Because if this little atheist group spent five minutes reading or talking about prayer, they would understand why prayer is actually a very powerful tool for promoting children's development. Because, honestly, although I'm a Christian, I’m not sure how much I believe that God “answers” prayers. He may listen, but will He produce a certain outcome because I asked him to? In my opinion, probably not.
Which is why I write this as a psychologist and life coach for gifted young people: prayer has some major benefits for children (and adults!) who pray, and some of the most important psychology studies ever confirm this.
As I wrote in There is No Benefit to Having Self-Esteem,
"Walter Mischel's Marshmallow Test measured the responses of three- and four-year-old students who were told they could either have one marshmallow now... or two marshmallows, if they could wait for five minutes. Then they were left alone with the marshmallow.
The immediate results were interesting -- kids who waited were more successful in school, popular with peers and highly-rated by teachers. But that's not what made the study revolutionary -- what made it revolutionary was that Mischel then followed the kids for the next thirty years.
The results? Kids who passed the test were richer as adults. More educated. More likely to be married. More likely to be happy. They scored higher on the SATs. They led healthier lifestyles and had a greater sense of self-worth.
Meanwhile, kids who failed were less likely to have good relationships or be employed. They were, however, more likely to have gone to jail."
In other words, the ability to wait and exercise self-control, ego regulation and patience is one of the most important skills a child can have.
What's this have to do with prayer?
Children who pray are taught that, sure, they can ask God for whatever they want – and that God’s answer will either be yes, no, or not yet. In other words, kids who pray for something may be full of hope... but they are completely prepared to wait.
In that way, prayer is like a spiritual version of the marshmallow test. It teaches you to wait. It teaches you to be patient. It teaches you to take no for an answer.
Meaning that teaching a child to pray could ultimately increase their relationship satisfaction, lifetime earning potential and educational attainment -- while decreasing their chances of going to jail.
2. Prayer teaches accountability, responsibility and perspective-taking.
A major part of prayer is confessing your sins to God and asking for His forgiveness.
What this means is that, through prayer, kids consciously practice taking accountability for their own actions – something that is difficult for many adults!
This is important for children because it makes them more mature. It teaches them that many of their life outcomes are in their control, and they are not passive recipients of whatever happens. It teaches them not to make excuses. And it makes them happier.
People who take more accountability over their lives and actions are happier than people who feel powerless and prefer to blame others. They feel empowered to try new approaches and seek solutions to life's difficulties. You learn that you have the power to shape your own life, develop your character and learn from your mistakes, instead of simply passing the blame on to someone else.
And! If you’re willing and able to admit when you were wrong, you tend to have better relationships than those who refuse to take the blame.
Additionally, the act off confessing and asking for forgiveness encourages kids to think about their actions from another perspective. Why did I commit that sin? What effect did it have on me? How did it affect my friends/parents/whoever? As Dr. Ellen Galinsky writes in her award-winning book, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, perspective-taking is a key traits of highly successful and healthy children.
3. Prayer fosters a growth mindset.
In The Most Important STEM Toy You Could Possibly Give Your Child Has Nothing To Do With STEM, I wrote
One of the most important psychology studies of all time is Carol Dweck's research on theories of intelligence. She discovered that children tend to adopt one of two theories (or mindsets) of intelligence:
- Fixed mindset, or the idea that intelligence and abilities are set, and there's not much you can do to improve it.
- Growth mindset, or the belief that intelligence and abilities can improve the more you use them.
Children who have a fixed mindset are more likely to avoid taking chances and tackling challenges; they're more likely to give up in the face of hardship or failure; they're more likely to attribute failure to stable, internal, and unchangeable causes.
Here's the thing about STEM: however naturally gifted you are at it, you will eventually run into trouble. You will eventually struggle, or fail. When you get to the highest level of math, science or tech... things get hard. Things get trippy. And when you try to solve a problem no one's ever solved before... you're not going to get it right the first time.
Meaning that kids who have fixed mindsets are going to learn to avoid tough classes, projects, competitions and challenges. This is a recipe for frustration and disaster.
Meanwhile, kids who have a growth mindset are more eager to tackle hard problems and try things they haven't tried before. They're more likely to keep trying when they don't get it right the first time." Read more >
Clearly, it is better for kids to have a growth than a fixed mindset.
Prayer encourages that.
From an early age, kids who pray are taught that they will make mistakes every single day. It is impossible not to. And rather than get frustrated by it, they should learn from it and think about ways to do better next time.
