So many adults struggle with the concept of God; children generally do not. This is a vast universe with levels of reality far beyond what most of us can perceive. While we as adults might fool ourselves into thinking that we can control all the different aspects of our lives without the help of a higher power, children do not have this misconception. They expect to be taken care of and directed by some other power. At first they rely on their parents. Young children often think of their parents as all-knowing, all-seeing beings. How many times have you just begun reading a story to a child, one that he knows you haven’t read before, when he asks, “Why did she leave home?” or “What happened to her cat?” You might have thought, “How could I possibly know that? I haven’t read the book before.” But the child expects you to know. At some point however, children realize that their parents cannot always be with them, protecting them every minute of every day. Things will happen that even parents cannot control. When that awareness occurs, it is very reassuring to children to have an established relationship with a higher power that they can count on.
The challenge then, is not so much to convince them that a higher power exists, but rather to find ways to bring the consciousness of that power into their lives so that it becomes a daily reality and help for them. A common mistake that adults make at this point is to think that what children need is a definition of God, what he likes or how he works. As adults we may have found certain ideas or beliefs based on our own experiences and background that have been helpful to us in strengthening our relationship. It is dangerous to assume that our children will benefit in the same way. Children can all too easily learn to say the “right things” out of a willingness to please or a fear of retribution. In either case the stated belief has no basis in the child’s personal experience, and eventually, a disinterest or rebellion against this and all belief systems may surface. This resistance can last a lifetime and effectively close the door to all exploration of the inner life.
A more constructive approach is to accept that there is a mystery to God’s existence that lies beyond the powers of the human mind to comprehend. We do have the right and even obligation to share our experiences and beliefs, but we must make sure that we offer these as helpful options and never force them on our children. Especially in this intimate arena of the inner life, each soul is like a unique plant that needs the freedom to grow the special blossom it was made to produce. As adults we need to trust that life will bring the particular experiences that will shape its expression. We also need to accept the questioning process as a natural part of the unfolding of the inner life. Rather than suppressing it, we must look for ways to validate it by sharing sincerely what we have personally experienced and what we have chosen to accept without experience. In this way you can give your child the space to construct her own combination of experience and belief.
Recently there was a story in Guideposts magazine in which a young man shared his upbringing and its results. During his childhood his parents had presented angels as a part of their reality, something he accepted unquestioningly at the time. As an adolescent, however, he reflected that he’d never seen an angel and therefore let the concept slide to the back of his mind. A few years later while working on a construction project, he was suddenly covered by a cave-in. In his desperation to avoid suffocation he sent out a prayer. Almost immediately, he sensed the presence of an angel keeping the dirt off him until human help arrived. Afterwards, the young man reclaimed his childhood belief in angels, but this time on the firmer ground of personal experience.
Regular practice of prayer is a valuable means of helping children establish a relationship with a higher power. Giving thanks for food at mealtimes through special prayers or family songs can by supplemented by spontaneous conversations with God about current family events. It is also helpful to ask for divine guidance when important decisions need to be made. You can encourage the children to look for a response in such ways as an inner voice or feeling, words spoken by other people that have a ring of truth to them, or the unfolding of outer events (e.g., an unexpected invitation or gift of money). Under your supervision encourage the children to act on the guidance they receive, helping them differentiate between an over-active imagination and real intuition. Seeking a divine source of comfort and strength during difficult times (e.g., the 23rd Psalm) is yet another powerful method of helping children recognize that there is a higher power that is actively present in their lives.
At some point children come to the question, “Does prayer really work?” When this topic came up in one of the classrooms in our school, the teacher devised the following experiment. The children placed 10 randomly selected Fauva beans in each of two identically prepared planting beds. The students carefully provided each bed with equal amounts of sunlight, fresh air and water. For one bed, however, they offered extra attention in the form of daily prayers for the beans’ health and well-being. When the experiment ended 3 weeks later, the combined growth of the plants in the regular bed was 29 inches while those in the “prayer” bed measured 72 inches! While I don’t think this experiment proves that you always get what you pray for, it definitely increased the faith of those students.
