Praise You, Thank You, Sorry, Help Us: Teaching the Little Ones to Pray

Teaching big truths to little minds simplifies our thinking. Some day I’d like to reach the place where my thinking and teaching could fit Jonathan Pennington’s description of renowned New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham: “He’s on the other side of complexity.”

Like any other parent, I’d tried and tried to get our kids (4, 4, 5, 6) to look people in the eye, shake hands, and say something salutory when greeting them. We weren’t making much progress. Then on the way to church a few weeks back, I thought I’d change my pedagogy in three ways:

(1) Simple
(2) Memorable
(3) Fun

The result: “Hi, Smile, Eyes, Nice-to-SEE-You!” Say it in a sing-songy tone. We’ve found it works pretty well. Of course, the fact that you say “Hi” and “Nice-to-SEE-You” while doing “Smile” and “Eyes” has thrown the kids off frequently. But that makes for more laughter, and the memorability of the rhythm and rhyme more than makes up for the faux pas.

The other night we were all praying after reading the Bible, and our youngest started out with her traditional bullet-point prayer list. Of course, she’s barely four years old and seven months into English, but she’s got a healthy installment of spunk so she always gives it a go. She ran through her brief list, but everything (as always) was a “thank you,” because the most frequent prayer they hear is over meals — “Father, thank you . . .”

I thought, “I need a simple way to teach them how to express more than gratitude.” So here’s what I came up with for the time being:

(1) Praise You
(2) Thank You
(3) Sorry
(4) Help Us

It’s not as rhymey as “Hi, Smile, Eyes, Nice-to-SEE-You!” but has similar rhythm and closure. It’s a loose reflection of the ACTS model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), a helpful paradigm which mirrors some of the major categories of the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms.

We’ve only been doing it for a few nights now, but the kids already prompt me to remind them of the words and the order. “Praise You” will be the toughest due to our current linguistic limitations which hinder conceptual explanations. But kids understand so much more than we give them credit for, and if Jesus wanted the little children to come to him, I have every confidence that he’s deeply invested in them learning how to come.

But not only them. I always close in prayer after the kids have finished, and I explicitly use the same structure, overemphasizing the four phrases so they can keep catching on over the days and weeks. I’ve started to find joy in these simple prayers: praising our Father only for attributes that a 4-year-old can understand, offering bare and unadorned gratitude for the most basic elements of a 5-year-old’s life (Jesus, Bible, church, mama, food, family, toys), saying “sorry” in the simplest of ways for the rawest of sins (disobeying, lying, being mean), and asking for help for our most rudimentary needs both physical and spiritual.

I’m thankful that I can approach a Father who asks for my heart and not my oratory. And I’m happy to introduce my children to him in the most basic of ways. It isn’t easy to please God. But it can be simple.


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