The power of childhood prayer

The prayers we learn as kids often stick with us into adulthood, to shore up our souls when we need comfort the most.

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At her father’s funeral, a woman I know shared a story about the ritual of prayer in their family home. Every night as they sat around the table for dinner, her father would pause, ask them to bow their heads, and join him in saying grace. Though most of the words changed right along with the food before them, one phrase stuck: “You know our needs, God, in your mercy, grant them.” As a child, the woman said, she assumed the “needs” her father spoke of were material. She thought it meant new clothes, the groceries they bought, that trip to Disney World that, at a young age, feels like a necessity.

It wasn’t until she was grown—with a family of her own—that she realized the depths of that prayer. The needs her father was acknowledging were not material (not solely, at least). The needs he asked God to provide were for safety, for wisdom, for patience, for love, for all of the things a good father wants to provide for his children.

As he lay dying, the words of her father’s prayer came to her suddenly, and they were a comfort at this saddest of times. They reminded her that her father needed relief from pain, and that God would provide peace and comfort. And she felt so grateful that her father had given her the very words to ease her own pain—her grief—by praying in her time of need.

Her story reminded me of all the beauty and power contained in prayers, even the most basic sounding ones. And it’s a reminder I’m grateful for because sometimes the prayers we share with our families can feel a little rote—we’ve been saying them over and over for years—and we begin to take them for granted, or forget their deeper meaning. But those same words may surprise you with their strength some day, coming to your aid when you need them most.

So those prayers we learned as children, and the ones our children learn now, are a gift in many ways: it gives the prayers time to sink in—even before we fully understand them—and a little later, they’ll help shape us, and heal us.

Inspired, I asked around and heard from other adults who have had similarly powerful adult experiences with their childhood prayers. What I discovered was that prayer is a very personal form of comfort and self-help—everyone has their own line that they lean on. But through their stories, I also found this advice: it’s never too late to make prayer a family tradition. Use their favorite prayers below to inspire your own.

Remember the classics

Ellen Painter Dollar, a mother of three, says that she leans on a simple phrase of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Dollar turns to this prayer because, “it so quickly gets at the heart of who I am and who Jesus is. When I’m feeling desperate for whatever reason—my own pain (emotional fatigue or physical), the world’s pain, my guilt or shame—mercy is so often the very thing I most need.” And as moms, it’s often the very thing we need to show.

And Dollar isn’t the only one who turns to well-trodden prayers to help her. Relying on the most familiar phrases—ones that have been around for generations, and sometimes millennia—can be a blessing, especially when praying doesn’t feel comfortable or natural for you. They feel approachable.

Michelle Van Loon, a mother of three and grandmother to two, grew up saying the Shema, in Hebrew, which translates to: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.” This prayer, she says, is often the first prayer a Jewish child learns. (Of note to Christians: young Jesus certainly would’ve prayed this, Van Loon says.) Even today, Van Loon says, this prayer reminds her that God is above all, and gives her hope in times of need.

Pray what Jesus prayed

It’s been said that Jesus’ words, “Into your hands I commit my Spirit,” came from a Hebrew prayer that his mother, Mary, would’ve prayed with him at night. It was these words of comfort—from his mother, to his Father—that Jesus leaned on.

But Jesus didn’t only pray the ancient prayers his mother taught him, Jesus, of course, also taught us new prayers. You can hardly go wrong making the words of Our Father or The Lord’s Prayer a part of your daily family ritual. Consider how just praying the opening words, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,” connects us to God (our Father!) or how a line like, “forgive us our trespasses [sins] as we forgive those who trespass [do wrong] against us …” offer us a much needed reminder to receive grace and be gracious.

Gillian Marchenko says her family tries to say Our Father together before leaving the house in the morning. As the mother of four girls, two of whom have Down syndrome, she says, “I live by ‘give us this day our daily bread.'”

Repeat your favorites

Our parents probably didn’t set out to “coin a prayer,” and yet many of them, like the father at the beginning of this article, did just that. So listen to your own prayers and ask yourself: is there something that you naturally find your inner voice repeating? If so, note it—and go on repeating it, but aloud. If you make a habit of including these words whenever you pray with your family, they have the power to shape generations.

Similarly, making a habit of when you pray has the same effect. Patricia Wharton, a mother of two in Texas, said her family prayed before meals, and just that small act, has helped shape her, and her own family to this day. Praying together around the table reminds them of their blessings of food and one another.

Dale Hanson Bourke, a mother of two grown sons, makes a practice of praying while driving—or, stopping, actually. “I’m not a patient woman,” Bourke says, “so I pray at stop signs. Thank you Jesus for _______. By then the guy behind me is honking. I taught my sons to do it instead of counting like they told them in driver’s ed.”

Sing your prayers

Many parents use prayers as lullabies. “I find myself oddly moved by the ‘Jesus Loves Me’ song, despite how hokey it is,” Dollar says. “When my kids were little, it was a favorite bedtime lullaby. But I often found myself needing the reassurance that Jesus loves me as much as (or more than) my kids did. There are just so many ways to fail as a parent, you know?”

Though her kids are now too old for lullabies, Dollar says one of her kids still asks her to sing Jesus Loves Me. As she sings, she says, “I always try to give my full attention to the notion of being loved.”

Go ahead, embarrass them a little

Years ago, a former neighbor messaged me on Facebook. She wanted me to know how important my family had been to her. At first, I couldn’t imagine why. The two of us had walked to school together in the mornings, but what had my family done that was so special? She asked if I remembered how my parents would pray with us on those mornings: she would arrive, and they would quickly lead a prayer before she and I left for school. Did I remember?! I thought. I counted those before-school prayers as one of the prime humiliations of my youth.

As it turns out, the neighbor girl saw those mornings quite differently. While I was embarrassed, she was touched. Her family was falling apart. No one paid much attention to when she left the house. So she’d show up early just to make sure my parents included her in a prayer, and she told me it changed her life.

Today, I pray with my kids on the way to school too (even when we carpool), so I guess, even though it made my cheeks burn as a child, those prayers changed my life too.

Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of five books and is a columnist for Her.meneutics and ThinkChristian. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, three kids, and one red-nose pit bull. Visit her at carynrivadeneira.com.

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