continually gain more light and knowledge through paying close attention at Church meetings and by studying the scriptures—really feasting on the words and the love of Jesus Christ. Then the Holy Ghost will bring the proper principle to their remembrance to guide and direct their paths. We are encouraging them to memorize many key passages that are filled with wisdom pertaining to their present opportunities and challenges. We review these in family home evening.
We are trying to teach them that we do not receive more light and knowledge until we are true to the light and knowledge we already have. In other words, let’s just obey our consciences and if we need more, the Lord will give it to us in his way and in his time, not in our way and in our time.
Once a person discovers the possibility of a living relationship with Heavenly Father, once he learns the special meaning of talking with not just to God, he is never the same again. All things, including personal relationships are changed and made infinitely more alive and beautiful.
“What is the most important thing you have ever learned in your life?” we quizzed Cynthia on her eighteenth birthday. Without hesitating she seriously answered, “To build your life on the Lord Jesus Christ. To put your faith and trust in him, to draw on his power, to depend on your relationship with him to pull you through collapsed dreams, disappointments, and disillusionments. It gives you the security you need. It helps you understand and know who you really are, not who other people say or think you are.”
For those brief moments we felt well-rewarded, relieved, and somewhat astounded that, after all, some things were getting through.
But the final test is not over yet. We experience disappointments also. It is not easy. It is a continual struggle, a constant effort. But we are very encouraged that law, not luck, governs, and that we can obey law if we so choose.
In summary, we find we are about as successful in our efforts to teach our children how to talk with Heavenly Father and listen and respond to his answers as we are in our praying and living at this level.
We feel so thankful for the Lord’s patience and long-suffering and for our opportunities. We intend to continue to try to listen, to commit, to obey, and to teach.