Jim Faulconer’s report at Times and Seasons on what sounds like an excellent series of discussions on prayer at BYU this semester has me thinking. His post comes at a time when I find myself pondering the nature of prayer for another reason. My two year-old son Stanley offered his first prayer earlier this week. He has been stubbornly resistant to the idea up until now, refusing to repeat the words we whisper in his ear. It was as though he did not want to pray unless the words were his own.
On Tuesday evening we went to the church for a meeting titled “Eight is Great” for children in the CTR 8 class and their parents to talk about preparing for baptism. Several of our friends whom Stanley is familiar with were there as well. We got home at 9:00, a couple of hours past Stanley’s bedtime. I read a quick story to him, then asked him as I always do if he wanted to say the prayer. Usually, he says “No!”, but to my surprise, he went ahead and started: “Heavenly Father, thank thee Emma, thank thee Brennen, thank thee Julie Cowley, thank thee church, name Jesus Christ, AMEN!”
I was stunned. Not only was this the first time that Stanley had ever really tried to pray, either on his own or with help, he also broke completely away from the template that I had been using to teach him about prayer. After asking him to pray each evening and being turned down, I would whisper a prayer in his ear, thanking Heavenly Father for each member of our family in turn, asking for a blessing on us to sleep well. The idea was that he would learn the rhythms and patterns of prayer through a ritualized benediction that he could repeat verbatim, which we could then help him extend.
Stanley’s older sisters both learned to pray in this way, echoing what their parents told them to say, until they had a repertoire of phrases to use, and then gradually adding thoughts and ideas of their own. Julia’s first independently conceived prayer came after we told her that in prayers, we can ask Heavenly Father for things we want or need: “Dear Heavenly Father, give me a cookie, in the name of …”
Stanley has skipped right past the “parrot” stage. His first prayer included thanks for three women he likes whom he had seen earlier that evening (“Emma” and “Brennen” refer to the mothers of children with those names in Stanley-speak). In his prayer last night he thanked his Father for dreams, the museum, and butterflies. We haven’t been to the museum to see butterflies recently, so I know that he’s not simply regurgitating images out of his short-term memory. He’s figured out that “thank thee” in prayers is followed by things that we like. Tonight it was “Uncle Dallin” and “candy canes”.
I’ve spent a little time trying to figure out what Stanley’s understanding of prayer is, but anything I come up with is at best speculative and unverifiable. Perhaps he has made an inductive leap of reasoning. Maybe he’s imitating his sisters, and I’m not recognizing it. Or could it simply be that he is being moved upon by the Spirit? It’s interesting how much pondering I had to do to arrive at that possibility. Somehow, despite all that we are told about children and their relationship with the Savior, I am reluctant to ascribe spiritual meaning to my son’s utterances as he learns to speak. Yet why shouldn’t he receive inspiration? Clearly there is some kind of understanding beyond what I had expected.
No matter what the explanation, I have found myself paying closer attention to all of the prayers offered by my children this week. And I find the quality of my own prayers changed somewhat as well as I pay attention to the questions: what do I mean when I offer my thanks in my prayers? and what do I see fit to thank my Heavenly Father for?