Dear Brothers and Sisters,
As God has seen fit to grant our mission growth, we are now experiencing growing pains. Particularly, we are learning how to incorporate families with young children into our parish life. I think over the last little while both parents and the community at large has felt some discomfort as parents have struggled to learn how to teach their children to behave in Church. With this in mind, I would like to address both the community at large and parents on the matter of young children in Church.
For the community at large, we must remember first that young children are just as much a part of the Church as the oldest and wisest Parish Counsel members. These children are our future, and patiently teaching them to love the Church is not only the responsibility of parents, but of all of us. Those of us without children must patiently and compassionately endure the small disturbances that young children make. Moreover, those of us who are parents of older children must be ready to help when called upon–and more than that, we should be offering young parents our help.
Jesus said, “suffer the little children to come to me.” Yes, “suffer” here means allow, but it also means to endure with patience whatever is necessary so that young children can come to Christ. For some, disturbance in prayer is a cross that will bring about not only their own salvation, but also the salvation of others. Raising children who love the Church is probably the most difficult task most parents will ever struggle through. The prayers, help and patience of all of us is necessary for parents to be successful.
On a practical note, I strongly suggest that those who find themselves very disturbed by young children in worship, stand as close to the front of the Church as possible. This will help them. First, it will help because it will make room in the back of the church for parents with children. Parents with small children usually come to church the latest (which, all of us who are parents certainly understand). However, when they arrive, there is no room in the back of the Nave, so they end up moving toward the front. Now everyone must watch the children, whether they are cute or misbehaving, everyone is watching the children instead of paying attention to the prayers. Standing forward also provides another benefit. When we stand forward in the Church to pray, we have to turn our head to look away from the Icons. If we keep our heads forward, we are better able to pray despite distractions around us.
For parents of small children, I would like to address the following comments. First, as I mentioned above, raising our children to love God and His Church is the greatest and most important ministry of our lives. God has designed the process of Christian child rearing as one of the primary ways to work in our lives the Christ-like virtues that save our souls: 1Timothy 2:15 says, “But she will be saved through childbearing, if they abide in faith and love and sanctification with sober-mindedness.” Many fathers of the Church comment that this is not merely a reference to giving birth, but to the whole process of bearing (raising) children to “abide in faith and love.”
However, like every great endeavor that God sets before us, raising children to love God and His Church requires one quality in parents that is the foundation of all others: humility. Children will, sooner or later, humble parents. The sooner parents accept this, the better for the child. Each child is a distinct human person. Training each child requires insight beyond the ability of any one set of parents. God does not expect parents to know how to raise their children by themselves. This was never part of God’s plan. Parents are to raise children with the help and advice of wise older relatives and friends who have already successfully raised children. When parents of young children ask the help and advice of older parents, they receive two important advantages. First, they receive advice that has been tried by time. Older parents can tell stories of what they have tried and what has worked and what has not. When Bonnie and I began having Children, we were far away from any family because I was still going to school. We had no relatives to turn to for help, so we sought advice from older parents in our Church who had children that we wanted our children to grow up to be like. These older parents gave us advice. They recommended books and answered questions for us. They taught us practical ways to discipline our children, ways that actually worked. And most of all, they encouraged us in our struggle; they let us know that we were normal.
The second advantage young parents can receive from older parents is the truth–if they really love you. Older parents can tell you the truth about whether what you are doing with your own child is working well or not. I remember how painful it was for me when my best friend told me that I was spoiling my oldest daughter. I couldn’t believe him–I thought I was a good parent. Finally, I had to accept, even if I couldn’t see it myself at the time, that I needed to be more strict; for, even though I couldn’t see that I was spoiling my child, others could.
