3 Lessons on Prayer from a 3 Year Old

I’m bad at praying.

I’ve admitted it before, but I’m not very good at talking to God. I feel much more comfortable in silence. But I’ve been trying to grow and will look anywhere for lessons.

Lately, my 3 year old has been teaching me about praying. Through our nightly ritual of praying before bed, Soren has taught me three things about prayer.

Routine is helpful (but dangerous)

We pray every night. Soren never forgets. He asks even if I’m busy, or tired, or gone. We have a pretty solid routine. He prays a short prayer, called “the little prayer,” then we give little high fives and hugs. Then I pray a longer prayer (“the big prayer”) and we give bigger high fives and hugs. Then he says, “God is always with me,” and goes to bed.

This is great because Soren has established that praying should be a regular part of his life and also because he associates praying with God’s presence. His dependence on the routine has helped me to establish a routine myself. When I pray “the big prayer” I don’t just go through the motions. I really pray. If nothing else, I pray at least once a day because Soren makes me.

But the routine is also dangerous.

Recently I tried to pray with him before bed at my parents’ house. “We do that at home.”

Maybe he doesn’t realize God is with him anywhere.

I asked one afternoon if he wanted to pray. “That is for bedtime.”

Maybe he doesn’t realize God is with him anytime.

When a kid puts it so bluntly, it seems absurd to only pray at a certain time or in a specific place. But adults do it unknowingly by praying only before meals or only in a certain reading chair. While routine is a great discipline it can also be a great temptation. When you establish a routine, you increase your chance of experiencing God, but you also increase your chance of confining your experience of God to scheduled interactions.

Prayer is for the pray-er

Sometimes, when stalling bedtime, Soren will want to say “the big prayer” and he’ll thank God for everything in the room.

Everything.

Individually.

I’ll ask him, “Are you really thankful for the crane on your train tracks?” He says, “Yes,” but he hasn’t played with it in weeks. He’s just avoiding sleep (which makes my parents feel there is justice in the world).

But the next day, without fail, he will play with whatever random thing he was thankful for the night before. Saying it the night before made him stop and say to himself, “You know what, that crane really is awesome.”

Søren Kierkegaard (Soren’s namesake) said:

Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays

What does that mean? It means that if you say you’re thankful for a toy crane then you really will be. If you pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done,” you’ll find yourself really longing for it.

You are a gift

“The Little Prayer” is simple. It goes, “Dear God, thank you for Mom, Dad, Soren, Julian, and Jesus. Amen.”

It’s strangely profound to thank God for yourself. I don’t think my three year old is some spiritual genius who realized a deep truth about selfhood. I think he just combined what he had heard me pray and what he had heard his mom pray to create his own prayer.

I thought about correcting the mistake, but I couldn’t figure out quite how to do it.

“Hey, don’t be thankful for yourself,” just didn’t sound like something I wanted to say to a 3 year old.

So it’s been going on for over a year now.

For the past 6 months I’ve been thanking God for me. Because I am praying what I wish is true I am becoming thankful that God made me just the way he did.

I’ve also been praying that my children never stop thanking God for making them and that they never stop teaching me things about God.