This is exactly the kind of thought exercise that will help your child develop a creative, entrepreneurial mind.
4. Prayer teaches goal setting.
Goals are super important for children and teenagers. Studies show that goal-setting is one of the most highly correlated traits of peak performers and successful individuals, and that goal-setting helps kids gain self-discipline and an internal drive to stay motivated to complete the tasks they’ve set out to do.
Yet some studies show that fewer than 20% of children and teens set goals for themselves.
This, too, is something that prayer helps with.
Part of prayer is asking God for blessings. "Please help me do well in my soccer game."
"Please help me understand the math for my test." "Please help me have fun at summer camp."
Even if kids don’t explicitly work through SMART goal setting (that is, setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound), asking God for help encourages kids to think about how He can help. Does that mean practicing my free throws? Does it mean getting up a little early to review my notes one more time? Does it mean making an extra effort to be more social and talk to more people I don't know?
Asking God for help and blessings encourages kids to think about what matters to them, and what they need to do to get there.
What atheists don’t seem to understand is that no Christian I’ve ever met thinks working hard for something and praying for something are mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary: one important value in Christianity is to honor God through good deeds and hard work.
In that was, prayer does the opposite of creating adults who don’t know how to solve problems.
5. Prayer teaches gratitude and humility, and keeps the ego in check.
So you’ve set a goal, you’ve asked God for help, you’ve worked hard, and you’ve accomplished your goal. Or maybe you haven’t – maybe you studied hard and you still didn’t ace the test.
Christians now pray to thank God for the outcome -- whatever and however it happened. Just because my team lost, doesn't mean I can't thank God for helping me with my focus when I shot my free throws. Just because I didn't ace the test, doesn't mean I can't be thankful for the parts I did do well.
Children who pray are taught to thank God for their victories and their losses.
In other words, prayer teaches kids to appreciate what they have, and not just what they want.
Psychology studies show that gratitude is important -- and that it can be deliberately cultivated. This isn't to say that prayer is the only way to cultivate gratitude, but it is certainly one very powerful way.
Once people learn to express gratitude, their physical health improves. Their mood improves. Their mental health improves. Here are some more specific, research-supported benefits to gratitude:
• Stronger immune systems
• Less bothered by aches and pains
• Lower blood pressure
• Exercise more and take better care of their health
• Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More alert, alive, and awake
• More joy and pleasure
• More optimism and happiness
• More helpful, generous, and compassionate
• More forgiving
• More outgoing
• Feel less lonely and isolated.
To learn more about the benefits of gratitude, check out Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by psychologist and world gratitude expert Robert Emmons.
6. Prayer teaches acceptance.
Let’s take a moment to remember the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
And let’s look at some of the language Christians use to talk about prayer:
"Give it to God."
"It was God's plan."
Or, as I've sung so many times in "What a Friend We Have in Jesus,"
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Ev'rything to God in prayer!
In church, we are often reminded that the Lord will only give us what we can handle – when it feels like too much, you use prayer to share the burden with God. What happened, happened. But I know I can handle this, because I have faith in Jesus.
Acceptance is one of the major components of mindfulness, well-being and happiness. And it is a great way to move past an unfortunate event, rather than dwell and ruminate over it.
In fact, Olivia Fox Cabane wrote in The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism that the two best ways to overcome stress, fear, anxiety, heartbreak, and other negative emotions are:
- Cognitive reframing.
- Imagine giving the burden to a higher power -- God if you believe in him, and someone (or something) else if you don't.
Somehow, I feel like praying to a God you believe in is going to work better than pretending to believe in the power of the universe to relieve your burden. But at the same time, it's interesting to me that imagining a universe/power thingie that you don't actually believe in can provide measurable relief -- and makes me even more convinced of the power of prayer to increase our ability to accept what we cannot change and let go of our problems.
So there you have it. Decades of influential psychology search, and how they apply to prayer. And, sure, there are other techniques you could use to let go of your negative feelings or develop better goal-setting skills. But prayer is certainly a powerful one – and, when combined with all of the other benefits described here, the mere act of prayer is one that can reduce a child’s stress while increasing their resilience, cognitive development and problem solving skills.
I think there are a few morals here:
- Don’t say ignorant stuff about other peoples’ viewpoints, beliefs and values without spending five minutes on Google, first.
- Just because you don’t do something, doesn’t mean people who do are stupid, wrong or bad.
- Whatever your thoughts on God and Christianity, there is no denying the power of prayer.