Of course, each child and each family circumstance is unique. There is no 100% method for raising godly children, and all advice must be considered humbly and prayerfully. However, the first and most important step young parents can take in raising children that love God and His Church is to recognize that they do not know how to do it, and that without God’s help and plenty of advice from wiser older parents who have successfully raised children, they will not succeed. A mother’s and father’s love has the miraculous power to show a child what God’s love is like. At the same time, because we are fallen in sin, parental love can blind us and keep us from seeing what we don’t want to see in our children. Thank God, the remedy for all sin is in the Church. By humbling ourselves and asking for help (for if we do not ask, we do not receive St. James says), we can find grace and help in time of need. In the Church, God has provided everything necessary for salvation, but like all other gifts from God, the gift of wise parenting is not found in any one individual. It is distributed in the Church so that we must seek it out and humbly receive from one another.
Assuming that young parents want help raising their children to love God and His Church, the following are a few suggestions. First, for others–not parents of small children–don’t try to give advice or help unless you are asked to do so. Please respect the freedom and responsibility of parents to raise and discipline, or not discipline, their own children as seems best to them. It is a serious mistake and true evidence of pride and arrogance to think you know better how to raise a child than the child’s parents. You may, of course, offer to help. But if your help is not wanted at that time, you must commit the matter to prayer assuming that God has not given you wisdom to help at that moment. Certainly, young parents need our prayers much more than they need our advice.
Second, teaching young children to behave in Church begins by teaching them at home, in the home-church. Teaching young children to say prayers at home and to sit or stand quietly while their parents say prayers is a very important part of teaching children to be well behaved in Church. For example, a mother who had been in the habit of only praying while her child napped, might begin at a different time by teaching the child to sit quietly on a small blanket while she said the Trisagion prayers. After doing this every day (or even twice a day) for a while, she could add a few more prayers. In a few weeks, the child will be accustomed to sitting quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time while mother prayed. This behavior is then easily transferred to Church. The important thing to keep in mind is that if you want to change a child’s behavior in Church, you must begin by practicing at home. I know of one family with several children that used to play Church at home. One of the children would put a blanket on his shoulders and pretend to be the priest and the sisters would pretend to be the choir. They acted out the Great Entrance and even pretended to receive Holy Communion. In this way, the parents taught the children correct behavior in Church. Whether or not this method was ideal, it seemed to work for this family.
Third, when children misbehave in Church, as they inevitably do, parents must take them out of the Nave before they start to make a lot of noise. If one or two quiet “shushes” don’t work, it’s time to take the child out. There is, however, a technique to taking children out of the Nave. If you take a child out of the Nave for misbehavior, the child should not be rewarded by being allowed to do something pleasant in the other room. That is, when a child is removed for misbehavior, his or her experience in the other room should be less pleasant than in the Nave. At the same time, a parent needs to pay attention to how much time his or her child can endure without a break. If you notice that your child has been well behaved for a while and it is about time for a little break, take out your child for a little walk or to color in the other room for a while. Be sure to tell him or her that this is a reward for their good behavior in the Nave. Then when you take the child out for misbehavior, the child will know the difference.
Having said this, I acknowledge that every now and then there are bad days. The child may be teething or have a little bug. At such times, parents have to do whatever works best at the moment keeping in mind that a parent’s first duty to Christ is to care for the child. God will hear the prayers of a mother or father rocking a teething baby in the nursery just as well as if they were standing in the Nave. At the same time, others in the Nave will be able to pray more peacefully without the continual noise of a child who is out of sorts that day. In every area of our life, we must find balance–this is no less true in how we raise our children. But if the truth be told, the bad days are not really the problem. Bad days and good days are part of the cycle of our lives. The real matter is what we do on normal days: children are not taught by exceptions, they are taught by regular activity and patterns.
Brothers and sisters, this is the Church: life together, iron sharpening iron, as the Bible says. What does “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ” mean? It means that we will all be somewhat burdened by getting along with one another, loving one another, and learning that noone–not the priest, not the bishop, not the parish counsel, not parents, and not children–noone gets his own way. We are going God’s way, and noone knows the mind of God except the Spirit of God who leads us. So brothers and sisters as together we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, let us be ready to adjust, ready to change and be changed, for this is only the beginning, heaven awaits us.