You hear a loud cry coming from the children’s room. You walk into the room and discover that Sarah, your four-year-old daughter, has just hit Brandon, your three-year-old son, because he wouldn’t give her the toy she wanted. You take Sarah into your room and administer the appropriate discipline. Sarah sadly tells you she knows that she should not have hit Brandon, but she just was so angry with him that she did it anyway. She tells you that she just can’t do it, she can’t obey and be good. What do you say as a parent?
Response # 1 —Mom replies with an even but stern voice,“Well, Sarah, that is what discipline is for. Eventually, you will learn that it is wrong to hit when you’re angry. If Mommy disciplines you enough times you will get the message. Please don’t hit Brandon any more. We don’t solve problems by hitting.”
Response # 2 —Mom replies with a tone of exasperation.“I know Sarah, you always say that. But, you just have to learn to be good. How many times must mommy spank you? You shouldn’t do something you know is wrong. Maybe someday you will change.”
Response # 3 —Mom replies in anger, “Sarah, if you wanted to be good and stop hitting Brandon, you would. Mommy is really losing patience with you. Your father and I are going to have a long talk when he gets home. This has got to stop. This is the fourth time this week.”
Response # 4 —Mom responds in dejected frustration,“Sarah, I don’t know what to do with you. Mommy has tried and tried to teach you what is right. I just don’t know what to do. I can’t seem to make you change. I just don’t know what to do.”
All of these responses are performance-based. They result in broken relationships, not healthy ones. Mom is treating Sarah as if she could solve her problem with sin by responding in her own strength, simply by doing what Mommy says. “Just do it,” she says, in effect. The problem is that Sarah, like everyone else on planet Earth, can’t do good in her own strength. All of these first four responses might produce a fine Pharisee, but they will not lead to new life in Christ for your child.
Contrast the first four responses with this next one.
Response # 5 —Mom replies with warmth and understanding, “Sarah, I know you can’t obey by yourself. I know that. But that is why Jesus died on the cross, because we can’t do it ourselves. Remember the Bible says that Jesus died so that we would have new life. You can’t obey in your own strength, but you can obey in Jesus’ strength. Let’s pray right now and ask Jesus to help.” Mom then leads Sarah in prayer.
“Dear God, please help me to obey you and love you. I just can’t do it by myself. Please forgive me for hitting Brandon. Please help me to trust you. I know that you are the only one who can help me be different and turn my heart to you. Please help me to obey Mommy and to obey you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
This simple little prayer addresses the issues at hand. Sarah needs Jesus to help her to obey. Sarah acknowledges that she must change. She turns to Christ for help. This is good for Mom as well. She also identifies with the struggles of the heart raised in this prayer.
At this point I can imagine someone thinking, “What four-year-old child is going to come up with that prayer? Are you kidding me?!?”
Your four-year-old can “come up with this prayer” the same way the disciples came up with the Lord’s Prayer. You teach it to her, just as Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples. Luke 11 records that Jesus taught His disciples His prayer word for word. This is how you start with your children. Help them pray by teaching them word for word what to say to God. Teach your children to pray phrase by phrase, by repeating each phrase after you say it. Jesus didn’t wait for His disciples to become spiritual enough to know what to pray and how to pray. He told them what to say and how to pray, word for word. Spirituality doesn’t come by waiting for it to appear. Spirituality comes by teaching what the Holy Spirit has written at the time it is needed. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, He taught them word for word—in the middle of their everyday lives. Jesus taught his disciples everyday prayer.