The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by The Bishop of Wakefield.
There can be nothing more important in the training of children than to teach them the habit of prayer. But before they can learn the habit they must understand the meaning of prayer. I suppose most children, who have had any teaching at all in religious matters, would tell you that prayer is speaking to God, but I think a very large proportion of such children probably have a very imperfect conception of what this really means. They no doubt "say their prayers," but that is not necessarily praying. The very first thing they must have most clearly and definitely pressed upon them and fixed in their minds is the truth that they are not really praying unless they feel that they are speaking to God and that God is listening to them. It is a vast gain, a long step in the religious life, when they have once realised this; when, in other words, prayer has become a real thing to them, and not a mere empty form. I am speaking now of quite little children, and I am sure this lesson can be taught very early. One has constant evidence of the way in which quite little children do realise what prayer is in the petitions, often raising an inward smile no doubt, which many a mother hears her little one utter as it says its baby prayers at her knee. Perhaps I ought to have gone even further back, and to have urged the necessity of creating in the opening mind of the little child a sense of the existence, and of the omnipresence, of God, as well as of His love and of His wisdom. But I suppose any mother who cared at all for her child's true interests would begin with this. The child's prayers, I need hardly say, should be very simple, quite short, and such as the child would naturally wish to pray. And the parent should make sure that every word is thoroughly understood, for it is strange what curious mistakes little children will often make in the meaning of the simplest word. Very simple children's hymns are very valuable additions to prayer, but here even more care is needed to guard against mistakes in the meaning. I once knew a little girl who interpreted the line, "All that stained my soul this day" of "blackberries and bilberries," and I have known several who understood "The grave as little as my bed" as equivalent to "The grave no bigger than my bed;" and I could easily multiply examples of similar childish mistakes. But I will tell one much prettier story to illustrate the truth that a very little child can enter into the sense and meaning of prayer. Such a little child was once taken up to the top of the Malvern Hills, and was so lost in wonder at the beauty of the scene, that, after standing quite silent a little while, she whispered, "Mother, may I say my prayers?"
But now we must remember that children will grow bigger, and, as they do so, the parents' task becomes more difficult. I am afraid a very large number of parents never make any real effort to teach their children to advance in prayer as they advance in years. We find a large proportion of confirmation candidates with strangely elementary habits or practices of prayer. And not infrequently grown-up people, if they pray at all, go on with their child prayers, as if a child's prayer would fit a grown-up person any better than a child's clothes. Do let parents overcome that strange shyness and reserve which seems to beset them as regards the inner life and devotional habits of their boys and girls, and do let them speak plainly and lovingly to them, and show them how much more they have to pray about as years go on, what new temptations begin to assail them, what new duties unfold themselves, what new graces and blessings they need to ask for, how many more they would wish to pray for. And then I am sure it is of great moment to teach them something of the practice of self-examination. Even a very young child can understand this in its simplest form, and I know well how a mother's gentle loving question at night as to anything wrong done through the day, with the confession to God of the wrong recalled, may be the beginning of a habit of self-examination which will prove a life-long blessing. I am always afraid of long lists of questions. First of all, they are seldom used with any great care, and generally they are apt to minister to some little self-satisfaction, since many of the questions will not touch any individual case. It is much better to let the child select (or to select for it) two or three of the faults it is most liable to, and to train it to question itself as to these particular faults before making its nightly confession to God.
Perhaps it may be useful to point out that the child's morning prayer should consist of praise and thanksgiving, prayer for safety from sin and danger, intercession, and the Lord's Prayer; while the evening prayer should consist of self-examination and confession, prayer for protection through the night, intercession, and the Lord's Prayer. To these I would add a very simple morning and evening hymn, of which a good choice will be found in Mrs. Carey Brock's Children's Hymnbook (S.P.C.K.).
Let me only once more press upon parents the enormous importance of this subject. I cannot exaggerate that importance. Until there is real prayer there is not the first foundation of the Christian life. As Charles Montgomery says, "Prayer is the Christian's vital breath"--that is, the soul can no more live without prayer than the body without breathing. Oh, parents, do teach your little ones to be real with God. He does not ask them to be long on their knees, but He does ask for real prayer, and not sham prayer. It is a terrible thing to offer shams to the God of truth; and the prayer uttered by the lip, but not spoken by the heart, is a sham prayer. God help us all to be more real in prayer ourselves, and then we shall know better how to teach our children to pray.
Typed by S. Keillor, April 2013