Out of the mouths of babes: A two-year old’s prayer

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?

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

11 thoughts on “Out of the mouths of babes: A two-year old’s prayer

  1. What a beautiful and amazing description of personal experience with children’s prayers. Thanks Bryce.

  2. I can see that cute chubby little boy. I love little kids.

    I am convinced that the way to teach children about God, prayer, spirituality, is to love them beyond measure. I was harsh with my older children as I tried to indoctrinate them into the gospel. They all turned from the church.

    My youngest was raised completely differently, often without the checklist, but always with complete acceptance and love. She learned at an early age that God loved her, as her parents loved her, and she learned real prayer as conversation with Him, and turns to Him easily today.

  3. This story reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures on prayer:

    Romans 8:26

    “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

    Just like Stanley, none of us know what we should pray for as we ought.

    Much more to say here about what the implications of this holy intercession might be for prayer, but, alas, no time now to do so.

  4. I don’t understand why parents and teachers whisper into their children’s ears the prayer they are to say. If the children cannot say a prayer on their own, they’re not ready and the parents might as well just give the prayer him/herself.

    Our children, 6 and 4, have both been giving prayers since they they were two. We have never helped them. We have taught them in FHE how to say prayers and then let them do it on their own. In fact, when our daughter was in Sunbeams and was first asked to give a prayer in Primary, she matter-of-factly informed the Primary president when she went to the front that she would require no assistance.

    Granted, for the first few months, the prayers they offer are pretty basic, short and often the same. I don’t think God is concerned too much with the content of the prayers; I think He is more concerned with the sincerity.

    BTW, I feel the same way about testimonies.

  5. Amen, Kim! Wasn’t there a 1st Presidency letter recently to that effect, for children and testimonies?

  6. Kim, I have to respectfully disagree with you. When we (meaning my wife and I) teach our children to pray, they are still very early in the language acquisition process — they do not have the linguistic tools necessary to understand abstract ideas like gratitude, or at least that’s what I used to think. I’m giving them forms that they can use to understand the abstraction.

    Look at it another way — when I put Stanley on the telephone to speak to his grandparents, who live thousands of miles away, I whisper things in his ear to repeat to them. Grandma and Grandpa know that this is happening, yet it still pleases them no end to hear his voice. And Stanley learns that the telephone is a means of communication. He’s just starting to learn that there are real people on the other end of the telephone line, and that when he speaks, they can hear him and respond to him. It’s actually not an obvious conclusion to draw for a child. I think that we can teach prayer in the same way.

  7. “they are still very early in the language acquisition process — they do not have the linguistic tools necessary to understand abstract ideas like gratitude”

    Then why have them pray at all? I fail to see what purpose is served by making children our mouthpieces during prayer time.

    FWIW, we didn’t do it with them when they phoned the grandparents either.

  8. Kim: I have to disagree with your unconditional rejection of “prayer hints”, although I am sympathetic to your underlying reasons. A prayer does not have to be a soul-deep, heartfelt communication between God and man to be valid. Many investigators, including adults, need “prayer hints” when they first begin to pray. Sometimes, there are other barriers for beginning a habit of regular prayer besides language acquisition – for both children and adults. These might include feelings of awkwardness or shyness with speaking in public, for example.

    I believe that ultimately, children learn proper ways to pray by observing their parents. Probably, this is how your bright and precocious children learned to pray on their own. Other children, including my own, need a little extra push to get them going.

    There was a letter about children and testimonies, but I don’t think it applies to teaching prayer in the home. If anyone knows of a reference to a copy of the letter, I would appreciate the heads-up.

  9. My little nephew is learning to talk and my wife saves all the little messages he leaves on our phone machine. She’s in love with the kid and delights in hearing him say her name, etc. We can plainly hear that his Mom is whispering things to him but we appreciate it anyway.

  10. “children learn proper ways to pray by observing their parents.”

    And/or by instruction received in FHE, as I mentioned in my first comment.

    FWIW, my children saying prayers on their own has nothing to do with their level of intelligence or at what speed they develop mentally. It’s not like they were saying payers at a year old, and it certainly isn’t like they were giving Rameumptom-style prayers at two years old. Even at four, my son’s prayers are still rudimentary.

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