We have to accept what the Psalm says and what a child knows: the Father delights in us
Peter was three years old that summer, and while he was quite sure that he wanted to go to the pool with his brother and sisters, he was not at all sure that he wanted to get in once we were there. He had his suit on and his flotation device (far more effective and less miserable than the plastic floaties we had to pull over wet skin in my day), and while his siblings splashed and giggled and began their incessant shouts of, “Watch this!” he stood by the side of the pool and sobbed.
He didn’t want to get in! He screamed it again and again. But I know exactly what happens when you let a child pout by the side of the pool: he decides that he wants to get in after all—on the ride home. Unwilling to deal with that tantrum for the next few days, I gently suggested that he just put the bottoms of his feet in the water.
Eventually he did just that. And after 10 minutes on the first step, he climbed down another. Then another and another, until he was clinging to me for dear life, screaming with terror if I relaxed my grip.
But after an hour or so, he began to feel comfortable. So he allowed himself to be put down, floating in the water two feet from the nearest adult—far enough that he couldn’t grab on. He was brave and independent and simply delighted with himself.
We told him, of course, how very proud we were, how brave he was, how wonderful it was that he had done a scary thing. We called his parents (who were on vacation) and told them all about how he went swimming all by himself. Everybody was suitably impressed, gushing over his courage.
That night, Peter and I were getting ready for bed. As we prayed together, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to tell God. He looked up at me bashfully and asked, his face brimming over with nearly-suppressed pride, “Could you please tell God how brave I was?”
My heart bursting with the beauty and innocence of it, I did. I recounted the story to the Father, as though he hadn’t watched it all unfold, and I watched Peter bask in the glow of the Father’s love. He sat up straighter, prouder even than when we had talked to his dad about his adventure earlier that day.
When I was finished praying, I asked, “Do you think God’s proud of you, Peter?”
His hand on his very full heart, his eyes closed, he nodded, smiling. “He’s really proud of me!”
I think about that prayer a lot, when I’m floundering, wondering what I can talk to God about or trying to find the fancy words that seem to befit his majesty. I think about how my heart thrilled to hear Peter’s desire to share his heart with the Father. I think how God himself must have been delighted at the simplicity and honesty and pure joy of that moment. I think of how very, very proud the Lord must have been, both of Peter’s earlier courage and of his desire to share that with the God he loves.
And then I wonder how much of my prayer is that simple, childlike sharing of my heart. Not just in times of joy, but in fear and anguish and fury. I’ve known preschoolers whose attempt to offer things up wasn’t saccharine but disconsolate, sobbing, “Jesus, I am doing this for you!” as they tried to accept the loss of a Popsicle or the pain of a skinned knee. I’ve watched children tearfully beg God’s mercy for minor slights committed earlier in the day, then smile knowing that they’re forgiven. I’ve listened to delightfully honest prayers, where children ask, “God, please help me be good at church, but not good all the time.”
Praying with children is remarkably edifying for those who’ve been cautioned to “become as little children” (Mt 18:2). Because as much as we want to be strong and independent, mystics and doctors of the Church, what our good God really wants is for us to be children who are confident in their Father’s love. He wants us to bring him our trivial triumphs and excessive agonies. He wants us to share our lives with him, to invite him into the mundane as well as the momentous.
One of the concerns I hear most often about prayer is that people don’t want to tell God things he already knows. But God doesn’t get bored with our prayers. He longs to hear our voice, wants to hold us and love us and be the object of our attention for a moment. When we bring him our real selves, the God of the universe delights. And if we, like Peter, can begin to trust that he is tremendously pleased with us, prayer might begin to feel more natural, more beautiful, more real.