Bedtime provides a magical window of opportunity to meditate with children. This transition in the schedule is already set up as a time when we stop playing, drop the busyness of the day, and prepare our minds and bodies for relaxing, resting, and eventually, for sleep. Meditation, likewise, is predicated on letting go of tasking and settling back into quiet reflection. Many of us with young children also have well-established, pre-bedtime routines, so slipping a three to five minute meditation into this pattern is relatively straightforward.
Of the multitude of meditations, children tend to take to metta, or lovingkindness, because it is visual, directed, and invokes warm fuzzies. I began practicing lovingkindness with my two children when they were preschoolers and slept in the same bedroom. I didn’t expect much of a response, but they loved it and eventually did not feel their bedtime routine was complete without practicing metta nightly. Even in later years, if we found ourselves sleeping in the same space such as in a tent or hotel room, our kids asked me to lead a metta meditation before going to sleep.
With young children, keep metta meditation short and simple. In its most basic form, metta can employ three phrases:
- May __ be healthy
- May __ be safe and protected.
- May __ be happy and peaceful.
The three phrases are applied to categories of people:
- Someone with whom the child has a close relationship, such as a family member, teacher, caregiver, or friend
- An animal or aspect of the natural world, such as cats, pandas, rivers, or mountains
- All beings, everywhere
Feel free to adapt this any number of ways. You can adjust the phrases and increase the categories based on your child’s developmental capacities. For example, you can add metta for people we don’t know, for difficult people, or for communities suffering from a natural disaster. (Insight meditation teacher Gregory Kramer’s booklet Seeding the Heart is a great resource for working with different age groups.)
Although in my family we practiced metta while snuggled into our beds, my friend Nilakshi and her four-year-old son sit together at their family altar. He lights incense and rings the bell himself. Their chosen categories are themselves, one person in the household, someone from the extended family, one friend in school, and one kind of animal. She shared with me that she loves seeing him smile when he picks the people to give metta to and that he is usually very calm by the time he heads to bed right after.
For your first few evenings, you can use a script (like the one below) until you get the hang of it. Then, create the form that works best for you. Before you begin, have your child choose which family member or friend he or she would like to send lovingkindness to, as well as one feature or animal from nature.
After practicing this for a few weeks, your kids might want to lead the meditation themselves. Fantastic—go for it.
METTA MEDITATION FOR BEDTIME SCRIPT
- (Speak the following out loud.)
- Take a long, deep breath in, starting way down in the belly. Filling up, up, up! And, big exhale—“aaah!” (Make a loud sigh with the exhale.) And again, long breath in, filling up, up, up! And again, our sigh of relief—aaaah!
- Now, relaxing our bodies, letting them become soft and heavy, just melting into the bed. Feeling warm and cozy. Everything completely relaxed. If you want, you can place a hand or both hands on your heart. Let’s feel our hearts and picture a warm, glowing light, like sunlight, that’s radiating from our heart center outward. This heart sunlight glows with love and kindness.
- Let’s begin with kindness for ourselves, remembering our own basic goodness and kindness. (You can mention something from the day, too, such as, “Emma shared her Legos and Connor wiped up the cat barf, even though it was super gross.”)
- Think these phrases in your mind: May I be healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be happy and peaceful. (Narrate each line slowly. Pause for at least 5 seconds between phrases to allow time for the child to imagine or feel the connection and intention.)
- Now we share our lovingkindness with grandma. Let’s picture grandma in her favorite chair in the sunshine by the window. May grandma be healthy. May grandma be safe and protected. May grandma be happy and peaceful.
- And letting our metta radiate outward to the rainforests of the world, with giant trees providing fresh air for us to breath and shady canopies and homes for thousands of species of insects, animals, and tribes. May all rainforests be healthy. May all rainforests be safe and protected. May all rainforests be happy and peaceful.
- And then radiating kindness, over the entire world, spreading upward to the skies, and downwards to the depths, outward and unbounded. (This phrasing invokes a section of the Karaniya Metta Sutta).
- May all beings be healthy. May all beings be safe and protected. May all beings be happy and peaceful. (If desired, add, “May all beings be awakened.”)
In my family, we close with a short blessing, which my tween son still requires of me before he turns in.
May the Buddha bless and protect you. May the devas bless and protect you. May the Bodhisattvas bless and protect you. Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum. Om mane padme hum.
This meditation is also available as a guided audio practice on Tricycle’s podcast, For the Moment: Short Practices for Relief and Resilience.
For more advice from Sumi Loundon Kim, watch her video Dharma Talk series Mindful Parenting: Nurturing an Intentional, Compassionate Family.
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