Young children in the Orthodox Church. Part 3: The Orthodox Child in the World

At School

To be honest, the atmosphere which prevails in the average public school is not exactly conducive to promoting civilized behavior, much less Christian conduct. The greater part of what the Orthodox parent tries to convey to the child at home will be quickly unlearned at school because of the child's desire to fit in with the herd. Hypocrisy and shame will often have the child leading a double life if the parents are not extremely vigilant and careful. Ideally, Orthodox children should be schooled at home but the ideal is not always attainable. Accordingly, here are some guidelines for helping a child maintain his identity as an Orthodox Christian within the public school system.

1) Have your own dress code and enforce it. Children express their identity by their outward appearance. Many inner city school are moving to curb gang involvement and discipline problems by issuing uniforms and banning make-up and jewelry. Thus far these methods have proven quite successful. Even if your child's school has not instituted such regulations, you should insist that your child be attired modestly and without unnecessary adornment. Girls should be wearing dresses or skirts. If for the sake of modesty, a girl needs to wear shorts, they may be worn under the dress. The use of hairspray and the wearing of boyish or distracting hairstyles should be discouraged. Boys should be wearing clothing that fits them properly and should have their hair properly trimmed. There is a mistaken notion among some Orthodox Christians that boys who serve as candle-bearers or readers must wear their hair long as a monk or priest does. This is not true and should not serve as an excuse on religious grounds to violate existing school dress codes.

2) Emphasize the importance of keeping fasts at school. Temptations will be many and will come not only from the child's peers but from teachers who want to treat the children (almost always on a Friday). Provide tasty sack lunches on fast days. It is not usually too difficult to give the child something more desirable than the usual cafeteria fare. Bring fasting treats to school parties which are held during a fast period. Let the teachers know about Orthodox fasting practices at the beginning of the school year so your child will not experience discomfort at having to explain concepts he may be unable to articulate. Above all, let your child know you are proud of him when he has refused something he would like to have eaten. He will remember that encouragement when future temptations arise.

3) Make the child think always in terms of acting as a Christian and pleasing Christ with his behavior. If the child does something wrong at school, he should admit it and be willing to take the consequences. A child who blames others for his behavior or lies to escape punishment is developing a pattern of moral cowardice. A parent who blames others for the child's behavior (The teacher doesn't like him. It was the other kid's idea. He just went along), or shields the child from the fair punishment he deserves is training him to be a moral coward, or perhaps training him to be immoral. Encourage the child to forgive the children who wrong him and tease him. Help the child to try and see things from the perspective of the teacher who always seems so grumpy and hands out so much homework. Never give the child an excuse for not meeting their obligations at school. If he misses class to attend Divine Services, make it clear that he must make up the work. Try to have a good relationship with the teacher so that if problems arise, the communication lines are open to discuss them.

4) Teach your child that he must never be ashamed of being an Orthodox Christian. Wearing a cross, saying a blessing before eating, refraining from blasphemy or cruelty, these are all things which set him apart from an unthinking crowd of young people who have no idea who they are. Do your best to convince him that confusion and fear of ridicule are not enviable motivations for living.

As a parent, do not be deceived into believing that the school owns your child or has any right to dictate to you how your child should be educated or what values he should be learning. If the school is offering a course which you find morally objectionable, have your child excused. If the school will not excuse your child from the course, withdraw your child from the school. Whether or not you choose to argue the merits of a particular class, your child should not be subjected either to morally questionable material or to the ensuing controversy should you decide to fight to have the material removed.

At Other People's Homes

Specifically here, we are referring to homes of non-Orthodox friends, though some of the ideas deal with manners which would apply in anyone's home. Most Orthodox Christians in America do not live in Orthodox communities. Our children will undoubtedly have friends who not only know nothing about our religious beliefs but know very little about any kind of religious beliefs. Even the idea that our children may not be allowed to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it may leave them incredulous. If we tell our children that they may only associate with those people whose values are identical to our own, they may be waiting a long, lonely time for such people to appear. What is more, they will either develop into unbearably self-righteous judgmental prigs or they will reject us as such.

However, just because the child is in a different environment, he should not adapt his behavior to suit the surroundings to the extent that he ceases to be an Orthodox Christian in the presence of his friends. In fact, if the environment renders it impossible for him to act as a Christian, he probably does not need to be there. This sounds like a difficult balancing act but usually it is merely a matter of putting two key ideas into practice:

1) The child should act in the homes of others as he does in his own home. That is, he should be obedient to the adults in authority, ask permission, and respect the property of others.

2) The child should not judge non-Orthodox people by Orthodox standards. They do not sin when they do not fast on a Wednesday or a Friday. The child need only remark about Orthodox fasting rules in reference to himself when offered something he may not have.

