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KIDS BELIEVE PRAYERS WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE

SHARE KIDS BELIEVE PRAYERS WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE

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," says 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, says 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," says 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, area 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 says. "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 re-learn from children a sense of awe for God and for the world, Es-persen says.

"They are still open to mystery and so they are open to God," she says.

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 says.

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 says. "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 South-western 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.