By Fr. Alexis Miller
In the Orthodox Church we often use the expression that the home should be like "a little church." In Romania, a country the size of the state of Pennsylvania with over 500 monasteries, they take this saying a step further and say that the home should be like "a little monastery." It is my firm belief that in our increasingly secular and hedonistic culture, these sayings are true more now than ever. To raise Christian children in 21st century America, parents need all the help they can get from the church and, yes, even the monasteries.
As a parent of four children and as a youth worker in the secular arena, I have a great deal of experience working with kids. I've seen the successful results of raising kids according to God's laws and wisdom, and I've seen the damage done when parents don't draw from the rich resources of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I teach a parenting class in my vocation as a certified prevention professional and I always tell the parents, "You have to be militant against our culture to be successful at raising kids these days." Unfortunately most of these parents are outside the church and do not have the weapons they need to engage in this cultural battle. In fact, many of them are themselves caught up in the very cultural influences that are causing their kids to get involved in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, criminal behavior, sexual promiscuity, and poor school performance.
In this article I will share some suggestions for ways that we as Orthodox Christians can raise children who will be able to withstand the anti-Christian forces at work in our culture. If some of these suggestions hit too close to home, please forgive me. It is not my intention to condemn anyone or make anyone feel guilty if they have failures in the area of parenting and family relations. My hope is to give guidance to those who are in the midst of the challenge of raising and preserving Christian families in an antagonistic culture.
I'll start with some basics: Christian parents need to have good solid marriages. They need to be "grown up" in the sense that they know who they are, they are solid in their commitment to their spouses, and they are firmly planted in the church. Many of the parents I work with are too busy going through their own personal soap operas to have the time or emotional energy to give their kids the guidance and protection that kids need.
If you have been married in the Orthodox Church and have kids, you don't get to be an adolescent. You can't be wondering if you married the right person or be busy trying to turn your spouse into "the right person." The grace of the sacrament of marriage has been given to you and the righteous response is to put your hand to the plow and never look back. If your spouse can't make you happy, remember: we are put on this earth to be holy, not happy.
With a good marriage and a life centered in the local Orthodox Christian parish, Orthodox parents must set about the task of parenting with vigilance and intensity. Here are some practical suggestions:
1) Every child should go to bed at night with a Bible story being read to them by one of the parents. A good Bible story book will take a child completely through the major stories, themes, and lessons of the Old and New Testament in a relatively short period of time. With my own children I have used the same book over and over for the last 23 years. When I get to the end of it, I simply start over at the beginning. Each time they hear the stories they have grown a couple inches and gained more maturity and the stories are understood at a deeper level.
2) Families need to pray together. Christ the Savior Seminary has a wonderful little book of mealtime prayers that we have used in our home for years. Each week we sing the prayers in the vesperal tone of the week. What a joy to sing the Plain Chant in our home and practice for the stichera to be sung at Great Vespers on Saturday night. Families should also try to gather at least once a day for prayers at the family icon corner. This is one of the key ways that children perceive their home to be a "little church." This also helps them to realize that worship is not a once a week go to church type thing but is rather at the heart of who we are and what we do in this life.
3) The "little church" needs to be centered in the "big church." Attendance at Divine Liturgy, Vespers, and other services should not be optional for children. Children need to grow up knowing that this is simply what Orthodox Christians do, that the divine services are the most important, life-giving and, special events of the week. A rich liturgical life in both the small church and the big church will go along way in helping our children to grow up as worshippers of the One True God, the Holy Trinity.
4) After your spouse, your children need to be the most important people in your lives. Next to a strong marriage, your children's health and holiness need to be your highest priority as a family. Personal interests and hobbies that conflict with this priority need to be put on hold until the kids are raised. The more we invest in our children, the more they will identify with our values and take the course we have set for them. "Train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it."
In addition to all of these positive suggestions, I have a list of things from which Christian parents need to protect their children. There are many things in our culture that may not appear to be intrinsically evil but in reality war against our children and hinder them in living a holy Christian life. It is in regards to these things that the Romanian reference to the "little monastery" becomes particularly relevant.
1 Video games. Video games of almost any type are a great hindrance to the development of Christian virtues. Even educational types of games can be harmful in that they can create an over-dependence on entertainment, visual and audio stimulation, and immediate gratification. Many video games are overtly anti-Christian, promoting violence, selfishness, lust, criminal behavior and pleasure seeking of all kinds. In addition, they create hyperactivity, impatience, nervousness, and the need to be constantly entertained and stimulated. In no way do these games help the child to live a life of meditation upon God, quietness, patience, hard work, and living for others.
2. Television, music, internet, magazines and other forms of secular information media. Parents should strictly regulate what kinds of materials their children are exposed to, just as the abbot of a monastery gives his blessing for the monks to do their various tasks and activities. It is a grave error to allow children free reign on these types of materials. Everything should be scrutinized under the lens of the Holy Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and the whole Tradition of the church. Any form of entertainment or information which does not lift up and edify the human person as created in the image of God, should be avoided and prohibited.
3. Tolerance of sexual impurity and promiscuity. Our popular secular culture is at war against our children to take away their innocence and virginity. Orthodox Christian parents need to talk to their children about sexual issues as soon as they are old enough to comprehend the subject. They should be taught that virginity is the highest prize of their childhood and the greatest gift they can give to their future spouse.
Parents need to set "old-fashioned" parameters for their children in terms of dating and how they relate to the opposite sex. The lives of the monastic and married saints should be lifted up as examples of marital fidelity, chastity and purity. Children should be exposed to the monastic life of the church and be allowed to consider monasticism as a life choice.
Orthodox parents should not assume their children will be able to keep their virginity in this culture which is so aggressively pushing them to be sexually active. We need to be aggressive and militant in promoting sexual purity to our children and often this will mean saying no to them. This means saying no to t-shirts that expose the belly-button, low hanging jeans that expose the waist line, and other articles of clothing bent on exposing more and more of the human body. The American fashion industry is set on making teen age girls look as sexy as possible. This is in no way compatible with Orthodox Christianity.
4. Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. These substances pose a great threat to the spiritual and physical health of our children. In fact, the use of tobacco is a primary predictor of a child who is at risk of poor school performance, sexual promiscuity, criminal activity, and other risky behaviors. Parents need to have an open line with their kids about these substances from the earliest years and kids need to have a clear message of disapproval from their parents concerning the use of any mind-altering substance including tobacco.
In conclusion, Orthodox Christian parents cannot afford to be wimps. We need to take the authority of an abbot in our little monasteries, providing our children with spiritual formation bathed in the tradition of the church. This requires courage and mental fortitude, being able to withstand our children's anger at times, and determination to stand against the current tide. Christian parenting in the 21st century is like swimming upstream in a swollen river. The good news is that if we stay firmly anchored to the arc of the Church we and our children will not be swept away in the rushing waters of a nation that has forgotten God. We have in the church every resource we need to raise holy and healthy children who will be able to keep their virginity, stay free from drug addiction, and reach their full potential as human beings created in the image of the One God in Three Persons, the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit.