GOD, AS SEEN THROUGH CHILDREN'S CURIOUS EYES.
Eight-year-old Theresa, a Coptic Christian, prays to stave off Jesus' anger and to please her parents.
Omair, 16 and Muslim, prays to receive "more rewards from Allah."
Alex, a 13-year-old Catholic, is convinced that kneeling in prayer will help his grandmother recover from a heart attack.
Their reasons are as diverse as their religious backgrounds and beliefs, but children share the hope of prayer, the conviction that their thoughts and actions will make a difference to the world. For many, prayer is a ritual that shapes their days, their home lives, even time at play.
"Since time immemorial, we have always had a sense and desire for consolation and a sense of belonging," said Nicholas Van Dyck, president of Religion in American Life of Princeton, N.J., and a Presbyterian minister. "When we are hungry, we get food; when we are filled with joy or sadness, then we pray."
There are no formal surveys of children's prayer habits, said David Elkind, a Tufts University professor who has studied the origin of religion in children. But many experts on religion say children mirror adults.
Nearly 90 percent of the adult respondents to a 1993 Life magazine survey said they pray, and 95 percent of those said their prayers had been answered.
The Life poll found that 21 percent of the respondents pray three times a day or more; 9 percent said they pray several times a week; and 3 percent said they pray continually. Ten percent pray in a house of worship; 2 percent pray at mealtime; and 34 percent pray at bedside or in bed. Five percent said they pray while commuting.
Eighty-seven percent said they pray alone.
Children pray for the same reasons as adults, experts say, although adults tend to be wordier and more self-conscious.
"There's a certain naturalness when children pray," said Elizabeth Espersen, executive director of the North American Interfaith Network in Dallas. "They don't question whether they look silly, they just do it."
Over the past eight months, children shared their understanding of spirituality and religion with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. They may not know it, but children at prayer have something to teach adults.
"Children can teach adults a sense of wonder," Van Dyck said. "They can teach adults what it is to be gratefully dependent on God for all that we need ... as well as a sense of belonging in the universe."
If they pay attention, adults can relearn from children a sense of awe for God and for the world, Espersen said.
"They are still open to mystery, and so they are open to God," she said.
That's certainly the case with Mandy DuPriest, who attends Fort Worth's First United Methodist Church and says she has a direct line with God.
"I think there are tiny little holes in the walls with little pipes, and the pipes go up to God so he can hear your prayers," Mandy said. "Sometimes he has to put his hand over one, because somebody else is praying right then and he's busy listening to them."
Children's first and most lasting views of God are shaped by their parents and, in some cases, religious leaders such as priests, pastors, rabbis and imams. The frequency and content of their prayers, and even the way they pray, often is a mimicry of their parents.
"Most children believe God is a friend who cares about them and is usually an extension in their imagination of the most loving kind of parent they can dream up," Van Dyck said. "It's not surprising that ... parents influence kids very strongly. We do tend to pay attention to the people we know and live with. We get a sense of what is important to them and internalize it."
To help children shape their own view of God, Hazel Morris, associate professor of childhood education at Fort Worth's Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, recommends that parents and other adults try to be open and nonjudgmental when they discuss religion. Most of all, Morris says, parents need to listen to their children.
"I think adults think we have to have a 'right' answer for the child," Morris said, when in reality, parents are better off encouraging children to lose themselves in their own questions and wonderment. "We tend to put our words into the mouths of children instead of asking to hear their words."
The image of an all-powerful God, one who dispenses discipline and rewards, also is common, says Morris, who teaches religion to second-graders at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
"Children want to please adults," Morris said, and to a certain extent, children view God as an ultra-powerful parent. When religiously observant children do wrong, Morris says, they may say they're "breaking God's rules."
Until children reach 10 or 11, modern psychology has found that their visions of God tend more toward the concrete, often colored by biblical pictures and paintings they have seen. Once in their teens, their images are of a more intangible God.
"Older children ... focus more on God's (spiritual) attributes," Morris said.