Young children in the Orthodox Church. Part 2: The Orthodox Child at Home

Uprooting Self-Will

As has been stated before, the child will do nothing at church which he has not learned at home. Children, not being hypocritical by nature, act according to what they have been taught by their parents. Curiously, parents are often unaware of what they have really taught their children until they see the results manifested in public. That is why this book began with the child at Divine Liturgy—with all the incipient problems highlighted. It is often easier to choose to blame the traditional Orthodox Church for making the church atmosphere uncomfortable for parents of uncontrollable children. But if we are honest with ourselves, then we are forced to take a hard look at our home life and our methods of discipline in order to find out where we went wrong.

What most of us will find when we view our child-rearing methods through an Orthodox perspective is that we have allowed the child to develop a powerful self-will. We have come to expect disobedience rather than obedience from the child. Indeed, we have often conformed ourselves the child's will, striving to mold ourselves to the child's every whim and desire, desperate to win and hold the child's love and approval.

What's wrong with this picture? It is a perfect photographic negative of what Orthodox family life is supposed to be. Black is white and white is black whenever we embrace worldly standards of parenthood. This also means that we are calling good (strict discipline and high standards) evil (repressive, fanatic) and evil (no discipline, low standards) good ("affirming", understanding of "differently-abled" children).

Self-will, once it is firmly established, is so antithetical to Orthodoxy that it will render spiritual growth impossible. It is the responsibility of the parents to impose their will upon the child, even in the smallest details, even in the seemingly insignificant areas of the child's life.

The will of the parents should be imprinted upon each step— of course in a general way. Without this, the behavior of the child can easily become corrupted. After enjoying himself according to his own will, the child always returns unwilling to obey even in the smallest things; and this if it happens only once—what then can one say if this part of bodily activity is completely neglected? How difficult it is later to uproot self-will, which so quickly seats itself in the body as in a fortress. The neck will not bend, the hands and feet will not move, and the eyes will not even wish to look as they are told.

But on the contrary, a child comes out ready to obey any kind of order when from the very beginning he is not given total freedom in his movements. In addition, there is no better training in being the master of one's body than by forcing it to exert itself according to orders. (St. Theophan the Recluse, Raising Them Right, Conciliar Press, 1989, p. 34.)

Take, for example, a toddler who becomes obstinate about food. The child is given a healthy breakfast but he refuses to eat because he would rather play at that moment. He screams and cries and thrusts the food away from him. Fine. Let him get down. A parent cannot and should not force a child to eat. However, the child should not be offered any more food until a specific time determined by the parent, preferably the next mealtime. If the parent becomes obsessive about the child's eating habits to the point where the child is fed on demand, the child will learn:

1). The world revolves around me. My desires supersede those of my parents and they must act according to my will.

2). It is important that I never feel hungry or uncomfortable in any way.
How could one expect such a child to respond to the idea of fasting when he comes of age? It is especially important that the child not connect the idea of "love" with the idea of "instant gratification." Otherwise, all attempts at helping the child to grow spiritually will be greeted as frightening portents of abandonment.

From very early childhood the child must learn that he will eat food given by a parent or permitted by a parent at the time decided by the parent. He will play when and where the parent decides. A child must learn from infancy to look to his parents for guidance and not to his own will. We must be careful here to note that overcoming self-will is not easy at all. We must expect to struggle and sometimes have unpleasant confrontations with our children. This can certainly be exhausting but if parents give in to their children's demands, even once, spiritual ground is lost that is very difficult to regain. A child who cries in order to get his way, for example, will cry for everything once he finds that this method moves the parents to sympathy. This so-called "sensitive" child is merely a manipulator of the feelings of others. To cater to this kind of manipulation as though it were a touching character trait is to develop the child into a self- involved cry-baby who will be unable to "cope" with anything he chooses to avoid.

Daily Life

The Orthodox family gets up in time to say their morning prayers together. If this means missing some sleep, bear in mind that it is not only a good spiritual discipline for the adults in the family, but a tremendous example to the children of where the family's priorities truly lie. Of course, extenuating circumstances might render this schedule impractical. If a member of the household works nights, for example, he should be allowed to say his prayers later.

Before eating or drinking anything, each member of the family should have some antidoron or a sip of holy water. By this act we remind ourselves that every good gift comes from Our Father in Heaven. When children begin each day with prayer and by partaking in holy things, they will be far less likely to associate piety and godliness as attributes to be considered on Sunday at Church.

In our culture, breakfast is likely to be a hurried, informal meal. However, this is no excuse to forget either the blessing or one's table manners. If the children are attending public school, chances are that they have picked up some fairly deplorable habits which must be vigilantly corrected. As with any other meal, complaints about the food must not be tolerated. The day should start with a nutritious meal but that does not mean that the mother must become a short-order cook catering to each individual whim.

After breakfast, when various members of the family have made their way to work or school, the traditional Orthodox mother will find herself at home with her smaller children. Or, if she is homeschooling, all her children will be there with her. The children will not be at a day care center while she is at work because then we would not be discussing the traditional Orthodox home. Frankly, the concept of a mother dropping her children of each day at an institution in which a few underpaid employees attempt to supervise several children at once is antithetical to the idea of Orthodox homelife. The mother who wants to instill true Christian spirituality in her children must be there to see to it herself.

Though cleanliness and orderliness in the home are important and should not be neglected, the Orthodox mother should avoid the use of television as a babysitter while she attends to household chores. No matter what the sponsors of children's shows may try to tell us, there is very little on television which is actually instructive or substantial. The rapidity with which the images are shown have a mind- numbing affect on a toddler and afford them little opportunity for interactive play. Television does, however, become addictive and parents who indulge this addiction usually end up experiencing the very unnerving phenomenon of their small children demanding to see "their" programs and throwing tantrums when their demands are not met.

