Advent Reflection: Why I Teach My Children to Pray

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

An Advent Prayer

O come, o come Emmanuel,

God-with-us; God-among-us; God-within-us.

You come with the twinkling starlight, reminding us that light returns.

You come with the slow sunlight that beams upon our dark earth in increments of hope,

You come in every human baby, naked, wailing; each and every one born to save.

You come in every evergreen bow and flake of snow.

You are in-dwelling and in every person we meet, and in all of the arching branches of trees,

Ground of our being, You are the ground that will soften when spring’s full light shines down upon our world after the coming winter.

Come, light. Come, peace. Come, Emmanuel.


This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, which means “coming,” is my favorite time of year because it marks a time of anticipation – of uncluttering our homes for the coming winter – of making space in our hearts for the coming light as it returns to the earth – of anticipating the coming kin-dom of heaven on earth, where peace and joy and justice reign.

This is also the month that we explore prayer at UU Area Church in Sherborn. This is a good thing for me because this twinkling time of darkness and over-consumption and dysfunctional family gatherings makes me want to pray – for light, for transcending earthly desires, for the healing of past hurts.

Sometimes I hear from my fellow UUs that I “pray too much” for their taste, and that I “say God too much.”  As someone who grew up as a UU atheist, who never prayed a day in her life until adulthood, it never ceases to amaze me that I am thought of as particularly pious among my fellow UU brothers and sisters.

So I’d like to tell you a little bit about my history with prayer, and by extension, with God.

Prayer is a hard-won and difficult practice for me…one that helps tenderize my somewhat hardened and forgetful heart; a discipline that helps me carve out time in my day to remember human suffering, to focus on something greater than myself, and to give thanks for all that I have.

Prayer is fraught for me, as well. I often stop to question who or what I’m praying to. I worry that I am an imposter; that God will know I often don’t believe in God. I worry about what I mean by “God” when I say that name aloud. After all, I use “God” as a symbol to express ultimacy and mystery, knowing full well that any symbol we use to describe ultimate meaning is faulty and flawed by definition. Of course, then there are the inevitable questions about whether or not God hears or answers my prayers; whether God is oriented towards Love; whether God cares about me or any other praying person.

And I stumble and mumble when I pray. As someone raised atheist, it likely makes sense to you that I was never taught how. My mother still finds it surprising that she managed to bring me up without my learning.

She asked me last year when I was working as a hospital chaplain for the summer if she had ever taught me the Lord’s Prayer. “No,” I told her. “We didn’t say it at church growing up, remember? I actually learned it as an adult. I mean, sure, I had heard it a lot growing up in a culturally Christian country, but I always got it mixed up with other prayers. I’d try to say it and it would come out something like “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Blessed are the fruits of thy womb, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me, for your’s is the kingdom and the power and the glory (I always loved that part) forever and ever. Amen.'”

My mom said. “Huh. Yeah, I guess I never taught you to pray because I didn’t want you to be as disappointed as I was in God when my prayers were never answered.”

You see, my mother’s older sister died at age 6 of meningitis. After her death, my mom had prayed the Lord’s prayer every night, at the end asking for a little brother or sister. Twice, my grandmother got pregnant, and told my mother that her prayers had been answered. Twice, my grandmother lost the baby at 30 weeks. After the second miscarriage, my mom stopped believing in God, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. It felt like another death to her.

My mom eventually found the UU church as a young adult, vowing to raise her children without God and prayer, not wanting her children to suffer the pain of a God who doesn’t listen, or worse, listens and doesn’t care. As a result, my mom spared me from ever being hurt by an all-powerful, all-loving God who also allows babies to die. As a UU atheist kid, I just wasn’t wounded the way my mom was by God, and I am grateful to have escaped that pain.

And yet, I taught myself how to pray as an adult because I needed a way to express my gratitude for un-earned gifts; to decry my brokenness and the brokenness of the world; to ask for mercy; to express my wonder; to have a symbolic working language for ultimacy. I think we all do this in our own way. My mom sings; I speak, reclaiming a symbolic language that was largely foreign to me, and therefore contains mysterious power.

I teach my children to pray, too. We say grace at meals, and we pray at bedtime. I worry that I can’t explain my nuanced, adult version of God to them; that I will damage them the way my mom was damaged. I soldier on anyway, wanting them to have daily expressions of care, empathy, humility and gratitude; and wanting them to have the symbols to reject, and break, and return to when they need them.

