Four year old Judah has a stuffed tiger he has lugged around since he could carry anything. It started out about the same size as he was at birth, but seems to have suffered a little stuffing-porosis. He is limper and his body parts seem a bit more disjointed, as if someone had hugged on him for years, mashing him into whatever odd posture it took for him to lie cheek to cheek with a loving little towhead. He is still cute—a long head at least half the size of his body with a cartoon-dufus face and a big black nose. His stripes these days are a little more pale yellow and gray than orange and black, but there is no mistaking what he is: a four year old's favorite "buddy."
Sometime this past year, the tiger got a name—Lucky. Lucky makes it out of the bed every morning and though he is often cast aside as his small master plays during the day, he always makes it back to bed. And for some reason, he makes it to the table too.
When we were there this past babysitting stint, as we joined hands to pray over our meal, Lucky, for the first time, had his paw held too. Judah very carefully held on to one paw and laid Lucky out across the large table so his Granddad could grasp the other paw and complete the circle. "Ah," I thought. "Something in that little four year old mind has changed.
If you pooh-pooh your child's favorite buddy, you are missing something important. I may not be a child psychologist, but I did have my own imaginary friends when I was growing up, so I know a thing or two about this. Those imaginary friends are anything but imaginary to your little one. They are best friends. They protect. They comfort. They listen. They even talk. Why, Lucky even played a hand of "Go Fish" while we were there. This is your child's first close relationship with someone not family. He is learning what it means to be a friend, to be loyal, and to love as friends love. So when something becomes important to your child, he wants to share it with that special friend.
Because Judah sees us praying, because he sees his mom and dad pray, because he sees a room full of friendly faces praying every week, he has learned that praying is important. What concept does he have of God at this age? Probably the usual, "God made me-God loves me" impression that most toddlers who have been to church since they were born have. That doesn't matter. What does matter is that he wants to share his understanding with his special friend. It is a normal part of his life, his little brain is thinking, so naturally Lucky would want to do this too. If he can play Go Fish, certainly he can pray.
"It's a normal part of his life." That is important. Your child should see you interacting with God on a daily basis--in prayer, in study, in family discussions, in decisions you make. That is how you instill faith in him. If he grows up seeing these things, more than likely, he will do them too. And since he believes his little friend can do exactly what he can do, letting Lucky pray will validate in his little mind--even though he has no idea what those words mean--both his relationship with his friend Lucky and his relationship with God. If you disregard Lucky, whom he can see, how in the world can you expect him to believe in a God he doesn't yet know how to see? Letting Lucky pray will make God become as real to him as Lucky already has, and eventually, the only real one of the two.
And it may all start if you just reach your hand out and grasp a well-loved paw over the dinner table.
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, (Ps 103:17)