I was asked a question about prayer from a mom who also works with children. Her concern was about how to pray for/with children who are performance-driven.
We see a lot of that, especially in American society. I’m not sure about other places in the world, but in the United States, we have a way of raising competitive, driven, perfectionist performers from a very early age.
What Does Performance Look Like?
When children are performance-driven, this can lead to all kinds of behavior that is not biblical fruit of the Spirit. And the fruit of the Spirit should be how we measure our behavior. If something is not producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, it is not led by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Think about the fruit you might see in a performance-driven child. The fruit can vary depending on the personality of the child, situations at home, family history, and more. But here are a few examples: anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, inappropriate appetite (either stress eating or lack of appetite), addictions (which can take many forms), meanness, lying, manipulation, intolerance of others, self-hatred, pushiness, irritability, inability to focus, emotional instability, self-injury, and so many other struggles.
Whatever form it takes, and whatever the immediate causes may be, performance-driven behavior ultimately runs on a lie the child believes deep in his or her heart: “I have to perform in order to be loved.”
As a parent, you might wonder, “How can my child not know he or she is loved!”
There can be many reasons for this lie to take hold in a child’s heart. No matter how good you are at parenting, children misunderstand things and react to things. Look at God – the best parent ever. And look how we, His kids, behave. If you see performance-driven behavior in your child, don’t let the enemy win by beating yourself up. There are powerful ways to pray and invite Jesus to turn things around.
Why Do Children Think They Have to Earn Love?
It might help to realize how children begin to misunderstand, react, and take lies into their hearts. This happens because every child is conceived in the womb with free will. From that moment on, the child is brought into a sinful world. And what a way to enter that world – without a fully formed brain, without the ability of speech, without an understanding of emotions, and without knowledge of God’s Word. If it weren’t for Jesus, we’d all be a train wreck.
Reflect for a moment on what it might be like for a little one in the womb. She hears voices around her, and those voices might express any number of emotions. She senses things from mom and dad. Even parents with the best intentions will have bad days, fears, worries, and sinful reactions to things that happen. The little one in the womb picks up on all of this. Add in the fact that some sins carry down through the generational lines, and the child is already being harassed by the enemy because of this.
The little one doesn’t have cognitive abilities to understand what’s going on or know how to express emotions in healthy ways. (Most of us can’t even do that as adults!) Instead, the little one just reacts to whatever is happening. Seeds of behavior get planted in the child’s heart, and now the enemy has a project: To nurture those seeds in the child, rather than allowing the fruit of the Spirit to grow.
God Has a Plan!
Of course, the enemy isn’t the only one with a plan. God has a plan too! And from the moment of that child’s conception, Jesus is on the move. He is ready to help that child take truth into her heart, rather than lies. This is where your prayers come in. You can invite Jesus to help your performance-driven child learn that he is unconditionally loved by God. And that there is nothing he needs to do to earn love. He is loved just for who he is. (As adults, we need to learn that too, for ourselves.)
Extremes of Performance
Performance can take extremes as well. Some children will bend over backwards in the effort to earn love. They believe love is available, but they also believe they have to drive themselves into the ground just to find it. When they are “rewarded” for their performance, that immediate feeling of love doesn’t last. They are already trying to earn the next reward.
On the other extreme are children who don’t believe love is available to them. I was one of those children. They perform to avoid punishment. They constantly worry when the next shoe will drop, and they race and perform to stay ahead of that. This can happen even in a loving home. My parents loved me and were kind to me. But my mom was emotionally unpredictable. Somehow in my little heart, I came to associate that with fear. I tried everything in my power to prevent an emotional outburst from my mom, which was way too scary for me. Do you see how this stuff happens?
Not only does performance or driven behavior hurt your kids in childhood. If it’s not taken care of by Jesus, it will stay with them into adulthood. Then it just multiplies and takes on so much dysfunction. However, if you start praying with your children now regarding performance, and help them learn the truth – that they are unconditionally loved by God – not only are you saving them a lot of grief now. You are also helping them have much less strife as future adults.
Praying for Jesus to Help Your Child
How do you pray for/with performance-driven children? Ultimately the Holy Spirit will have to lead you, but here are some suggestions to help you get started:
1. Pray the truth with them. Pray God’s Word. Help them hear, in the words He gives us, that God loves them unconditionally. John 3:16 is always a great place to start. Pray this verse with your children. Help them pray it out loud. Help them turn this verse into a prayer about God’s unconditional love. And teach them what “unconditional” means.
Help your child know that when the Bible says, “God so loved the world” that He means your child specifically. Put your child’s name into the verse. Keep praying this until the truth gets into your child’s heart.
It’s important for you to realize the difference between “heart” and “head.” Your child may have learned John 3:16 in Sunday school (that’s “head” learning). But now your performance-driven child needs to get this truth into his little heart. It’s easy for a child who has learned about the Bible to “know” something about God without believing it with his own heart. (For performance-driven children, this tendency can be magnified, as many of them will try to memorize Bible verses in order to please their parents or teachers, without believing the Bible verses in their own hearts.)
Then look for other Bible verses – there are many! – that teach about God’s unconditional love. Zephaniah 3:17 is a great one. It talks about how God sings over your child. How awesome! And how God brings peace to your child’s heart by His love. It would be wonderful to help your child pray and sing this verse back to God.
