In Teaching Spirituality to Children: Part I, we explored the meaning of spirituality and its active expression through ceremony and storytelling. In this post, we look at prayer, meditation, and mindfulness as additional ways to incorporate spirituality into daily family living.
What is your experience with prayer? As a child did you have bedtime and/or mealtime prayers? Did you pray alone, or always with one or more family members? Did you pray in church? Did you memorize any prayers? What kind of impact did praying usually have for you? Do you recall as a child any powerful moments while praying when you felt the presence of the Divine–deep peace, extraordinary joy, amazing comfort? Were you ever frightened when praying? Did you feel your prayers were answered? Did you become disillusioned with prayer?
These are just a few questions to get you reconnected with your childhood experiences with prayer. If you want to teach your children to pray, you first need to be comfortable with praying yourself. If you already have a rich and deep prayer life, teaching your children to pray will be easier. However, learning to pray along with your children can be an extremely rewarding process for all of you.
The field of psychology has only recently shown an interest in studying the effects of prayer. Thanks to the pioneering book Character Strengths and Virtues by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, the school of positive psychology emerged. Positive psychology focuses on understanding and promoting practices that contribute to harmony, goodwill, generosity, kindness, compassion, and any other characteristics that elevate human consciousness. If you are interested in learning more about the power of prayer, Google “psychological studies of prayer,” and you will find hundreds to review. The overwhelming finding from these studies is certain types of prayer have measurable and long-term psychological benefits.
There are basically two types of prayer–prayers of asking and prayers of thanking. Prayers of asking can be for self or others. Prayers of asking usually have a specific, concrete outcome in mind such as the healing of a sick relative. Teaching children prayers of asking can be problematic from a psychological standpoint because if a child prays for a specific outcome that does not happen, self-doubt, disappointment, and disillusionment are apt to arise. So, if you engage in intercessory prayer with a child, I recommend you tell the child what he or she wants may not be what is best for everyone, and to trust that whatever the results of the prayer are, his or her prayer was heard and in some way made a positive contribution to the outcome.
There is a type of prayer of asking which avoids these pitfalls. I call it a prayer of opening because the intent of the prayer is to open yourself to seeing a painful, difficult situation differently so you can be peaceful, comforted, reassured, or enlightened. You simply ask your Source to help you see this person, situation, or event differently so you have clarity and understanding. This way of praying enables you to step back and take responsibility for your state of mind and to move from fear to trust. Essentially, this is a prayer of recognition and receptivity. You recognize that you do not know enough to judge the outcome and you trust you will be able to access your inner Knowing or your Source to guide you. From there trust, which is the absence of fear, becomes the state of mind you maintain and nourish as you move forward.
Teaching young children a prayer of opening is actually quite uncomplicated because they are usually more trusting and open-minded than most adults. As an example, let’s say a beloved family dog is extremely sick. The child wants to pray for the dog to get well. What do you say or do? You could say, “Ok, let’s pray for Fido to get well. Let’s remember though, we don’t know for sure what is best for Fido, so let’s also ask to be able to accept whatever happens and believe it is best for Fido.”
Prayers of thanking are straightforward in that you express gratitude, joy, appreciation, praise, or any other expression of thankfulness to the Divine. This type of prayer is very important if you want to inculcate in your children humility and a sense of connectedness with a Higher Power. So many of today’s youth have a sense of entitlement which is the opposite of gratitude. Encountering an attitude of entitlement in a child is not a pleasant experience, and typically has an alienating, distancing effect. Whereas, a child who expresses appreciation connects him or her with other people and Divine Presence. Prayers of thanksgiving also instill in a child a sense of abundance which leads to generosity.
Meditation is a structured method for getting quiet inside and outside so as to be receptive to peace, clarity, joy, or the presence of the Divine. Teaching children to meditate involves more direct instruction because it has a consistent sequence of specific steps. I will be brief here because there is so much useful material available to teach children meditation. Google “teaching meditation to children” and you will find an overwhelming amount of information. Excellent instructional videos are available from numerous sources and from different religious traditions. Below is a guide to teaching meditation to children which is a prototype for most methods. As in teaching anything to children, setting the example is the most effective.
Guidelines for Teaching Meditation to Children
- Start teaching as early as age 5 with some children. At a minimum, the child needs to be able to sit still for one minute. At the younger ages, sometimes just getting the child to sit still for one minute is a good beginning.