Many people at some time in their lives have experienced direct, divine intervention. Numerous saints of different religions (St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis, Ramakrishna, Yogananda), naturalists (Thoreau, John Muir), and ordinary people in extraordinary situations have had very real experiences of such a power. Relating stories such as St. Francis’ taming of the wolf of Gubbio or Muir’s experience of God’s protection when exploring the wilderness, helps to support children’s growing sense of a divine presence.
One of the best ways of helping children grow in this way is to share with them your own relationship with the Divine. Share with the children whenever you feel that all-powerful hand in your life. Your devotion, reverence, and faith will have a strong influence.
Once I took a class on an end-of-school-year camping trip. We were prepared for late spring showers, but not for the full-blown winter storm that met us on our arrival at our campsite. It was almost dark and long past the closing time of the few businesses in the only nearby town. While I sat huddled with the children in a make-shift shelter, one of the parents went off to look for help. About 30 minutes later, to our amazement, a pickup truck pulled up with a load of large waterproof tarps. When the parent had stopped to ask for help, the man he talked to happened to be the leader of the local scout troop who readily agreed to drive miles out of his way to loan us his tarps. The children were convinced that God had arranged a miracle for them.
Meditation is one of the most direct means of awakening one’s awareness of the divine nature within one’s self and in all of creation. While many of the activities in this book could be classified as meditative, in this section I am now referring to more formal meditative practices. By formal practice I mean regular periods of meditation with the explicit intention of calming the thoughts and feelings in order to experience God’s presence within.
Meditation is a precious tool that can take children to new heights of awareness, but the child’s readiness to receive such training is an essential ingredient when you consider offering it to him. In the same way that you would wait until your child was ready to properly value and care for a cherished family heirloom before passing it on to him, so it should be with formal meditation. Of course, there is no harm in experimenting with such techniques now and again, but serious, regular practice should begin only when the child is truly ready. Meditation is a simple but subtle activity, both in the way it is practiced and in the blessings it brings to the practitioner. If formal meditation techniques are presented and tried too often before children are able to sense the valuable benefits, they may develop the idea that meditation is boring, doesn’t help them or is something they can’t do. Once such thoughts are established in the mind, it is much more difficult for children to be receptive to meditative practices when the time comes that they are ready to use them in a deeply productive way. Your attunement with the child and his reaction to occasional attempts to meditate will guide you in regard to the child’s readiness.
It is common for children to inquire into why they, or anyone else, should meditate. Care must be taken to present children with goals that are readily achievable. Experiences of inner peace, light, expanded awareness and deep joy not resulting from outer circumstances are common effects of meditation that they can feel. In most cases, the more children experience these benefits of meditation, the more they will want to meditate. At the same time, a child’s interest, like anyone else’s, will have natural rhythms of ebb and flow, and these should be honored. At no time should a child be coerced into meditating. These practices, perhaps more than any others, should reflect the child’s own particular inclinations. A simple way of ensuring that the child is acting on his own volition is to offer several different spiritual practices to choose from, with meditation being one of them. If the child chooses meditation, that is fine. If not, that is equally fine. The key is that when the child meditates, he should feel that it is his choice to do so.
An example of the natural progression of a child’s meditation practices is illustrated in the following story that was related to me by a mother. Her six-year-old son was introduced to simple relaxation and meditation techniques both at school and at home. When he went through a period of difficulty sleeping, it occurred to him that those techniques might help him with this problem. Much to his relief, they did. After a few minutes of meditation he was able to fall asleep with ease. Time went by and the boy started using these techniques to ease his anxiety about tests and various other stressful school situations. Little by little, through experience, he grew to realize how helpful such practice was. As his interest in spiritual matters developed, he started meditating not just to relax and become calm inside, but also to become inwardly aware of spiritual realities. This gradual progression took place over the course of several years. Sometimes his mother suggested in a casual way that perhaps a certain technique might be helpful, but it was always the son’s own inclination that was behind his practice.
