Prayer and Parenting
Enter a father and 3-year-old daughter preparing for bedtime. The little girl is visibly tired, dangling her body like a marionette while her equally exhausted daddy tries to remain composed as he encourages her to get dressed. After 20-minutes of wrestling on a pink, one-piece butterfly pajama, the tuckered tag-team jump into bed and settle in to their traditional arrangement. Thoughtlessly, daddy starts the prayer routine:
“Okay honey, criss-cross apple sauce!” Daddy says as he demonstrates by crossing his own arms and legs while sitting up straight and closing his eyes.
“No!” the little girl rebels.
“But honey, we have to say prayers before we sleep, this is the time we talk to God and tell him how much we love him.”
“No! I don’t want to say prayers. I don’t like saying prayers!” The little girl shouts as she crosses her arms while throwing her nose and chin into the air, pouting.
“Well then, I’M going to say a prayer, and I would like YOU to sit quietly and reverently until I’m finished.” Daddy continues with his prayer even as his daughter is jumping on the bed in protest, shouting, and kicking her dad in the ribs. At this point daddy is beginning to imagine himself a martyr, receiving the blows of his oppressor as he patiently endures.
Finishing his long, drawn out prayer, daddy slowly turns to his daughter and says, “Since you weren’t able to be reverent during my prayer we are not going to have stories tonight.” His daughter melts in despair as she intones a desperate cry, begging her father to retract his decision. Daddy stares sternly at his daughter and rhetorically asks, “Would you like to try again then?” And between her breathless sobs, his daughter agrees.
The little girl prays with all her heart, after which she listens to her father read the first page of her favorite story and falls fast asleep.
If you’re wondering who the awful father in the above story is, well, I have a confession to make – it was me. And I stress ‘was,’ because I quickly realized that this was not an effective way of encouraging a child to pray. The following reflection is mainly concerned with introducing prayer to children below the age of five. I have decided to focus on the toddler years because, simply, that’s where I’m at with my kids. Also, the developmental changes that occur in preschool children, and the availability of Bahá’í children’s classes at age five create conditions that are much more conducive to a structured learning process at home.
Before I continue, I would like to share this story about a certain Grandfather who was FAR more capable than I at inspiring the love of God in children:
When Shoghi Effendi was only five years old he was pestering the Master to write something for him, whereupon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote this touching and revealing letter in His own hand:
“He is God!
O My Shoghi, I have no time to talk, leave me alone! You said ‘write’ – I have written. What else should be done? Now is not the time for you to read and write, it is the time for jumping about and chanting ‘O My God!’ therefore memorize the prayers of the Blessed Beauty and chant them that I may hear them, because there is no time for anything else.”
It seems that when this wonderful gift reached the child he set himself to memorize a number of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers and would chant them so loudly that the entire neighbourhood could hear his voice; when his parents and other members of the Master’s family remonstrated with him, Shoghi Effendi replied, “The Master wrote to me to chant that He may hear me! I am doing my best!” and he kept on chanting at the top of his voice for many hours every day. Finally his parents begged the Master to stop him, but He told them to let Shoghi Effendi alone.
First, let’s contrast my approach with the Master’s approach: I was forcing prayer down my daughter’s throat; ‘Abdu’l-Bahà inspired Shoghi Effendi to pray however his heart desired. ‘Abdu’l-Bahà’s central message regarding the instruction of children was simple – achieve the purpose, but make it joyful. The following quotation captures this principle perfectly:
“Know that this matter of instruction, of character rectification and refinement, of heartening and encouraging the child, is of the utmost importance, for such are basic principles of God.”
Remember that Bahá’u’llàh did not prescribe the obligation of prayer to children and junior youth. I often think about the wisdom in this. One thing we now know (with the help of developmental psychology) is that it is not until after the age of 12 that human thinking becomes logical, flexible, and capable of abstraction. It is at this point in their lives that humans can apply logic to ideas, to problems that violate reality, and can entertain alternative possibilities. Therefore, the idea that “I have an obligation to God to remember Him everyday and to observe his laws out of my love for Him” would be quite a thing for a toddler to grasp, let alone a junior youth. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but we can safely argue that understanding comes with education, and cognitive development.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we should be lax in our approach to spiritual education. On the contrary, we must be firm, consistent, and clear when parenting young children. What I’m suggesting is that, perhaps, my approach with Navvab (my daughter) was a little off. Okay, a lot off. But I erred out of a desire to establish a firm foundation of spirituality in my child. Remember where ‘Abdu’l-Bahà said: “Therefore it is in early childhood that a firm foundation must be laid. While the branch is green and tender it can easily be made straight.” I sincerely wanted to communicate to my children that prayer is a means of communicating with our Creator, it’s a sacred time to be cherished, and it’s a joyful time. Now how do I do that?
