He never wants to say his prayers.
The room is “dark,” by his standards, not mine. Through the half-open door, the lamp from the hallway pushes a rectangle of light almost all the way to his bed, which is topped by an orange dump truck nightlight and a flashlight positioned to gleam directly on his face. We begin our nighttime tucking procedure, which is accompanied by squirming and requests for milk and crackers. Finally his small, sinewy body is still, and I tuck his “cozy blanket” all the way down each side, so he is cocooned, with the blanket a little over his face like he likes it. Then I lean over the bed to kiss his forehead, where the skin is the softest of soft, and stroke his hair for just a minute where it grows into a sort of downy widow’s peak. Then I kneel down, inevitably on top of a sharp car or block, and ask him if he wants to pray to Jesus. I already know what his answer will be. “No. You,” he says, popping his fingers into his mouth to suck.
I believe children need to have a positive concept of the meaning of prayer or it will be hard to unlearn later, but I do not have a very good strategy to accomplish this. I’m still shaky in the role of spiritual guide, making God close, likable. Plus, I’ve never really liked praying out loud or the sound of jargon-y Sunday school words that have embedded themselves in my vocabulary over the years. I clear my throat. I wish my husband were here because he is so much better at this, and I’m so tired. Oh well. I start talking, resting my elbows on top of the construction comforter.
“Dear Jesus. Thank you for today. Thank you for our friends who came to play today. Thank you for keeping us safe. Thank you that we got to go to the park. Help us to be kind to our friends and Reese and obey our mommy and daddy. Thank you for loving us. Amen.”
My prayers are always first-person plural even when it doesn’t make sense.
He doesn’t say anything when I finish. He never does. I kiss him and walk away from his bed into the hallway and the toy-strewn playroom. As I close his door, I look up at the overhead light and its halo seems to comfort me that I haven’t totally screwed up or left too much unsaid. That’s the dilemma. I am astute at asking questions but skittish about answers, hesitant to use a didactic approach. I never want to paint spiritual cooperation as “good” and resistance as “bad.” C. S. Lewis says that in prayer we “lay before [God] what is in us, not what ought to be in us,” and I want my children to be unashamed of what they are.
Also, there are many spiritual concepts and realities I don’t yet understand, and my understanding is constantly growing and changing…in a truly amazing way. Faith is a mystery, not something that can be hammered down to a few basics, and I am super hesitant to dilute something so beautiful, challenging and complex as the story of God and humanity. After so many years, I am finally comfortable about being on my own spiritual journey, even though it’s long and winding. Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but it doesn’t worry me at all that Jack hasn’t memorized a bunch of aphorisms about God. Truthfully, it’s hard not to fall into the “teacher/student” paradigm because he is so young, but I am also a student of God. We are students together. I never want to become static, trying to pull him up to where I am. Somebody please slap me if I think I have “arrived” at a place where I think I have figured it out and am ready to push a button and program my beliefs into my children. I always want to keep looking, seeking, finding truth, on a journey of discovery that is fresh and uncomfortable and makes me reassess and reorder my beliefs again and again.
But still … I see all the other parents on Facebook posting cute prayers their kids say. I wonder why I can’t get my son to pray.
And then one day, it happens. It isn’t at bedtime and it isn’t during a teachable moment. It is in our living room on a Monday, thanks to a cellophane-wrapped goody bag from a little girl’s birthday party. It’s the clear, crackly kind with ribbons that dangle in corkscrew curls. My friend is that sweet mom who puts a lot of thought into goody bags. She picks out gender-specific stuff that each child will like and labels the bags with their names. After a long afternoon of swimming and Barbie birthday cake, the goody bags are an ideal diversion for tired children on the drive home.
We are in the car when he opens it, and a cascade of sweet little presents empties into his lap. Then he squeals. He is holding up two small, perfectly crafted airplanes the size of Matchbox cars. One is white, one gray. Someone has painted stripes on their sides with great care. “Airplanes!” he cries. “Look, airplanes! I love them! I love them!”
His reaction takes me back almost 30 years to the last time I felt the visceral pleasure of gold stars on a kindergarten chart, of a white mesh bag of marbles in my hand, of riding on my dad’s shoulders. My experiences then were larger than life. I miss that gladness, that joy that fizzes and froths.
He plays with them all the way home, sleeps with the airplanes, and the next day he is still playing with them. I am sitting on the couch, trying to escape life by checking my e-mail and Instagram. Then he says very quietly, “I want to pray to Jesus.”
I sit up like I was pricked with a pin. “What did you say?”
“I want to pray to Jesus for my airplanes.”
“Really? What do you want to say?”
“I want to tell him thank you for these awesome airplanes.”
Oh my goodness. I am overcome with delight.
“God is so happy when you thank him, Jack,” I say. “It makes his heart happy when we say thank you for things that make us happy.”
Jack shrugs. “Yeah,” he says.
And that was it. From start to finish, that was it. But it was enough. Enough to make this mama fall asleep happy every night for a month and know that maybe what I say is sinking in just a little.
When I was a child, I memorized the prayer illustrated in many children’s prayer books: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” As a result, I became convinced that any night that you closed your eyes your soul could be taken. Every night, I anticipated the possibility and could not force my eyes to shut. My body was rigid with fear as I whispered, Just let me go peacefully as I slumber, Lord.
I think my parents would have wanted me to pray different prayers, like the kind of childish prayer that burst from Jack’s heart out of sheer spontaneity. I think prayer is so much less about the words we try to make come out and more about what really comes out when we’re just being ourselves. Prayer is something a child can do just as well as an adult. Doesn’t that tell us something? I think words may be overrated—we can also pray with our bodies, our postures, our breathing, our cries. And prayer is also listening. God is already speaking to our children and to listen is often the greatest thing of all.