- Choose a time of day when you are unlikely to have interruptions. Find a regular time when the child is apt to be most receptive. Before naptime, after breakfast or lunch, or before bedtime are good. Begin by helping the child find a comfortable position. It does not have to be a Yogic position and can be on the floor or in a chair, preferably a comfortable chair that supports the neck and shoulders. Watch carefully and see if the child keeps shifting positions because that usually means he or she is not comfortable. An erect posture is best. With very young children you can sit them in your lap or you can sit face to face. When children are around age 7+ and you do not need to watch them carefully, you can sit back to back.
- Ask the child to close his eyes and to pay attention to his breathing. Watch him inhale/exhale a few times. Tell the child that when he pays attention to his breathing, he magically starts breathing more slowly and deeply. Watch closely and see if he needs more encouragement to slow and deepen his breathing.
- When the child appears calm and is breathing rhythmically, you can introduce something for her to focus upon. The point of focus can be a word, an image, a phrase, or just her breathing. Ask the child what she would like to focus upon, because she may have a better idea than you do. Keep it as simple as possible though, and it is best if it is calming, soothing, pleasing, or harmonizing. If you focus just on the breathing you can tell a child when she breathes in, she is breathing in healing, loving, Divine energy, and when she breathes out, she is releasing any harmful, hurtful energy. Sometimes you can have a child focus on an object. I once taught an anxious 7-year old boy to meditate by giving him a smooth river rock to grasp in his hands. He chose his rock from a large bowl of river rocks. Holding the rock while breathing deeply was very effective because as he held the rock, he warmed it. I told him it was his strong, brave energy within him that warmed the rock, and he could take that wherever he went.
- In the beginning stages of teaching meditation, you end the session when you see the timing is right. Very young children can meditate for 1 to 3 minutes. By age 7, kids can last from 5 to 7 minutes. After that, a rule of thumb is one minute for each year of the child.
- Always be available to the child during and after the meditation session. Be prepared to answer any questions, and remind him or her to use their good energy throughout the day.
I define mindfulness as “meditating on the move.” The two most important aspects of mindfulness are alertness and being in the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced without reference to the Divine and still be useful and enriching. However, by incorporating the Divine into mindfulness you add the dimension of the sacred and holy. The beauty of mindfulness is you can practice it anywhere, at any time, in any circumstances, and during any activity. In fact, proponents of mindfulness recommend being mindful every minute of every day–whether you are washing dishes or on a nature hike. Once again, the best way to teach it is to be it.
Young children are naturally mindful so they are easy subjects. In fact, preschool children could teach us a few things about mindfulness if we pay enough attention. Have you ever taken a two or three-year-old for a walk? I have as a parent and as a grandparent. As a parent, I remember being impatient, because my son or daughter was not focused on getting from point A to point B. I remember frequently hurrying them when they tried to detour to smell a flower or say hello to a neighbor, or roll in some green grass. As a grandfather, I became a much more attentive companion. No longer in a constant hurry, I meandered and wandered right along with my grandchild. Here are a few suggestions for teaching mindfulness.
- When you are with your child, be fully present. You do this by observing, listening to, and participating with the child. Do not bring distractions like cell phones, computers, Chromebooks, or tablets.
- In any context with your child, feel free to express wonder, delight, curiosity, joy, assurance, or gratitude. These are all expressions of mindfulness. Being in nature is an easy portal to the Divine for many adults and children alike. Nature walks, fishing, canoeing, biking, cross country skiing, hiking, and picnicking are opportune times to practice mindfulness. However, mindfulness can also be practiced at home during a meal, while taking a shower or bath, when completing a chore or task, and so on.
- Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for children in times of stress. For example, if at dinner a child expresses anxiety about taking a test the next morning at school, you could say, “I’m glad you want to do well on your test tomorrow. How about we just focus on the present moment instead of worrying about it now. We can either interrupt dinner and study right now, or we can enjoy this great meal together and study when we are done.” When a child is pouting, worrying, or complaining, or is in any other fearful state, you can gently bring his or her attention back to the present moment.
Mindfulness is probably the best way to put skin on spirituality for children because if practiced daily, it can become a way of life characterized by alertness, gratitude, joy, delight, wonder, peace, curiosity, reverence and harmony. The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the best-known proponents of mindfulness, was once interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Watch that interview and you will see the kind of presence that is achievable through all the spiritual practices I have described in this two-part series. As Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang, “Teach your children well!”