When I think about prayer and family ministry, I think about my own family and two of our prayer rituals: saying grace before dinner and evening prayers before bed. Both evolved over time. Grace began as “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts from which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” When I was in the fourth grade, I learned, “God, please bless all those who don’t have enough to eat,” and I asked for it to be added. And at some point, someone fell in love with the Twenty-Third Psalm, and it was added to our prayers. I often joke that our grace got so long that the food was cold by the time we got to eat it. The same growth happened with our evening prayers as my brothers and I grew. Although we did not know it, we were seeking developmentally appropriate ways to pray, and thankfully, my parents went with the flow.
So, what does developmental theory have to do with how families pray? To answer that, I will highlight three theorists: Jean Piaget, who focused on cognitive development, and James Fowler and John Westerhoff, who focused on faith development. I will also concentrate on four age spans:
1. ages three – five
2. ages six – eight,
3. ages nine – twelve, and
4. ages 13-18.
The developmental and faith stages are not rigid and do not apply to every child, but they serve as useful guides.
Piaget argues that during ages three to five, children work with mostly concrete thinking; they are not yet able to think abstractly. Since much about faith is abstract, Fowler notes fluidity between reality and fantasy in young children. Westerhoff observes that children are mostly imitating the faith of others. So for very young children, prayer is associated with concrete things. How do we hold our bodies? Do we bow our heads and clasp our hands? Do we hold hands? And what do we pray for? At this age, children bless mommy and daddy and the people they actually know and see.
Concrete thinking continues in ages six to eight, but children begin to categorize things and see things from a different perspective. Before a meal, they are able to understand a prayer such as “God, please bless the people who don’t have enough food” because they realize that not everybody lives the same way. During ages nine – twelve, they are beginning to develop abstract logic and the ability to reflect on their thinking. They begin to pull together important images and values, including images of God. They see God as an extension of interpersonal relationships. God is a friend, so prayers can become more like talking to a friend. “God, please help Jenny, whose parents are going through a divorce. She is very sad, and I saw her crying today, and I don’t want her to cry.”
During their teen years, youth are able to think more abstractly and develop logic. They also begin to reflect on self and faith apart from groups. As they also struggle with doubts, teens may pray more about themselves, but not to the exclusion of others. Teens will also challenge the notion of prayer and why we pray. Development, of course, does not stop at age 18, but is a lifelong journey as adults continue to grow, think differently, and change.
Will family prayer mean that you may reach one child and not the other because they are in different developmental stages? Not at all!
What does this mean for families? Will family prayer mean that you may reach one child and not the other because they are in different developmental stages? Not at all! Growing up, I had two older brothers. One is three years older than I, and the other is six years older. According to developmental theory, we were always in different stages. My parents wanted us to pray in a way we could all understand, but what does that mean when there are three different levels of understanding? Although my parents had never heard of developmental theory, they knew that we understood things differently, and they let us lead the way. When we heard a prayer in school or church, we could add it. We could say something in a different way, and our prayer rituals changed organically as we got older. My prayers grounded my older brothers, and their prayers challenged me. Our parents guided us, corrected problematic theology, and helped us shape our prayer lives. We all had ownership of our prayer times. Without being aware of it, we made those prayer times developmentally appropriate.
Dominical Sisters of Saint Cecilia Congregation, A Short Guide to Praying as a Family: Growing Together in Faith and Love Each Day (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2015)
Sacks, Cheryl and Lawrence, Arlyn, Prayer Saturated Kids: Equipping and Empowering Children in Prayer (Colorado Springs, CO: NAVPRESS, 2007)
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Rev. Annie A. Lockhart-Gilroy, PhD is a Christian education scholar and practinioner. She received her in Christian Education from Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary with a focus on youth ministry, and her B.A. in English from Dickinson College. In addition to writing and lecturing on Christian education and youth ministry topics, she serves as the Director of Youth Ministries at Faith United Methodist Church in Rockville, MD.