This is how we organize our bedtime prayers. We reflect on three things together in bed. 1) What am I sorry for today? 2) Who am I worried about today? and 3) What am I grateful for today? Sometimes we begin our prayers with “Dear God” and sometimes we begin our prayers with nothing at all. We always end with “Amen,” since that is my two-year-old’s favorite word to say emphatically. And yes, we usually conclude with the Lord’s prayer, because I want them to have some rote prayers to say when they don’t know what to pray. They love the “kingdom, power and glory forever and ever” part, too.

Do you pray in your family? Have daily “thankful fors”? Please continue the conversation in the comments; I’d love to hear your reflections on fumbling through parenting faithful kids, or your own journey with prayer.

Many blessings for peace, hope and love this Advent,


12 thoughts on “Advent Reflection: Why I Teach My Children to Pray”

  1. I grew up with prayer, drifted away from it, and have had a long slog back to it as an ordained clergyman. You really spoke for me here about what prayer is for and why I want it. Thank you for saying it so well.

  2. My daughter came to me last night and said, “Momma, can we pray I need to clear my heart. My head is OK, but my heart is confused.” My son jumped in the car the other day as I picked him up from school and he said, “God heard my prayers.” I thought he was referring to me being on time. He continued, “She or he or God, you know- gave me peace when I really wanted to cry today.” I said, “say more, Sam.” He said, “I wanted to cry because I was scared that the Bible was not true because it sounds so much like Greek mythology… (he listed the similarities and I was impressed by his ability to connect the dots)… I got scared, then I felt like a prayer, or like I feel when I pray- kinda creative and good! I think it does not matter if the Bible is true or not…. it matters most that I am paying attention.” What’s my point? Prayer clear hearts and helps (us) pay attention. I appreciate that despite my *best efforts* my kids have made their own sense of prayer…. and have defined for themselves the parameters of prayer… [Seemingly] prayer for my kids is not a cure-all but a means of naming confusion and noticing important stuff as they come into their own. UGH! Gotta run. Time flies… Time for theater practice. Robin, thanks so much for this! See you Thursday.

    1. Beautiful story, Mimi. We don’t need to break kids’ symbols for them…they’ll do it in their own time, no? And they wil re-tool them on their own, too. I just want my kids to have the symbols to make use of to begin with.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this. As an adult, I can see how prayer, formed with certain intentions, could be useful, for all the reasons you stated. But for my children – I think it would be confusing, and would leave them powerless too often. I want my children to know that THEY are in charge of their minds and hearts. I want them to have tools for calming themselves and clearing their minds, I don’t want them to feel they are dependent on some outside entity to bring them peace. And similarly, I don’t want to give them one more way to say “it’s not my fault.” We try to cultivate a language of wonder and reverence, a practice of mindfulness and self-direction, but I’m not sure prayer would be the right way for us. I do love the way the words sound – maybe we should learn to pray in latin, just for the repetitive nature of the thing. 🙂

    1. What a thoughtful comment, Mandie. It’s given me so much food for thought.

      Can you say more about what you mean by prayer making kids “not in charge” of their minds and hearts? I am wary of telling my kids that they are powerless, too, but ultimately we ARE powerless. Prayer is, in some ways, used as a form of surrender to all we can’t control…and I want my kids to know that much of what happens in life is not in their control–and that it’s not their faults. While I want them to be empowered, I think it is dangerous to their psyches to teach them that they have ultimate power over their lives, because there are so many things that they are simply powerless to stop. Most especially when they are kids. They need a vehicle to decry this fact, which is what I see prayer to be. But I also teach my children to pray because I want them to know that they ARE in charge of their minds and hearts.

      Can you say how prayer gives kids a way to say “it’s not my fault?” I see it as the opposite. One thing I love about confessional prayer in particular, is that it gives me a chance to say I’m sorry for the things that WERE my fault…to ask for forgiveness (if not from God, then from myself). This was really missing in my life growing up UU. I was taught that I was not a sinner, but I still knew that I was capable of wrong-doing anyway. I beat myself up about everything I did wrong, even though I didn’t believe in hell, or that I was inherently bad. I longed for a way to apologize and receive forgiveness and reconciliation. You don’t *need* prayer to have a practice of apology and to receive forgiveness, but admitting that we are capable of wrong-doing is a freeing first step on the road to reconciliation. As a UU, I was never taught that I was blameless for wrong-doing because I was a sinner born into a fallen world. Quite the opposite. I was taught that I was capable of goodness all the time. It would have helped to have an additional “human beings are imperfect because they are not God and therefore aren’t always good”, if not some kind of acknowledgment of sin and evil. Sometimes the acknowledgment that I am imperfect helps me forgive myself, if nothing else. I want my kids to have that tool in their back pocket.