For one, maybe all the lessons don’t have to be learned at the same time.
A while back I had written a children’s story about the importance of sincerity in prayer. The story followed little Maggie who would tiptoe to her grandfather’s bedroom to watch him say his morning prayers. Eventually, Maggie would be driven to intone the prayer with all her heart, and even though she got most of it wrong, she had said it with love and sincerity. The message of the story was twofold: help children memorize the Sacred versus, yes, but at the same time let them commune with their Creator in whatever way they are moved to. Now, I can see this blowing up in my face. For instance, as Bahá’ís we want to refine our children’s understanding of reverence and respect, especially when praying with others; however, this has to be done with wisdom and tact. Namely, without suppressing the child’s desire to pray.
The second message of the story was to teach through example. Maggie’s grandfather, like ‘Abdu’l-Bahà, understood the importance of demonstrating the behaviours you expect out of others. Grandpa knew that Maggie was watching him, but he let Maggie observe. One well established practice that I’ve learned from many Bahá’í parents is performing the obligatory prayer in view of the children. Let them see you do it, let them hear you wrapped up in the ecstasy of communion with God. It’s magical for you, but especially for your child.
Intone the verses. What do I mean by Intone? Be melodious when you pray! What do I mean by melodious? Don’t be monotonous, mechanical, and dull. This is not only important for your own experience of prayer, but for your children as well. Learning to be dull and without feeling is something you learn as you grow up (which sucks really bad). Don’t train your kids to be dull: “Teach ye your children the verses that have been divinely revealed, that they may recite them in most melodious voices. This is what hath been set down in His mighty Book.” ~ Bahá’u’llàh
Keep it simple. Don’t force huge passages and tablets onto your children. Sure, there will be times when little Joey is super gung-ho about learning the Tablet of Ahmad, at which time you should TAKE ADVANTAGE. But otherwise, keep it simple. Grab parts of Writings and prayers that are filled with imagery that the child can internalize. Oh and, it’s okay to do that: “Regarding the questions you asked him: there is no objection to children who are as yet unable to memorize a whole prayer learning certain sentences only.” It’s crazy the questions that were asked, but who am I to judge!
Praise of God is not confined to personal prayer. Doesn’t ‘Abdu’l-Bahà teach us that “This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, he is giving praise.” So if I go on a tangent about how “the only way to commune with God, honey, is by praying here in your bedroom before you go to sleep when you’re really tired and not in the mood to listen to dad monotonously mutter the verses because he’s also exhausted and you’re kicking him in the ribs” than perhaps I need to cite my sources. ‘Abdu’l-Bahà instructs us, “From the very beginning, the children must receive divine education and must continually be reminded to remember their God. Let the love of God pervade their inmost being, commingled with their mother’s milk.” Taking a child into the forest, getting them to dig their fingers deep into the dirt while thanking the Creator will let the love of God pervade their inmost being more so than forcing a prayer at bedtime. That’s just my opinion. But it would be useful to ask yourself, how do I create opportunities for my children to remember God? Or, How do I let the love of God pervade their inmost being? Oh, and please be creative.
Here’s an example of how ‘Abdu’l-Bahà combined all these principles in a systematic approach that was both joyful, and sacred:
“Every day at first light, ye gather the Bahá’í children together and teach them the communes and prayers. This is a most praiseworthy act, and bringeth joy to the children’s hearts: that they should, at every morn, turn their faces toward the Kingdom and make mention of the Lord and praise His Name, and in the sweetest of voices, chant and recite.
These children are even as young plants, and teaching them the prayers is as letting the rain pour down upon them, that they may wax tender and fresh, and the soft breezes of the love of God may blow over them, making them to tremble with joy. “
Tremble with joy. I get goose bumps. How often are our children trembling with joy during prayers?
The above instruction from the Master reminds me how often I’ve heard stories about the early believers getting together at dawn to pray. Not sure what the power is in that, but in Book 2 of Dr. Furutan’s “Bahá’í Education for Children” he says,
“Nighttime is for sleeping, and daytime is for being happy, working, playing, serving, helping others and remembering our Creator. When the sun rises the world is very beautiful, it is fresh and quiet, only the birds can be heard singing; it is a perfect time to say our prayers. To rise with the sun, to wash our hands and face and say our prayers is something very special. It is much easier to pray first thing in the morning, before we become busy with other things. Sleeping in late is being lazy, and when we wake up, much time has been wasted. Don’t you think it is a beautiful idea to show our respect and love of God by thinking of Him first, before we do anything else? By doing this we prepare ourselves for a long happy and productive day.”
