In the Holy Orthodox Church, child rearing has long been considered a God-appointed, sacred and extremely important mission, as evidenced by the writings of St. John Chrysostom on education of children. Other saints (St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Silhouan the Athonite and New Martyr Empress Alexandra Romanova, to name a few) have also addressed the issue of family life and the upbringing of children.
Having this in mind, it is all the more puzzling for some why so many Orthodox couples struggle to raise their children within an Orthodox Christian frame of values.
Certain Orthodox sources seem to suggest strict segregation from the world, and home-schooling as an ideal to aspire to. As much as this sounds noble-minded and fool-proof, it is not necessarily the exclusive, even authentic, interpretation of the teachings of our Church. Additionally, contemporary Orthodox families are more involved in modern society than our ancestors. It is therefore increasingly difficult to isolate our children completely from the outside world and its influence, particularly in this new, fast-paced digital age. Obviously, there has to be a balance that enables us to be in the world, but “not of this world,” and parents are charged with the task to give children the tools to cope with secular challenges and yet remain true to the Faith by witnessing to it with their everyday actions. Fr. Tom Kazich introduces this problem more broadly in his excellent article, “The Missing Child”, printed in The Path, February 2012.
So, how is it that, having the solid teachings of the Church as support, along with a few random compilations from the Holy Fathers about family life, that the contemporary Orthodox parents feel lost and complain of the lack of guidance in raising their families in the Faith?
It could be that for an average Orthodox person, weighed down by everyday errands and worries, such resources are not so obvious or readily available, and that they do not have access to proper interpretations of Church writers in the modern context. These would most directly be provided by the parish priest. Also, certain Church writings might seem to offer a lot of theory, but not much practical advice on how to meet existing challenges that parents face.
Many younger parents belong to a generation that did not have the privilege to grow up in a Christian home, and they feel disconnected from the vast experience and traditions that such a life offers. These parents are now actively searching for a new set of values to impart to their children that would arguably be deeper than the superficial adherence to societal rules of proper conduct.
Seeing that quite a few Orthodox texts and books are painfully disengaged from real life, contemporary Orthodox parents often turn to secular parenting books in search of answers to their child rearing dilemmas. However, while there are plenty of “real issues” addressed in them, few of these books even remotely reflect the values and goals of parenting the Orthodox would find relevant.
So, what are these experts saying? It proves to be a tall order – 1) their advice to take charge of our children’s life, and 2) the enormous responsibility thrown at parents to be the omniscient, omnipotent enablers of their children’s happiness and success in this world. No mention, naturally, of giving our children over to God’s care and tending to their souls rather than worrying about their worldly success and material needs alone. After all, parents need a break, too, and relief from the pressure to break the code of perfect parenting. Ironically, oftentimes this pressure comes from the very people who advertise their intention to help.* (see note below)
Today’s parents are stressed out, overworked and anxious about doing the right thing by their children. This concern often inspires them to “overdo it” in their parenting efforts, resorting to what has been labeled as “helicopter parenting,” micro-managing their children’s existing activities and burdening them with an ever increasing list of new ones.
Furthermore, one rising trend in child rearing practices is to succumb to the fear-mongering that parents are exposed to in the media and society at large. It consists of creating an impression that our children are constantly in danger of something, whether it be germs, the traffic, unsafe playgrounds, swimming, tree-climbing, bullying, pedophiles, kidnappers… As a result we see fewer and fewer kids walking or biking to school, playing in the streets with their friends and engaging in activities long considered the staples of a fun-filled childhood. Of course, there are some real threats out there, but they should be put into perspective, and not blown out of proportion.
As far as the Orthodox parents are concerned, they do not have to feel pressured to assume God’s role to protect their children from all known and unknown threats. It is an impossible task for a human. An Orthodox person understands that, after doing one’s best to take care of one’s offspring, “practicing what we preach” to our children and prayer with faith are what truly supplements any shortcomings of faulty human actions.
As a mother of three, I will admit that I have experienced my fair share of anxiety and mistakes in raising my children. Will they remain Orthodox throughout their life, will they preserve their virtues and values, will they forget how to speak Serbian – all in an environment not conducive to any of it? Often, in times of greatest distress and insecurity, I have wished for a manual that would just outright tell me how to be a good Orthodox mother who will raise her children to love God and His Holy Church. However, this great God’s gift of children does not come with ready care instructions.
Ultimately, the best advice I have ever heard is that we should spend less time talking to our children about God, and more time talking to God about our children, that is, praying to God for them. And by striving to draw nearer to God, we can be sanctified by God’s grace and our home made holy, along with the family living in it.
* These parenting experts are scrutinized in the thought-provoking book Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, c 2002.) by Dr. Frank Furedi, British sociologist and professor at the University of Kent. He claims that child psychologists, pediatricians and other child professionals inundate parents with their, often contradictory, advice based on momentary and ever-changing trends in child development theories and nurturing practices. For example, in a chapter entitled “Parents as Gods,” Dr. Furedi comments on the perception that parent initiative shapes virtually every aspect of a child’s future (what he calls parental determinism). By contrast, in the chapter “Professional Power and the Erosion of Parental Authority,” we see how parental competence is actually not being validated amidst the constant barrage of how-to’s of upbringing. Instead of being supported, parents are disempowered and professionals empowered. – A.P