If there is good communication between Orthodox parents and their children, visits by the children to their friends' homes should not be a source of anxiety. The world is a strange place, however, and we sometimes do well to err on the side of caution. Be sure your child tells you if anything goes on in the home which is disturbing to him and act accordingly. Serious problems, such as drunken or out of control adults on the premises, require that the child not be allowed to visit the home. Lesser problems, such as the family saying no blessing before they eat, require that the child learn to say a quiet blessing for himself and remember his friends in prayer that they may ultimately come to know God.

In some homes, television is watched rather indiscriminately and music is played which contains some rather vulgar or even blasphemous lyrics. If your child has been brought up in the proper atmosphere of piety and has developed a real appreciation of beauty, he will be repulsed by these things. Depending on the circumstance, the child should be encouraged not to spend play time watching television with his friends. But if the friend watches only family type programs, it will do no harm to allow the child this form of occasional entertainment. If, however, these friends seem to spend all their time in front of the set, or they encourage your child to watch objectionable shows or listen to inappropriate music, then these are not friendships worth cultivating. At the same time, we need not insist that the child leave the house just because an older brother of the child's friend listens to rock music in his room or the parents watch a questionable sitcom in the den while the kids are playing in another room. Let him take his leave only when he is placed in uncomfortable proximity to the disturbing imagery.

If the child's friends lead him into unruly behavior by their example and he is unable to resist the temptation to act as they do, then it is time to deny permission to the child to spend time with such friends. A child cannot learn too soon that being led into sin by one's friends can result in negative consequences. This lesson, among others, helps build a child's strength of character and individuality.

On Vacation

Ideally, the Orthodox Christian family should spend some vacation time each year at an Orthodox monastery or convent. These visits are especially important in helping children establish positive role models and sparking in them an interest in monasticism. For all Orthodox Christians, monastics represent a spiritual ideal which help us to put into perspective the very few sacrifices required of us as lay people. When children see monks and nuns acting in obedience and humility, being of cheerful service to others, and gladly spending long hours in prayer, they understand much better the attitudes and actions required of them. Of course, we always hope that some of these children will decide to become monastics themselves but it would be unrealistic to expect them to evince such a desire if they have not had the opportunity to see this life for themselves. Whatever sacrifices of time and money it may require, a visit to an Orthodox monastery or convent should be a priority for every Orthodox family.

Of course, there are other types of vacations. Those taken with the family are not so much a problem for Orthodox children. The family will naturally say morning and evening prayers together and keep the fasts wherever they are. But what about vacations spent with non-Orthodox or nominally Orthodox relatives?

It does sometimes happen that a relative wishes to have a child come and stay with them during a vacation, but knowing that this relative has a somewhat low opinion of the traditions of our faith, we feel reluctant to let the child go. Whether we should or not depends on whether the relative will allow us to set some ground rules for the visit. If the ground rules will be respected, these visits should not be a problem. We must insist:

1) That he child not be harassed about any aspect of his faith. Make it clear that negative remarks about fasting, prayer, the child's traditional appearance (i.e. a girl not being allowed to wear pants), the child's interest in monasticism, etc. constitute harassment and will render another visit by the child to this relative improbable.

2) That the child be allowed to fast on fast days. Peanut-butter sandwiches and fruit are perfectly acceptable. It should never be implied that the relative go to great expense or trouble to entertain a fasting child. This is another area where it will stand the child in good stead if he has learned not to complain about food.

3) That the child be allowed to attend Church on Sundays, if possible. This needs to be gauged by the individual parent. If the relative is not Orthodox and lives far from an Orthodox Church, perhaps it would be better for the child to say his prayers in the relative's home. If the relative is Orthodox but considers vacations to be time off of Church, one can afford to be more insistent as the example is a terrible one for the child.

Equip the child with the necessary prayer books, icons, and prayer rope so that he will have no excuse to miss saying prayers and remind him that the relatives will only take his religion as seriously as he does. Do not encourage him in judging his relatives or treating their beliefs with disdain. The more truly Christian he acts, the more interested in Orthodoxy they will be.

In Conclusion

There are no guarantees that applying any of the above suggestions will result in our children remaining in the Orthodox Church into adulthood. This is a sad fact but one which must be faced. We live in difficult times and our children face myriad temptations. We cannot ultimately force Orthodoxy upon them. They must choose it for themselves. We are, however, accountable for what kind of teachings they receive during their formative years. If we have done our job, the chances are greater that they will remain Orthodox or, if they leave the Church, that they will come back. They will not come back because they like us so much or because we filled every minute of their childhood with fun. They will come back because their hard experience in the world will teach them some respect for our strictness and because we told them the truth even when it hurt. There can be no other definition of love for a Christian than a sincere desire for someone's salvation. The love we bear our children must be according to that definition at the expense of any other which the world may try to impose upon us.

Is it remarkable that there are so few who are being saved among those who have led a bad youth? This example more clearly than anything else indicates in what great danger is a person who has not received good rules in his youth and has not beforehand dedicated himself to God.

What good fortune therefore it is to receive a good, truly Christian upbringing, to enter with it into the years of youth, and then in the same spirit to enter into the years of adulthood.