      UUs have this great tendency to prop up the goodness inherent in human beings, which I love. I want my kids to know that they are born good, not bad. And I’m with you–I want them to be empowered, too. We UUs are good at that…we stress the power of the human spirit, of human community, of human perfectability. That’s great, except when it falls short of naming reality. Except when we encounter our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world, and we offer no explanation or relief. Except when we expect to use the same onward and upward optimism with folks from disenfranchised communities, where their reality doesn’t always point to inherent goodness, “you’re in control of your own world”, and this-earthly paradise.

      I didn’t mean to be long-winded here. Your comment spurred a lot of thoughts, Mandie. Parenting faithful kids is brutally hard work. I appreciate dialogue about its complexity.

  4. Loretta Saint-Louis

    My life was sustained through hard times by my mother’s bedtime prayers and a hymn: “Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me. Bless thy little lamb tonight. Through the darkness be thou near me. Keep me safe till morning light.” That prayer for protection stuck with me even during my agnostic years.

    I was still agnostic when my son was born. I remember singing to him as I rocked him to sleep. The tune was “What a friend we have in Jesus.” But I changed the words: “What a friend we have in Mama, all our wants and needs to bear. What a privilege to carry JP to the rocking chair. Oh, what peace we often forfeit. Oh, what needless pain we bear all because we do not carry JP to the rocking chair.”

    It took me a long time to come back to prayer, not until my son was well into adolescence — a “God help us” moment. Fortunately, He found his way to prayer at about the same time.

    1. Loretta, how beautiful. I always see the lullabyes I sing to my kids as prayers for protection, too. Those are prayers for me more than for them. I am going to sing your Jesus tender shepherd song to them tonight. Thank you for that little gift.

  5. Each night my kids (and me too) talk about 1) things we are thankful for, 2)things we are proud of, 3) things we learned (or are wondering about) and 4) people we know who need some extra special thoughts for healing or joy. Sometimes they like to add the extra category of “funny thoughts” when they are extra silly, but all in all, it is a time we look forward to that keeps us connected to each other and the world around us in a mindful way. I like the idea of talking about things we are sorry for or those we are worried about, but I am afraid they may dwell on them and be anxious as they try to fall asleep. Has that been an issue at all for your kiddos?

    1. Malia, welcome. I’m so glad you asked. My kids rarely have anything to say that’s at all serious in the “things I’m sorry for” column. When they do, I give them the assurance that I get when I do confessional prayer in church. I tell them that they are loved by me, even when they do things I don’t like, and that nothing can separate them from the love of God. But that’s where I am spiritually, as a Universalist, so I say the God part with sincerity (recognizing the limitations of that symbol, as I expanded on above).

      I’m really glad you asked about the “worry” part. I want them to pray for people that they know could use some love and support, and I don’t want them to go to bed dwelling on their worries. My daughter Cecilia said last night that she has a worry stone, so she doesn’t need to say that part of the prayer….that she has no worries anymore. I think she might have been speaking up for her own needs to not worry herself to sleep. I want her to have empathy for others’ suffering, not dwell in her own. But she’s 6, so developmentally the world revolves around her. I think I will try “people we know who need some extra special thoughts for healing or joy” like you do tonight. That’s what I’m going for, but it has the wrong effect. THANK YOU so much for that, and for your thoughtful comment!

  6. Robin…
    I am very moved by your recent blog entry…timing is perfect as it follows on a deepening conversation we had in worship committee regarding prayer. Since joining UUAC I have introduced ‘grace’ at our dinner table…we take turns reciting it ‘thank you Creator for the food we are about to receive, for the gifts of love, family and friends’ and Emma usually likes to throw in ‘…and the great teachers I get to have’!! I have also begin nightly prayer with Emma that constitutes similar things as you describe; what we are grateful for, who needs our ‘special’love and good thoughts today? And one goal for an even better tomorrow. I believe emphatically that teaching, supporting and fostering a sense of deep, abiding gratitude for life’s gifts, honoring relationships, and living with a constant pay-it-forward approach are the ways in which I connect and help my daughter connect to the divine. I agree that I want her to have a strong spiritual foundation to rely on especially if and when other aspects of her life seem wavering, unclear or challenging.

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