I don’t think there’s any simple answer. My son (10) has always had an interest in it. He doesn’t sit often, but he and I have sat together at home, and he’s even come with me to sit with the sangha a few times. He doesn’t really want to sit still—at least, it’s far from his natural inclination—but something about this practice intrigues him. My daughter (8), has never expressed even the slightest curiosity about it. She knows I do it, but she doesn’t really want to try it herself.
I think it’s important to ask ourselves why we would invite our kids to meditate in the first place. I have a few thoughts on that, but for now, I’ll just share a few good tips I’ve learned from others along the way:
Don’t push your kids to sit. Instead, make an open invitation: keep an extra cushion next to you when you sit, and let your kids know it’s for them, for whenever they want to join you, even if it’s just for a couple minutes. For a couple years, I would sit in the center of the living room before everyone else woke up. Maybe once every three days, my daughter (then around 4 or 5) would shuffle out in her pajamas and just curl up in my lap. I loved it. I think she did too.
Keep it short. Kids who are starting might max out at 5 minutes or even less, and that’s fine. It’s better to sit a short time and feel good about it than to force it and come to imagine you’re in some sort of battle with it. (This is the same thing I tell adults, by the way.)
Focus on the breath. A nice exercise I’ve bumped into a few times is to ask kids to go and collect maybe ten small rocks, ones that they like, that feel good in their hands. (I’ve never met a kid who would refuse that task—they love rocks.) Put them in a little bowl or a box or a bag. When kids sit, have them place all the rocks next to one knee, and with each exhalation, have them slowly move one rock to the other knee. If they do ten breaths that way, that’s a full meditation session; if they want to keep going, they can just start over and transfer the rocks back. Another approach to the breath is simply to keep one hand on the belly and to slowly push the hand out, inflating and deflating the balloon of the self. It’s fun.
Imitate. Sometimes when my kids can’t sleep, I talk them through the process of imitating being asleep. Get into that cozy curled-up pose; feel your body relax, so you’re like a little puddle; breathe really deeply and slowly, as if you’ve been asleep for hours. It works! In the same way, you can invite kids, when they sit on the cushion, to imitate how it feels to be really calm, or unshakeable, or to have a really kind heart, or to have the wisdom of a thousand years. You might find that they discover, just through that, the posture and attitude they need. Kids know more than they—or we—think they do.
Many times in Japan, I assisted when groups of elementary, junior high, or high school kids came to the temple to try zazen for the first time. They were so sincere, so eager to do something right—and so beautifully unsure of what they’d discover. This, I feel, is one of the great opportunities with children. While adults come to meditation because they want something, kids usually come out of simple curiosity. Maybe, just maybe, a little of that can rub off on us.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.