Practicing with Children

OK, I’ll pray this time . . . remember well the bedtime prayer I was taught as a child:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Who in the world thought of that second line?? OK, so I didn’t really think anything of it as a child, and I don’t fault my mother for teaching it because she’s not the one who came up with it, but when it came time to teach my own children a bedtime prayer, I skipped the “dying-in-one’s-sleep part” and opted for a second line that was a little less morbid:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

Because you gave me all I see, I thank you God for giving me…

…and then my son is supposed to fill in the blank with something he’s thankful for.  (I usually do this routine with my 5-year old son, since I’m usually the one to put him to bed). We sing the prayer to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me.”  Over time, we’ve added two different endings to the prayer.  One models intercessory prayer:

Because you love everyone, tonight I want to pray for…

The other is for confession:

Because you always forgive me, tonight I say I’m sorry…

Why these three types of prayer (gratitude, intercession, and repentance)? The more obvious reason is because such prayers types run deep in the Christian tradition and in scripture.  But I also like such prayers because our world is desperately lacking things like gratitude, intercession, and repentance. I live with a sense of worried urgency about instilling such values in my children. In expressing them through prayer, we affirm that we are not of ourselves and that we answer to a higher power and purpose.  In the routine I hope to increase the staying power of such values in a culture that has been perilously led astray by the myth that we are self-made, self-sustained, and self-adjudicated.  After all, as many theologians have observed, prayer is more for us than God. Richard Foster writes, “To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.”[1] Or as Barbara Brown Taylor asks, “Isn’t the point of prayers to sharpen my hearing, not God’s?”[2]

Why sing the prayer? We now have research that confirms the staying power of music. It is possibly the most effective tool for enhancing memorization in children.  It is a universal cultural phenomenon that is used to excite (as at a concert), motivate (as in aerobics), and even to heal (as in music therapy).

Back to my son. I would love to be able to say that he, being the intelligent child he is, ends the prayer of thanks with sincere and insightful expressions of gratitude. I would be thrilled to report that he ends the prayer of intercession with a perceptive display of empathy for others. I’d love to be able to tell you that he ends the prayer of confession with contrite pleas of forgiveness for being mean to his sister or not listening to his parents.

But alas, I can’t. In fact, I can’t even tell you he likes doing it. He often doesn’t want to pray with me.  It is here that my parental concerns of “raising my child right” can get the best of me. My instinctive response is to make him pray…or else.  I could, conceivably, use many of the “strings” and potential consequences at my disposal to compel him to participate in praying.  In my more thoughtful moments, I realize that such a thing would be unproductive, not only because his compliance would be devoid of the intended purpose, but because I could also instill a long-term aversion to praying. No, this urge to make him do it is nothing more than my own anxieties and insecurities about adequately “training a child in the way he should go.” (Proverbs 22:6)

But that’s where I come in. When he doesn’t want to (most nights), what do I do? I pray.

“I don’t want to, dad,” he will say.  “OK son,” I respond, “I’ll pray this time.”

I sing the prayers—and finish them—while he listens.  Some parents don’t learn until their child is well past the 18th birthday that they cannot coerce or punish them into being a different person. I might as well learn that lesson now. My children need to hear ME pray. It’s the most frightening thing about parenting: they do as we do, not as we say. So I pray. He listens. Sometimes I get to the end of the gratitude prayer, and he won’t insert his own answers but will ask me, “What are you thankful for, dad?” And while I sing the familiar tune, I offer up my own private hope to God that something is sinking in; that he will grow up to value prayer more than I often have.  And it is while I pray next to my son that God shapes and convicts me. ‘I wasn’t very thankful today either, come to think of it. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be the role model of gratitude that my son needs.’

After all, how else will he eventually learn that there’s more to be thankful for than Legos? But that’s down the road. Legos will work for now.


[1] Richard Foster. Celebration of Discipline. (HarperCollins eBooks, Kindle Edition, 2009), Location 686.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. (New York: Harper Collins, Kindle Edition, 2009), Location 2504.


2 thoughts on “OK, I’ll pray this time . . .

  1. Yes! Legos will work for now and will shape his heart toward gratitude (but I also find it so hard to wait for what is to come down the road!. I appreciate your reminder to model how to pray and sing — even when our child does not want to share in it with us.

    I love your re-working of the “Now I lay me down…” prayer. We will use it!

  2. Pingback: The Practice of Laughter (or, the bedtime rile up) | Practicing Families

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