In his book “Duties for Parents,” J.C. Ryle encourages parents to take seriously the admonishment in Proverbs 22:6 to “Train up a child in the way he should go” because, as the verse continued, “when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Ryle explained that this promise applied both for good and for ill – early training would help the child right into adulthood, but bad habits fostered by parental neglect would also have a lasting impact.
Now, this might seem an ominous verse, knowing that we parents are far from perfect. But God is not calling us to perfection here. He is, however, making it plain that He has given us an awesome and wonderful task, to be taken on with great seriousness.
In the excerpt below from his book, Ryle urges parents to train their children to pray.
Prayer is the very life-breath of true religion. It is one of the first evidences that a man is born again. When the Lord sent Ananias to Saul, He told Ananias: “Behold, he is praying” (Acts 9.11" data-version="esv" data-purpose="bible-reference">Acts 9:11). Saul had begun to pray, and that was proof enough.
Prayer is a key to spiritual growth. When there is lots of private communion with God, your soul will grow like the grass after rain; when there is little, all will be at a standstill – you will barely keep your soul alive. Show me a growing Christian, a strong Christian, a flourishing Christian, and I will show you one that speaks regularly with his Lord. He asks much, and he has much. He tells Jesus everything, and so he always knows how to act.
Prayer is the mightiest engine God has placed in our hands. It is the best weapon to use in every difficulty, and the surest remedy in every trouble. It is the cry He has promised to always be listening for, even as a loving mother listens for the voice of her child.
Prayer is the simplest means that man can use to come to God. It is within the reach of all of us – the sick, the aged, the infirm, the paralytic, the blind, the poor, the unlearned – everyone can pray. You don’t have to be academic or an intellectual to pray. So long as you have a tongue to tell God about the state of your soul, you can and you ought to pray. Those words, ” You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4.2" data-version="esv" data-purpose="bible-reference">James 4:2), will condemn many on the Day of Judgment.
Parents, if you love your children, do all that lies in your power to train them up to a habit of prayer. Show them how to begin. Tell them what to say. Encourage them to persevere. Remind them if they become negligent and slack about it.
This, remember, is the very first step in religion that a child can take themselves. Long before he can read, you can teach him to kneel by his mother’s side, and repeat the simple words of prayer and praise which she puts in his mouth. And as the first steps in any undertaking are always the most important, so is the manner in which your children’s prayers are prayed, a point which deserves your closest attention.
Few seem to understand how much depends on this. We must beware of our children saying their prayers in haste, or carelessly, or irreverently. You must be cautious too, of leaving your children to say their prayers on their own, without you in the room. We must make certain they are actually saying their prayers.
Surely if there’s any habit which your own hand and eye should be involved in forming, it is the habit of prayer. If you never hear your children pray yourself, then for any negligence on their part, you are much to blame. You are little wiser than the bird described in Job 39.14-16" data-version="esv" data-purpose="bible-reference">Job 39:14-16:
For she abandons her eggs to the earth
And warms them in the dust,
And she forgets that a foot may crush them,
Or that a wild beast may trample them.
She treats her young cruelly, as if they were not hers;
Though her labor be in vain, she is unconcerned;
Prayer is, of all habits, the one which we remember the longest. Many a grey-headed man could tell you how his mother used to make him pray in the days of his childhood. He’ll have forgotten so many other things. The church where he was first taken to worship, the minister he first heard preach, the friends he used to play with – all may have been forgotten and left no mark behind.
But you will often find it is far different with his first prayers. He will often be able to tell you where he knelt, and what he was taught to say, and even how his mother looked all the while. It will come up as fresh before his mind’s eye as if it was but yesterday.
Reader, if you love your children, I charge you, do not let his early years pass without training him to pray. If you train your children in anything, then train them, at the very least, to make a habit of prayer.
This is a modernized excerpt from J.C. Ryle’s article (and then book) “Duties of Parents” first published in 1888.