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Teaching kids to pray

In these times of uncertainty and tragedy, children can really get upset. Whether it is trouble at school, fallouts with their friends, or whether a terrorist has just killed hundreds or a hurricane flooded thousands out of their homes, kids have nowhere to go. They can't just tune it all out like adults sometimes can, and the power of their feelings overwhelms them.

But if kids learn to pray, they can channel these powerful feelings into a greater universe of hope, easing their tensions and enabling them feel a greater presence that comforts them and watches over them. If your kids do not know how to pray, here are some suggestions on how to teach them.

1. Validate your child's intuition
Every child -- even the most rebellious teen -- has an innate sense of some greater presence unseen by the human eye. All you have to do is to validate this intuition. It's not some faraway God up in the sky patrolling the Milky Way, but a warm and a comforting presence that lives very near them, maybe even inside them. To begin, encourage them in the privacy of their own heart just to let go and pour out their pent up feelings and thoughts to this unseen, healing presence. Encourage them to communicate in this way to the Supreme just a little every day, regularly. It doesn't have to be more than a few sentences, like, "Hi, I'm Stephen. Things aren't going well. I'm very sad. Please hold me and help me fall asleep." This way, they know they don't have to be in a formal setting in a church, mosque or temple to pray. They can pray in their room, outside, as they walk or take a break in their homework--in fact, anywhere at all.

2. Utilize established prayers
To begin to develop to this precious skill, it helps to learn passages like the Lord's Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, or the Native American "Let Me Walk in Beauty." Kids don't always feel they have the right to address their little concerns to the greatest power in the universe, and they need to warm up to it. Such passages can show the child how other very sweet people, like Jesus, King David, and the mother Mary, opened their feelings up to God. So choose a passage that pulsates with feelings directed toward the Supreme. Or, help your child choose a mantram like "Om" or "Jesus," and tell them to repeat it when they feel scared or overwhelmed. It's just one, power-packed word, no problem to remember. Some mantrams come complete with tunes and can be sung as lullabies. My boy chose one when he was very young, and he used it when he was anxious. At one of those times, when he was batting cleanup in the Little League city championships, he said it silently before his at bat. When he came to the plate, he smashed a double and drove in the winning run!

3. Provide direction on subjects to pray about
Your kids may still feel they need help communicating their feelings to the Supreme. Tell them that, whenever they feel hurt, sad, alone, or helpless, whenever life seems mean and cruel, they can just plead, "Oh God, everything is so awful, just help me!" Then, show them how to turn the feelings around into a request, a plea. They can pray not just for new things or for happy events, but even more important, they can ask that the needy people and animals of the world, whom kids care so deeply for, can have good homes and plenty to eat. Prayer reaches into and energizes the deeper reaches of your child's being and plugs them into a greater power at work in the universe--a power which, with their tender concern for life, they may be intrinsically closer to than we are.

4. Help them see and feel the benefits of their prayers
Often a friend, classmate, or relative may have a crisis, possibly an illness or injury. Encourage your child to pray for them. Often as not, the person will get well and life may again smile on them. Join your kids in their happiness when they see their prayers may actually have helped, that their small voice raised up to the Supreme made a difference in the outcome. It goes without saying, though, that things can go the other direction; or your kids may pray for a larger good, like world peace, that cannot easily happen. Here I would echo the words of my meditation teacher, whose own teacher was his grandmother. When he was despairing about whether his prayers might actually help the poor people and the animals he wanted better things for, she said, "I don't know if your prayers will help them, but they will certainly help you." Help your kids to see that the very act of prayer itself is healing to their feelings, emotions, heart, and soul. Prayer will make them stronger and more secure people. So much the better, then, if in addition to such large benefits, it also helps those they pray for.

5. Talk about prayer in your home
Remember that anything as different from daily life as prayer--a plea for something barely possible addressed to someone your kids can't see--might make them feel self conscious. The solution to this problem is to take the secrecy and mumbo-jumbo out of it. Start talking about prayer with animated enthusiasm like you talk about other keen interests. This is not to say you should push or over promote it; sure as anything that will send them in the opposite direction. But there is nothing wrong with saying, for example, that you are praying for Grandma who is in the hospital with cancer, or for the people who lost their homes in the tsunami and in Hurricane Katrina, and how much better that makes you feel. Tell your child that prayer can reconfigure the forces in the universe and cause events to happen more favorably than anyone thinks they will. The more you talk about prayer, the more you will inculcate in them a reservoir of hope, in situations about which they may otherwise feel helpless and despairing about.

6. Include other people in your lives who pray
I once met a Buddhist monk who headed a monastery in Washington DC. He told me with the sweetness of a child, "Even a tiny bit of prayer can make you feel so good!" He had a simple happiness, and his smile was infectious. I really liked to be around him. Since then, I have found being with other people who pray make my own practice flow better. So seek out those friends who practice prayer and invite them to your place. Let your kids see how wonderfully normal they are, in the very best sense. Let them also see how happy it can make them to ask not so much from others, but from the spiritual universe on which everything we see and experience is based. Tell them that if they pray, their own voice can make such a difference that finally Jesus' words can come true: "Knock, and it shall be opened". For surely prayer will open for your child a new capacity for seeing that their own feelings matter greatly and they are never, never alone.

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