It often takes a certain amount of life experience to motivate a person to undertake the regular, ongoing practice necessary for overcoming restless thoughts and other inner disturbances. Therefore, I usually approach meditation as if planting a seed, occasionally introducing children to the idea when they seem receptive, and offering the thought that, “You may want to use this sometimes.” If the children are more receptive, I offer it to them more often.
In our elementary school we have a number of children who have chosen to join a group that meditates 15 – 20 minutes, three times a week. Each child makes a commitment to remain a part of the group for one term. This commitment gives them all a chance to exercise their willpower if they don’t especially feel like meditating on a particular day. For children who are regular meditators, a little effort to overcome a slight sense of unwillingness is usually all that is necessary to get back into the flow of the practice. At the end of each term the children individually evaluate whether of not they want to remain a part of the group. They have made such comments as, “I just feel so calm after I meditate,” or, “I get along better with my friends at recess when I meditate.” Sometimes they don’t say anything, but the peacefulness in their eyes and the smiles on their faces attest to what they have gained.
The activities in the sections on relaxation and concentration are excellent for more formal meditation when taken to deeper and deeper levels inwardly. Here are some other methods I have used to introduce children to meditation.
The Bead Meditation
Give the child a small string of beads, perhaps 8 – 12. Next, think of a prayer, thought, or affirmation that you both would like to concentrate on. This could be directed to God, a great saint or being, or your own higher selves. The message might be one of gratitude, a request for an answer to a problem, or any thought from your hearts. With closed eyes, and holding the first bead, slowly speak the thought, then try to become receptive to an inner response. That response might come in the form of a message, a thought, a feeling, a picture, or in some other way. After a length of time that suits your child, move on to the second bead. Repeat the prayer and the receptive period. Do this for each bead on the string. Spend a few extra, quiet moments at the end.
Dark and Quiet
Have the children plug their ears with their thumbs and close their eyes by cupping the hands over them. Tell them to focus their attention on either their eyes or ears, and then concentrate either far, far away beyond the stars or deep, deep within. Ask them to become explorers whose job is to find out what is there behind closed eyes and ears. Some children get intrigued with the bodily noises (breath, heartbeat, etc.) while a few are able to sense the comforting inner light or sounds.
Watching the Breath
Direct the children to relax and then begin to pay attention to their breath as it comes in and goes out. They should not try to force it or change it in any way, but simply let it come in and go out at its natural pace. First, you might suggest that they concentrate on their breath as it flows in and out of their stomach region and lungs, as that is the area of greatest movement. After they have focused on that for awhile, have them direct their attention to their breath as it moves up and down their throat. And finally, with their eyes gently turned upward towards the point between their eyebrows, guide their attention to their breath as it is experienced on the inside, upper portion of their nose. If they are very concentrated and still, you can direct them next to try to sense not so much the physical nature of their breath as the life force that is causing their breath to occur in the first place.
The pace of this technique should be very slow as you sensitively discern their readiness for each new level of experience. If you notice a little restlessness beginning to arise but feel that the children are still able to continue, just guide them to relax, letting any restless thoughts float away, and to refocus their attention on their breath. If you sense that the children are becoming restless because they have reached the limit of their ability to continue, simply end the practice for that time.
To help children understand the potential importance of meditation, I have shared stories like that of a lady who had rushed her seriously injured son to the hospital. Sitting in the waiting room, she desperately wanted to pray for him and yet found she was unable to keep her thoughts from wandering off to trivial things like her grocery list! As soon as her son was better, she signed up for meditation classes.
When children have been introduced to meditation in a non-coercive way, they will make use of the practice when it becomes inwardly meaningful to them. Recently, one of my past students was asked why she has chosen to meditate regularly on her own. She responded, “When I don’t meditate, I start to feel lonely.” Obviously she was making a meaningful, comforting connection within, one that she wanted to renew regularly.