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Parenting Perspective: Teach Your Children Prayer & Fasting

I'm writing this post today on the heels of a failed family fast, which I'll write more about at the end of the post, but I've found one of the best ways to learn is from our mistakes. We've done successful family fasts in the past, but this one has just been embarrassing. In full transparency, I hope to help you build prayer and fasting into the DNA of your family, understanding that life happens and sometimes we just have to pick ourselves back up and keep going. So...

How do you teach prayer and fasting to your children? It's a basic foundation of the Christian faith, but teaching about it can be tricky because we have the following sayings of Jesus to guide us:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." -Matthew 6:5-6

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." -Matthew 6:16-18

So, if we're to be unseen and unnoticed when we fast and pray, how can we teach our children how to understand this spiritual discipline?

These sayings of Jesus can be misinterpreted to mean we can't ever talk about prayer and fasting or demonstrate it to our children and families. The point of what Jesus said is that we aren't to brag about our fasting and publicly show how difficult it is for us. We're to do our best to carry on with our lives in a typical way, as much as it's within our power to do.

For example, if you were to do a three-day fast, you wouldn't go on Instagram and announce it. You'd likely chose a time when it was as convenient as possible for your family, provide foods they could easily prepare for themselves, and talk to them about it ahead of time. You could tell them you plan to spend meal times in your Bible study chair to focus on prayer, but you'd be available to them otherwise.

Here are some other suggestions for how to handle a three-day fast with your family:

  • Start with reading Isaiah 58 together. I like The Message version for teaching children. Explain the benefits of fasting with a heart to show your love for God and others.

  • Explain that when we fast, we allow hunger to draw us closer to the Lord, praying through it. It's not a great idea for growing children to skip meals, but an adult's body is already grown and just needs to be maintained. It doesn't harm most adults to skip a few meals, but it actually allows our bodies to heal and gets our attention off food and on Jesus.

  • Share that you'll also be avoiding screens as much as possible, with the exception of your phone and computer for necessary communication. Invite them to join you in fasting by giving up their screens for three days, too. Toddlers aren't likely to understand fasting, but children as young as elementary school can usually comprehend it and make a choice for themselves.

  • If they agree to join you, invite them to write down their prayer requests on slips of paper and put them up on a blank wall space. Then, when they start complaining about how bored they are, point them to the wall and take a few minutes to pray out loud together for the prayer requests. It's also a great time to check out Christian books and devotionals from the library to read when they get bored.

  • In addition to teaching them the basics of fasting, explain that not eating for three days might make you feel a little grumpy, possibly light-headed, and more tired than usual. Ask them to give you extra grace and promise to do your best to keep those feelings to yourself. Explain that if you're feeling extra-grumpy and struggling to keep it under control, you might go for a walk or take a long bath to help get your focus on God and off how you feel.

  • Consider collecting things in your home to give to those in need and going as a family to donate them to a homeless shelter. Another idea is to go to a nursing home and visit the residents, bringing them a small gift or singing for them. If it's cold outside, you could go as a family and hand out cups of hot chocolate and/or soup, hand warmers, or other comfort items to the homeless.

If you start a fast and suddenly you or your children get sick, in my experience it's probably best to officially stop the fast and set a new time to try again. That's what happened with us this time. We were doing an extended media fast when sickness got the better of us. I tried to do a Daniel fast and discovered that really doesn't work for my blood sugar issues, causing me to feel exceptionally bad. (I ended that fast several days early because no amount of adjustments I made helped.) We didn't feel good enough to do much of anything, so we watched television. It was one sickness after the next all month. In addition, our children are older now and need things on their computers that they've never needed before. That taught me that it's important to take into account your children's changing needs and developmental levels and adjust accordingly.

Typically, when we've done extended media fasts, an amazing thing happens. Our children stop fighting with one another and start playing creatively together. Their imaginations take off, and we hear laughter, collaboration, and creativity, rather than fighting. It's a beautiful thing.

It's important to show our children that we learn from our mistakes, we repent when we get off track, and we get up and try again. Failure isn't permanent, and God is gracious and forgiving. An attitude of prayer can help us overcome any difficulty we face. If you've discussed your fast with your children and for whatever reason, you're unable to fulfill it, it's important to talk to them about what happened and why. It can be very hurtful to hear a parent make a commitment to spiritual practice and then not fulfill it. A brief conversation about it can go a long way to helping them understand and have grace, even if it's just - hey, I got really hungry and I forgot to turn to the Lord to pray through it. I tried to do it in my own strength and that didn't work. Children can be very forgiving when you're honest.

Have you taught your children to fast and pray? If so, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. Please feel free to share your success or failures, too. We can all learn from one another.


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