Psalm 139:13-18 helps children realize God has been with them from conception (and they were in His heart already, even before that moment). This Bible passage teaches your children how God carefully and lovingly planned and created their life. Depending on the age of your child, you may have to help put this Bible passage into words they can understand. I recommend that you pray over these verses first, and really hear God’s heart. Hear His love for each person that is so clear in these verses. Then help your child hear God’s heart through this beautiful Psalm.
Whichever Bible verses you choose, help your child hear God’s unconditional love specifically for her. Help your child make it personal. Be sure you read and pray it from the Bible. It’s fine (and necessary) to teach these things to your child, using your own words. But your child also needs to hear it from God directly, in His own words. That biblical truth, prayed straight from the Bible, has a spiritual power that will take root in your child’s heart. That truth will counteract the lies. Pray it, sing it, read it together. Then on your own time as well, pray those verses for your child, in intercession, putting your child’s name in each verse.
2. Help your child recognize the ways he performs to earn love. Help him see how this is affecting him. Do this prayerfully and filled with love. The enemy will try and use this to heap shame and more self-loathing on your child. So help your child recognize performance, but in a way that is healthy and loving. Help your child know that he is forgiven and that Jesus is here to help make things better. Give your child permission to be exactly who God has created him to be. Then pray together. Here is a sample prayer, but it’s always best if you let the Holy Spirit lead you in your prayers together:
God, thank you for showing me that I’ve been trying to earn your love. And thank you that I don’t have to earn love. What a relief! God, you love me just for who I am. Not because of what I do or don’t do. You just love me. Period! You made me exactly the way I am, and you are so happy about that! Help me to feel your love in my heart every day. Help me to love myself the same way you love me. Jesus, I know you live in my heart. Teach me about your unconditional love. Amen
3. Help your child to realize that she learned performance somewhere in her young life. She may have learned it from someone, and she may even know where it came from. The Holy Spirit might show her, or you. Either way, help your child pray to forgive whoever taught her to perform. (If the Lord shows you some responsibility in this, repent to your child.)
Even if she doesn’t know where it came from, she can still pray, “God, I don’t know who taught this to me, but you do. I want to forgive those people.” (That prayer alone might bring specific situations and people to mind, for further prayers of forgiveness.) And then have your child apologize to God for deciding to perform to earn love: “Jesus, I am sorry that I’ve been trying to perform to earn love. Thank you that you forgive me. Help me to just be who I am and to be filled with your love.”
Then you can be God’s messenger: Tell your child, in your own words and from your own heart, that you love your child just for who he is. That you are proud of your child just because of who she is. Children need to hear this. They need to hear it from you. And they need to hear it more than once.
4. Then pray together and invite Jesus to show His love to your child every day. Jesus will do this. He will absolutely answer this prayer. Jesus wants to show your child how much He loves him. So pray and invite Him to do this. Help your child to pray this directly to Jesus. And then on your own time, pray it for your child as well.
Jesus will show His love to your child in different ways. It might be through a Bible verse, or He might put words of love in her heart. She might have a dream that tells her God loves her. Jesus might show love through people who encourage her. Through friends who show unconditional love. Or it might be an overall feeling of being loved.
But trust that Jesus will answer this prayer, and He knows the best ways to answer it. Keep your eyes open and watch for what Jesus does. Help your child to recognize how Jesus shows His unconditional love. Notice it and celebrate it together. The more your child sees and feels Jesus’ love and takes it into his heart, the more he will accept that he is truly loved by God.
Let the Holy Spirit Lead
These suggestions barely scratch the surface. And they are just suggestions. Be careful not to turn these prayers into another type of performance – a religious performance. These prayers are meant to help you and your child simply connect with Jesus so He can heal a performance-driven heart. Remember that you don’t need to pray more, or prayer harder, to earn God’s love in response.
Just sit together with your child and share your hearts together with God. He will meet you there. Jesus knows what to do, and you can trust Him with your child’s heart. As much as you love your child, God loves your child infinitely more than you can imagine. And He is so proud and pleased with your child – just for who your child is.
For Teachers: A Word of Caution
Everything I have shared here is geared toward praying with your own children. But for those who are reading this, who work with children in a spiritual environment, you may be wanting to pray for these children as well. For teachers, I would add two words of caution:
First, it’s best if you and the parents are on the same page with this teaching and with these prayers. Whenever you are praying for deep issues of the heart, other issues can come up. So it’s best if the parents are involved in this process wherever possible.
Secondly, this teaching and these prayers should be offered in an environment where children understand how to honor their parents (Deuteronomy 5:16). Getting free of performance issues is not about placing blame on someone else. It’s about repenting for how we ourselves have responded to situations. And it’s about forgiving the people who have taught us to perform. It should be done in a loving and honoring way. These prayers shouldn’t become an excuse for anger, resentment, or rebellion.
Adults Can Pray This Too!
One final thought – If you, as an adult, recognize performance tendencies in your own life, you can pray all of this for yourself as well. You were taught performance somewhere in your childhood. Just as you pray these prayers with your child, on your own time you can pray them for yourself – and maybe ask your spouse or a trusted friend to pray with you. Jesus can show His unconditional love to your heart, so you too will stop believing the lie that you have to perform to earn His love. If you let Jesus break you free of your performance tendencies, this freedom will affect your children spiritually as well.