Last week I began to share some thoughts on the awesome and daunting task of the raising children who will remain steadfast in their faith throughout their adult lives. I promised to offer some guidance on exactly how we can be witnesses to our children of a living relationship with God on a daily basis.
Before I do so, however, I must make a basic point: being an effective witness to our children does not necessarily mean that we have to be paragons of moral perfection. What we do need is an attitude described best in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We are willing to grow along spiritual lines... We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” This fundamental mind-set will be crucial in determining whether or not our children will uphold us as spiritual role models and follow our path of faith.
Having resolved on a path of spiritual progress rather than perfection, our children should witness two basic activities in our lives. First and foremost, they should see us praying. This doesn’t mean we need to be overtly pious. Even someone who is fumbling towards the very existence of God can be a model of prayer as they cry from the depths of their soul, “If you are out there, reveal Yourself to me!”
As long as our kids see us involved in this kind of real, consistent and honest conversation with God, we will succeed in offering them a strong witness of faith. They will come to the accurate conclusion that Dad and/or Mum are sacrificing time and effort to reach out for God, which must mean that He is somehow important...
Of course, none of this will be effective unless the optics are correct. By this I mean that we should not only be involved in the effort of regular prayer, but that our children must also see us in the effort of regular prayer. It won’t hurt for them to “discover” you praying on one or two occasions. And if you set aside times for regular prayer, it is worth saying that you are “going to pray” within the reach of their little ears.
You may feel a bit self-conscious about exposing your prayer life like this, but remember that being a parent is a public role that involves a certain amount of staging for the good of our children. Think of all the conversations you avoid having in front of them and ask yourself why it is should be so strange to make personal prayer a matter of family discussion. Then consider the goal: to inculcate in your children the awareness that you are engaged in a living relationship with God. In the end, isn’t it worth a little discomfort?
Along with seeing you pray, your children should see you repenting daily. As I said earlier, they will not ultimately care about your imperfections, as long as you took an attitude of willingness to grow and progress along spiritual lines. Inwardly, such growth and progress involves the effort to pray; outwardly, it involves the effort to say sorry and make amends.
A story from early Christian literature tells of a traveler in the desert who came upon a monastery. Observing the monks, who were hermits, he finally asked one of the brothers, “What is it that you do every day in your cell?” The monk replied, “We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We fall down...”
Such is the spiritual life. What counts in the end is not whether we have fallen, but whether we are struggling to rise again. As parents, this means that the most powerful witness of our faith will depend on whether or not we have the humility and the courage to “get up” by repenting of our mistakes in the presence of our children.
This is perhaps the most difficult parenting challenge that we will face. It means apologizing to our spouses, our colleagues, friends, acquaintances and even strangers—in plain sight of our kids. Most importantly, it means making amends to the children themselves—a humbling and even terrifying prospect.
Difficult as it may be, however, we must answer the call to be witnesses of repentance to our children. If they do not see this key piece of our spiritual life, all our prayer, all our Church attendance and external piety will count for nothing with them. They will simply dismiss us as prideful hypocrites, and rightfully so.
According to Jesus, love for God and love for our neighbor are the two benchmarks of faith (see Matthew 22:36-40 and elsewhere). The extent to which you and I respond to these benchmarks will be all-important in shaping (if not determining) what path of faith our children will choose to follow or abandon.
If, as parents, we can manifest a love for God in a willingness to live a life of prayer (however imperfectly), and if we can demonstrate a love for our neighbor in a willingness to say sorry and make amends for our wrongs to those around us (especially in relation to our families), then we will have set in place a sound image of faith before the little ones who have been entrusted to us, and for whom we will give account on the Last Day.
More next time on some ways to go about catechizing your children at home.
Fr. Richard is the Rector of St.Aidan Orthodox Church, Cranbrook, Canada. Please go to the parish's website to read more articles by Fr.Richard.