As an atheist I always saw prayer as silly, it was just asking an imaginary friend for things that you wanted. Yet I still think its normal to be reciting mental mantras to remind myself of that which was important. Now I get to see both under the same light. Prayer must have evolved from this need of mental repetition, if the intention is strong enough, and the request sensible or vague enough, you might manage to grant it to yourself, so voilà prayer works.
In Buddhism prayer has a purpose, it is a task to be done, it serves to weaken the false ego. That part of you that only wants to do that which it finds fun to do at that particular time. That part that finds a hundred different excuses to procrastinate what is important until it cannot be delayed any further. That part that files for tax deferrals instead of taking the time to file the taxes. That is, something that must be done just because it must be done or there will be consequences. Just the normal things that life asks of us.
Have you ever gone to a party that you did not want to go to, just because a close friend or significant other prodded you to do it, and then you actually had fun at the party? Buddhist prayer in a way is like that. But it should only be done if it serves that purpose, not if it is simply rote repetition, if it is just for display, or if it is asking something to some imaginary being.
The main purpose of prayer is to set intention, to set purpose, to set our minds in a path that is receptive to what we would like to learn or achieve. Just as genuflecting towards a teacher is a sign of respect towards what is going to be taught; prayer is in part a commitment to respect the wisdom that has been evolving through millennia, from master to apprentice and new master. Buddhism itself.
I am personally more partial to mantras, it suits me better, it keeps internal what I deem should be internal. A conversation with myself with the purpose of being listened by myself. For tasks that need to be done, just because these need to be done, I have grass to cut and taxes to file; real life has plenty of those. Before meditation, or just in my normal day, I can set intention via the methodical repetition of personal mantras. Mantras that I feel I need and may simply make up on the spot. Who knows, perhaps at some point I will appreciate prayer more, but now I just see it as an external sign devoid of meaning—too close to the christian façade. And if it is devoid of meaning, for me, then it is simply not worth doing. Your mileage will vary.
But, when it comes to children, I believe that the custom of prayer should be preserved. Not in the sense of talking to an imaginary friend, but in the sense of talking to yourself to set your own goals, dreams, and intentions. To set morals, ethics, and interests. To make promises to the self, to family, to society, and learn to follow through or learn why the aim was set too high by the self. To do what needs to be done regardless of wanting to do it or not. To learn to enjoy life regardless of its ups and downs. Praying aloud allows us, as parents, to monitor our child's emotional development and guide them the best we can. But beware of rote repetition, that is not prayer, that is just words devoid of meaning.
Allow your children to make prayer personal, require them to make them personal, remind them of what should be important. After all, as a parent, you are responsible for the next generation of humanity. But never forget that their prayers are your children's alone, these are not for you or for anyone else. If they break a promise it is a promise they made to themselves, they should have their reasons, you are allowed to be curious. But it is really none of your business if they don't want to allow you to know. By then, you will know that your job as prayer-officer is done, and unvoiced mantras can take their place.
Thinking of all the time I wasted as a kid praying for protection to an imaginary being, I came to see that perhaps that allowed me to not be scared of the darkness of night, perhaps that gave me more courage than I would have had otherwise. It is hard to fathom what trusting an external force, bigger than yourself, can do for your personality. It is nearly impossible for me to see how that changed my form of thinking, I did become an atheist as soon as I became a teenager after all.
Prayer might have had something to do with me becoming an atheist. It also explains why to this day, after many years of being an atheist, I still find comfort in the sign of the cross. Childhood emotions are very hard to let go, particularly when these are embedded into motor memories. Perhaps we don't have to let them go, there is no need to throw away the baby with the bathwater, we can make use of those motor memories after all. The feelings these motor memories will evoke in the adult that your child will become. Live long and prosper.
Leonard Nimoy by Gage Skidmore. © licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.