“How do I teach listening prayer to my child?”
This is a question that I have heard over and over again in the past few years, most often from parents of elementary school kids. It can be very challenging to know how to answer because kids and families are so varied; the way one family practices listening prayer is so different than how another family does, and there are certainly some that are actually close to harming their kids more than helping them in their relationship with Christ.
When our oldest son was 4 or 5 I was doing devotions with him at bedtime and he asked me something that I saw as a great opportunity to teach him about listening prayer, which he had been struggling to understand. So we asked Jesus our question and when I asked Malachi what he thought Jesus had said, he said, “Jesus said, ‘Yes.’” That was wonderful! It was a good question and an appropriate answer. I commended Malachi for being willing to listen. It was just a few minutes later however that he looked uncomfortable (almost guilty), and then he suddenly blurted out, “Daddy I don’t know if Jesus actually talked to me, when you asked that question I just thought ‘Yes’ in my head.” Well of course he did! I explained that there was nothing wrong with that, in fact this was how Jesus speaks. His words often sound very much like our thoughts to which Malachi replied, “Oh THAT’S what you mean!” And today 7 years later he doesn’t struggle at all and gets quite incredible stuff.
Every kid is different certainly, and we haven’t quite hit the nail on the head with our second son yet. So what would I say to parents who ask how to teach listening prayer to their kids? There are several things.
First, let go. Let go of the pressure of hearing about so-and-so’s kid who prophesied who would be the next President of the United States through a dream. Goodness! There will always be prodigies and I believe that God does actually speak to children and that they can actually hear remarkable things. However by and large they won’t get prophetic words (in the “big” sense we understand prophesy), they will get simple messages of love and affirmation, and possibly conviction, from Jesus. So let go of the expectation that if a kid loves Jesus they will be able to discern what God is saying to them quickly and easily. Your expectation of them, only increases the pressure on both of you!
Second, understand that kids are all over the place in being able to think about abstract concepts and let’s face it, God is invisible so it can be hard to understand how to relate to Him. You might find that little kids (age 3-6) have a pretty easy time just believing because you say so. But then when they get a bit older it can be harder to “get it” and there might be a lot of anxiety and self-worth tied up in trying to hear God. You really want to be careful that you aren’t pressing too hard because a child’s desire to please their parents might cause them to make something up.
Third, remember kids are, well kids. They will hear things, see things, dream things, and think up things that are fantastical and highly imaginative. A parent has the right to veto anything a child hears in listening prayer if it goes against common sense. “No, child, God did not tell you that you could hide on the playground and skip class.”
Finally, when teaching listening prayer to kids, focus on relational questions with God. I can’t emphasize this enough. When adults talk about listening prayer we often move quickly to “doing” type directional questions. “What should I do about my business, my family, my wife, etc?” Kids need to know who God is and how He feels about them far more than what He wants them to do.
Remember we want our children to hear God, but He’s pretty big and knows how to get through to them when He wants. The ability to hear God and understand what He is actually asking is only one of many indications that someone is growing closer to Jesus. I would be far more impressed if my kids would just get along and act like Christians towards each other, their peers and teachers, than if they heard impressive things in prayer.
Ask the Lord to show you whether you have pushed too hard in the area of listening prayer with your kids. Ask Him what type of questions He would like you to start praying with them.