When we grew up, we always had a prayer to say before and after meals. We were required to say these prayers till we were a certain age. So when we had children, we required each of them to pray before and after meals as well. But, a few weeks ago we decided that we would not require them to say their prayers. If they wanted to pray, we would of course encourage them to do so. Why would we break with this old tradition? It comes down to understanding what prayer is.
Prayer is part of our worship. John 4:24 says, " God is spirit; and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." Worship that pleases God comes from the right heart attitude and in conformity to the truth in God's word. We can't worship God simply as we please. True worship is not in outward actions only but with a heart that loves and fears God. This applies to prayer as well. The content of our prayer should agree with the Word of God. Our hearts need to be engaged when we pray. This means that quickly speeding though a prayer is wrong. Mindless praying the same old words is wrong. You can repeat the most beautiful prayer, but if you don't mean it, it isn't praying. The Heidelberg Catechism says this about a prayer that is heard by God; " We must from the heart call upon the one true God only, who has revealed Himself in His word for all that He has commanded us to pray." It goes on to say we must have a humble heart knowing our unworthiness and that God will hear us because of the worthiness of Christ. Praying without thought or out of mere habit dishonours God. Let me give an illustration to show this. Imagine that I came home from work and walked into the kitchen. My son comes up to be with a sullen look on his face and a piece of paper in his hands. Before he begins to read the paper, he looks up at his mother. She gives him the do-as-your-told-look. So he begins to read with a sigh. "Dad, I love you. You are a great Dad. Thanks for working so hard for us. Could you give me a new bike for my birthday? Oh and Dad, I am so sorry but I broke your favorite fishing rod today. Please forgive me." Then he walks away. Is this love? Will I be impressed? Will I listen to his requests? No, we know this kind of communication is not right in our human relationships. So why would we communicate to God like this? We cannot make a person pray--we can only make them say prayers. True prayer flows out of a heart that has been born again. This is why we stopped requiring our children to say their prayers. They were not praying. They just said the words as fast as they could. We were not teaching them to pray, but only the habit of prayer.
Our children will still learn what it is to pray. We will teach them from the Lord's prayer how and what they are to pray. As we read and explain the Bible to them, there will be times when we can teach them about prayer. Perhaps one of the best ways they can learn to pray is from our prayers. When they hear our prayers, they will see prayer in action. We have a great responsibility to pray with depth and passion. With God's grace they will learn these truths from us.
Lastly, I would say that if you want to teach your children to say prayers, you have the freedom to do so. Just remember what true prayer is. The heart of prayer is the heart. A heart redeemed and made new by Jesus. A heart where the desires, emotions, and thoughts are poured into our prayers.