Teddy bear, teddy bear say your prayers
Such a sweet nursery rhyme, reminiscent of more innocent times when everyone said their prayers before bed (even teddy bears). But how many parents these days sit down (or even kneel) with their freshly bathed and newly pyjamered offspring to offer a bedtime prayer before lights out? Well, if the dozens of books on bedtime prayers listed on Amazon are anything to go by, there are still plenty that do. And, surprising research suggests that they would be right to, for it seems that there are important psychological benefits to saying some version of bedtime 'prayers' with your children each night (but don't worry, you don't have to be a believer to benefit!).
Historically bedtime prayers were part of every child's night time routine. Hot bath, and brushed teeth would be followed by a cosy story and a traditional bedtime prayer. The classic (and Christian) bedtime prayer for children was actually rather sobering:
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take..
"I was brought up to say bedtime prayers to keep me safe before I went to sleep. I am not religious, so that sort of ritual didn't seem appropriate for my little ones, but I liked the idea of taking a few minutes at the end of the day to acknowledge and be grateful for what we have and what has gone well that day - and perhaps to think about things that are less good in our lives'.
Religious parents might use set prayers to achieve these aims (eg The 'Shema' for Jewish parents, KaracharaNa, for Hindus or set Duas for Muslims) but non-believers can make it up as they go along - and reap the same benefits. And this is the point - saying some version of bedtime 'prayer' (technically, a prayer can probably only be described as such if it involves a specific attempt to address God or some deity) with your children has immense psychological benefit, whether you ascribe to a religious faith or not. Research shows that people who pray regularly enjoy better mental health and well-being than those who don't. Admittedly, part of this benefit is tied in with the belief that Someone is listening, but much is connected to the process of prayer that is about expressing gratitude, appreciation and reflection. And this is something that you don't need to believe in God to achieve.
People who regularly take time to appreciate what is good about their life are happier than those who don't. In fact, Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter, suggests that gratitude is the key to happiness. This gratitude does not have to be achieved through traditional 'prayer' but through methods as diverse as keeping a gratitude journal, telling mum and dad, talking to a favourite toy or sharing with siblings.
For young children, bedtime is the perfect time to stop and reflect on what has gone well that day, what they enjoyed, what is good about their life - and yes, what could be better. Too many children race through their week without pausing for reflection on how good life is; bedtime 'prayers' allow them to reconnect with all the positives so that they can boost their self-esteem ('I must be good at spelling because I got a star today'), realise that they are loved ('grandma came and gave me a kiss'), and help them realise they are blessed ('I am so lucky to have swimming lessons'). All of these are the basis for a happy child who will grow into a happy, contented adult.
Real (ie God-focused) prayer is not only about appreciation, but also about self-awareness; acknowledging mistakes and 'atoning' for them. Similarly, the non-religious bedtime 'prayer' can help children look at what they my have done wrong and work out ways that they can do better tomorrow. There is no need to dwell too much on this though - we don't want them to be consumed by guilt as they drift into their dreams (and guilt-ridden children become anguished adults who are unable to let go of their mistakes).
So, here is my own version of the ideal, modern bedtime prayer (belief in God optional):
Dear Teddy/God/Mum/Granny/Peppa Pig (delete as appropriate)
1. I am so happy about the good things that happened today. These are......
2. I felt loved today when......
3. I did something not so good today. It was when............Next time this happens I will........
4. I am proud about the things I did well today. These are....
5. I am so lucky to have done/had.......today.
And, when they have finished whispering these sweet little 'prayers', and the seemingly endless bedtime routine finally draws to a close, you might well find yourself invoking your own bedtime prayer along the lines of 'thank God she's asleep at last'.
A version of this article first appeared in Mums and Dads Magazine