Far more instructive is the constant verbal communication that should be taking place between mother and child. This is how a young child learns to speak correctly. If the child is allowed to play in the same area of the house where the mother is doing her chores, they can have a lot of positive interaction without the mother having to leave her tasks and devote her entire attention to the child. In addition, some time should be set aside for the mother to read stories and play games with the child. A mother is her child's first and best teacher provided she does not turn her responsibilities over to the television set.

This is also a good time to introduce children to concepts of beauty and harmony, particularly in the area of music appreciation. Without worldly biases, small children inately love that which is lovely. Peaceful and intricate melodies not only calm babies and small children but help them to form a preference for that which is beautiful. As the child grows, he will come in contact with cynical peers who identify their world view with nihilistic noise. The best protection an Orthodox parent can offer is to instill in the child a love of beauty and a belief in good, as embodied by the Orthodox Church and expressed in many ways by those who love God.

What else can a young child learn at home with his mother? Other than the basic skills necessary for functioning as a social being, the Orthodox child is forming a conscience and it is critical that this conscience be formed correctly. He must not be shielded from the fact that he is a fallen creature capable of sin and in need of repentance. This self-knowledge must be cultivated. The mother must be strong and look at her child in the light of what is best for his eternal soul. She must:

1) Firmly insist that every command she gives to the child, even the seemingly least significant, be obeyed. If obedience is not forthcoming, there should be immediate and unpleasant consequences. A mother who sighs and smiles after such a transgression, saying, "I just can't get him to do a thing I say," has abdicated her responsibility for the child's soul.

2) Teach the child to respect other people's property. This may mean that the mother will find herself endlessly repeating, "Is that yours? No, that is not yours. Don't touch." This will not only help instill a certain humility in the child (I am not the center of the universe. Everything does not belong to me), but it renders the child far more trustworthy in situations where he is not under constant supervision.

3) Teach the child to ask permission. Anyone who has visited an Orthodox monastery knows that the monks ask a blessing of the abbot before they do anything - begin their work, go out on an errand, take a drink of water. This not only helps the monks spiritually in accepting authority and acting in obedience, it helps the abbot maintain good order in the monastery. If a monk were to take food without asking, how would the abbot know whether the brothers had enough food for the evening meal? The same is true in the Orthodox household. If a child must ask permission before eating, then the mother knows how much food he has eaten and whether or not he might make himself sick by having more. If the child must ask permission before he goes out to play, the mother knows where he is and will not spend time franticly searching for him.

Permissiveness is not kindness. A young child who has bonded to his mother from infancy desires to please her. His willfullness and rebellion do not make him happy; they are merely traits of fallen humanity. Some modern theories teach that it is wrong to make a child apologize when they have done something wrong. They surmise that since the child is not able to feel genuine contrition, we make the child into a hypocrite by forcing them to say what they do not feel. The baptized Orthodox Christian child does indeed feel the inner imbalance of his soul when he has sinned. He must be taught to recognize the source of that imbalance and to express the repentance that is necessary for him to be restored to harmony with God.

What frost is for flowers, so is the transgression of the parents' will for a child; he cannot look you in the eyes, he does not desire to enjoy kindnesses, he wishes to run away and be alone; but at the same time his soul becomes crude, and the child begins to grow wild. It is a good thing to dispose him ahead of time to repentance, so that without fear, and with trust and with tears, he might come and say, "I did something wrong." (Ibid, p. 43.)
In the evening, the family is reunited. The evening meal should be taken together. Sadly, our society has largely abandoned the concept that it is important for the family to come together in joyful fellowship at the end of the day. Frantic accommodation of various schedules, snacks taken in front of the television, grazing from the refrigerator — these have taken the place of meaningful conversation and the bonding of parents and children around the dining room table. Let it not be so for the Orthodox family. The hectic pace of life being what it is, the evening meal may be one of the few times we have during the work week to relax and enjoy one another's company. This is where children learn how to make congenial conversation and have a chance to tell the important events of their day. It should be an opportunity for everyone at the table to talk about the things that interest them with the people they love most. This is not the occasion for the mother to tell her husband about the transgressions of the younger children, or for heated arguments of any kind, or for adolescent sullenness, or for complaints about the food. Informality within the family does not mean that we are free to be our rudest and crudest with those who must put up with us. It means we are free to express our love and interest in those with whom our lives are entwined.

At whatever time is most suitable to bring the entire family together, we say our evening prayers. This may be followed by the daily scripture reading or a reading from the lives of the Saints. These are very beneficial for children as it gives them spiritual heroes to emulate. If, when we begin the practice of spiritual readings, younger children become squirmy and inattentive, we must not be discouraged. They will soon accept whatever is routinely done and will understand what is said better with time.

In Conclusion

For Orthodox Christians, every day is dedicated to God. Our earthly concerns must always be secondary to our spiritual concerns. This is what our children must see and experience always. When there is a Feast Day of the Church, the Orthodox family must make every attempt to be present at the services for the Feast. If this means missing school or work, the sacrifice of that time will only help to underline the fact that worship of God is a priority. When, for some reason, it is impossible for the family to attend services on a Feast Day, they should make an effort to either say some of the prayers from the services in their icon corner at home (if they have the books) or teach the children the significance of the feast day and read the appropriate scripture readings from the Bible. At all times, the children should be made aware of festal and fasting periods and what is expected of them during these periods. The more they know of the cycle of the Church calendar, the more Orthodox children will feel themselves to be a part of the greater Body of Christ.

Source: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/youngchildren.aspx