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My daughter is almost three years old, and she cares a lot about her daily routines, seeking to accomplish everything by herself and show us how grown-up she is. The last part of our routine each day is to say a prayer, and she now comes up with her own monologue when talking to God about her day and requests. While this makes me a proud parent, I do wonder if she really comprehends what it means to pray in the way I understand it. I also wonder whether it’s a good idea to have this routine when she is so young. When she gets older will she resent being immersed in religion before making her own choices, or worse, will she categorise prayer along with fairy tales and other quaint childhood memories?
Psychological research has found that prayer is beneficial for health and resilience in children. It doesn’t necessarily lower stress in their lives but gives them an effective strategy to cope with it. Although they are not the same thing, there is an overlap between the practices of prayer and of mindfulness, which is increasingly enjoyed by children in schools.
Depending on the situation, prayer and religion might already be commonplace in the classroom or completely absent from it. In England, a daily act of collective worship in schools is an often-unobserved legal requirement. Some other countries place an emphasis on the separation of religion and public education, whereas many schools worldwide have a religious origin and governance. Assuming you were a principal in a secular school in a country where religion is permitted in schools, would it be worth encouraging prayer in the school community, in a similar approach taken to mindfulness? There have been positive responses where prayers of different religions have been studied in schools. I think there are several reasons to consider integrating prayer with education, although the family setting is probably the most beneficial for children.
Prayer has long been part of our family routine. Initially, we asked our daughter what we could thank God for and then encouraged her to verbalise it as a prayer before bed. We also helped her pray that she could get better after she got hurt. Although an unintended consequence, it was entertaining when she started throwing her teddy across the room before immediately praying for its recovery. I was also impressed by her faith when she expected instant healing of her bumps and scratches. Perhaps her theology is stronger than mine! On the other hand, one thing I want to be careful about is giving the impression that you get whatever you want when you pray, like writing a list for Santa. The importance of patience and being able to realign your priorities are traits that are difficult for parents to instil in our children; waiting for answers to prayer provides this opportunity.
Another aspect of prayer that I think is valuable as children get older is confession. Reflecting on our actions and considering how we could have made better choices is a helpful way to bring up well-disciplined children without resorting to punishments, which have a limited effect. It’s also worth teaching children that morality of what’s right and wrong is based on a universal standard, rather than the whims of parents, depending on our moods. Children’s first concept of God comes from their parents but as they grow older and see how mothers and fathers are imperfect, they can learn that God does have the character that they wished their parents would fulfil. For this reason, I also think it’s good for children to hear adults pray about the actions they regret, demonstrating a sense of responsibility.
Writing about this, I am struck by the fact that children are often better at prayer than us adults. They remember to make time to pray and they often find it easier to shift themselves out of a bad mood to follow routines. The Christian Gospels record Jesus praising childlike humility, and hearing children pray has helped me understand what he meant.
Psychological studies of indoctrination in education are subject to wide-ranging debate and differences about the definitions involved. Many aspects of education could be viewed as indoctrination so to avoid controversy, perhaps it’s best to approach prayer in a way that emphasises a child’s individual spiritual experience. After all, if prayer is viewed as a conversation between a person and their God, each conversation would be unique. Encouraging children to pray how they feel comfortable, and asking them to listen to what God might be telling them is potentially more spiritually helpful than always sticking to the same script. As adults, we will be faced with the challenge of accepting that God might be speaking more clearly to our children than to us and we need to build trust in our relationship by affirming what they experience.
Relationships are the key to this topic of children and prayer. By sharing in ritual practice, we are strengthening the bonds in our family, or in an educational setting, our school community. When times are tough, it’s especially valuable to have this shared practice that can help us cope so we benefit from establishing prayer as our norm when life is going smoothly. When our relationships go through ups and downs, children benefit from being able to talk to a God who is constantly a source of strength in a way that humans cannot be. If we take this perspective, receiving answers to our prayers is not their primary advantage, but the psychological benefits of putting our spiritual thoughts into words can be even more valuable.
Jim Nelson is a primary school teacher from Northern Ireland who has also worked in secular and Christian international schools in China and Hong Kong.