Hey that works for me.
At nighttime, prayers can be sung like lullabies. Actually, the Master alludes to this very idea: “When the children are ready for bed, let the mother read or sing them the Odes of the Blessed Beauty, so that from their earliest years they will be educated by these verses of guidance.”
There are two more pieces of learning that I’d like to share. The first is the issue of training children to be reverent, and to understand sacredness. I’m going to approach this with the idea that children are very worldly, and learn by interacting with objects in their environment. As adults, we don’t need rituals to understand spirituality, but children need a buffer to prepare their little concrete minds for abstract constructs. Note: I use the term buffer with hesitation since it is often used to argue that Santa Clause is a buffer for God until the kids realize that there is no Santa Clause…
In Bahá’í homes there are many objects that we hold sacred such as holy books, pictures of the Holy Family, and the Greatest Name. Help the child put the Greatest Name at the highest place in the house. Kids will get it when you make a big event out of it. If you don’t believe me just watch a child put a star atop a Christmas tree. Another behaviour you can reinforce is kissing prayer books when they fall on the ground, and then to place them “reverently” back on the table. With both of our children, we had them kiss any picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahà that they would see. During prayers, you can light a candle and turn off the lights to create some ambience. Children love candles (just be careful please, and I’m not liable). These types of gestures will have reinforced the idea that certain “things” are sacred. Later they will question why, but I’ll deal with that when it comes my way. For now, we’re just trying to develop the feeling of reverence and sacredness, and it doesn’t only have to occur during prayers. Now ask yourself, how do I create the opportunities for my child to be reverent?
Finally, we talk meditation. How do you get a toddler to meditate? Well if you ask my 3-year-old to meditate she’ll take the lotus position, close her eyes, and “OMmmmm.” It’s really cute, but superficial. First of all, what is the Bahá’í take on meditation? Well the Guardian describes meditation as follows:
“As to meditation: This also is a field in which the individual is free. There are no set forms of meditation prescribed in the teachings, no plan as such, for inner development. The friends are urged—nay enjoined—to pray, and they also should meditate, but the manner of doing the latter is left entirely to the individual.
The inspiration received through meditation is of a nature that one cannot measure or determine. God can inspire into our minds things that we had no previous knowledge of, if He desires to do so.
We cannot clearly distinguish between personal desire and guidance, but if the way opens, when we have sought guidance, then we may presume God is helping us.”
I like the ambiguity because meditation is soooooo personal. It really has no universal definition. But if we’re talking about having a child “meditate on the writings,” well that’s a construct that I can operationally define! In “Creating a Bahá’í Identity in Our Children,” Sovaida Ma’ani Ewing provides us with some practical advice:
“To teach your children about meditation, demonstrate to them how you meditate. Walk them through the process. So, for example, after your morning prayers, read a verse from the Writings out loud. Then take one of the sentences and ask yourself what it means and how you can apply it in your day-to-day life. Share out loud the thoughts that come to mind as you put questions to your spirit. Your child will witness the unfolding of your understanding. Encourage your child to do the same, perhaps by helping him or her formulate questions about the verse just read and suggesting possible answers. Similarly, if you are considering a knotty question in your own life and have been meditating about it, share the problem with your children and then recount to them the questions you put to your own spirit after prayer and the answers you felt you received. Then encourage them to spend a few minutes in silence after they have said their prayers and seek answers to their own questions and problems. Be available to respond to your child’s request for assistance.”
Well, you’ll be happy to know that tonight was a good night of Bahá’í parenting for my daughter and I. Instead of forcing prayer on her, I told her the story of Mirza Mihdi. Then we talked about the Holy family: going over how ‘Abdu’l-Bahà was related to Mirza Mihdi, and who Bahiyyih Khanum was. We looked at some pictures of Bahiyyih Khanum. Then we talked about ‘Abdu’l-Bahà’s grandson, Shoghi Effendi, which led to the story about the Guardian when he was a young boy writing to the Master. This led to sharing how little Shoghi would jump up and down and sing his prayers, which led to my daughter saying her prayers with joy.
Which led to me writing this six-page blog post.