Today I got an email from a parishioner asking how she could pray with her kids through the chaos in Boston. She wrote:

Dear Audrey, Do you have any advice for parents on how to pray with our children about what has happened and what is happening in the Boston area today? I find myself avoiding prayer with my kids these past few days, but  know that sends the wrong message. I don’t want to worry them, and yet I know that they know what is going on (we told them the basic gist). What is appropriate to say to a 10-year-old is not appropriate for a 3 year old. Any ideas?

For those of you outside the Boston area: today has been crazy… this week has been crazy. To top it off – this is public school vacation week. Kids are home and people in many towns are being asked to stay in the house. This leaves many parents and children cooped up, indoors, on an otherwise beautiful spring day. How do you explain to your kids why they have to stay in on a beautiful day? How do you explain why they can’t even turn on the television when all else fails? There are several articles talking about how we should help kids cope, including: Tips for Parents at Home in Lockdown with Kids from WBUR. But how do we pray with our kids through such a horrific and unknown situation?

Here is what I sent to her with some embellishment. I hope it is helpful to you:

1. Be honest but reassuring. They need to know they are safe.

2. Remind them that God IS love. God cries with us and holds us. God is with us all.

3. Invite the kids to tell you what they think you should pray for, and if they are able – let them pray aloud (or silently) themselves. You might be surprised at how in-tune they are with what they want to tell God.

4. Use short, Concrete sentences. 

5. Acknowledge the feelings your child has expressed: verbally and non-verbally.

6. Remember that your prayer is to God on behalf of your children. Use words they would use and feelings they are having. Too much expression of adult feelings and thoughts may overwhelm your children.

7. Prayer comes in many forms: do body prayer with music in the background to get off the couch, invite kids to color pictures and write poems to express their feelings, sing songs from church, and generally be creative. God gave us many different faculties – engage them.

8. You could pray together, but I would separate them for a conversation/questions. If you have a 3 and 10 year old to talk to… do it separately. A 3 year old is too young to conceptualize the questions a 10 year old would ask. A 3 year old will respond directly to the way you and a sibling responds. Likewise, your 10 year old will respond to your emotions. Children take emotional cues from their parents.

9. You do not need to completely mask how you are feeling, but remember #1.

10. If they ask why God would “let” this happen talk to them about choices. God loves us enough to let us make choices. Sometimes we make good choices and sometimes we make bad choices. Sadly, these two boys made a very bad choice. They were hurting and angry and they took out their bad feelings on other people. God cries for that bad choice.

Examples: When a colleague from Newtown asked a list serve I subscribe to for help writing prayers after the shooting there this is what I wrote for her:

Ages 2-5:

Dear God, We are very sad because our friends and families are sad. But we know that you love us. Most of all we know that your Son, Jesus, loves us. We are excited for Jesus’ birthday that is coming on Christmas. God, help all of the people in our town, in our church, and in our families to know that you love us and are with us always. Amen.

Ages 5-8:

Dear God, Sometimes scary things happen and we do not understand. We are sad and scared and confused right now and we need your help. God, we have learned that you are with us all of the time. Help us to know you are with us right now. We pray for our friends and teachers who we will not see anymore. We know they are safe in your arms but we are sad because we miss them a lot. Help us to feel your arms hugging us very tight as we start to heal. Today is Gaudete Sunday. That means it is a day to rejoice. We do not feel like rejoicing. Help us to remember all of the good things in our lives and to thank you for them today and always. Amen. 

MOST IMPORTANT: Don’t force it. If your child/children don’t want to talk about it then leave it until later. Wait until they bring it up. If you have a normal prayer time with your family offer your prayers then rather than interrupting play or other healthy activities to bring up this situation. If you are in a lull than it might be the time the Spirit is inviting you into prayer – if the kids are engaged and happy this might not be the right time. Play is both the work and the prayer of a child. Remember: “Pray without ceasing, if necessary use words.” – St. Francis of Assisi
Some bible verses for reference (I could list a lot more… but you get the picture.)
Psalm 46:10 – Be still and know that I am God. (All of Psalm 46 really)
John 10:11 – I am the good shepherd… (this Sunday’s Gospel lesson)
Deuteronomy 33:27 – God is your refuge…
Psalm 32:7-8 – You are my hiding place and keep me safe…
Psalm 139 – God is with us always and in all places…
Isaiah 40:28-30 – Haven’t you heard, God is awesome and won’t leave us… (okay, I’m paraphrasing.)
Matthew 6:31-34 – Do not worry…

Finally: I am praying for all of you who are struggling to make sense of this for you and your children, too. It is an incredible task to be charged with leading a child through the dark places in life – I hope that through prayer and love you will see the light inherent.