Kicking off my sandals and lowering myself into one of the rental company’s wooden chairs, I took in the sights and sounds of our daughter’s wedding reception. Our son-in-law and daughter were standing under the birch trees, juggling our grandson; godchildren danced after bubbles blown in the breeze; beloved clergy were chatting across a table; relatives and friends from as far away as England had joined us. A second stellar son-in-law was joining our family, and our other five children were there with us to participate as bridesmaids, a groomsman, a ring bearer, and a photographer, and all we could do was thank God for His mercy.
Yet the day flew by in a flurry of activity, and before we knew it, Tim and I were standing in our kitchen at one in the morning, surveying the damage—mountains of food to be stored, glasses and streamers and half-full plastic bubble bottles everywhere, our checkbook emptied of checks and cash, and our feet and backs aching. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that this event was a snapshot of Orthodox family life today. That is, those brief moments of achievement and accomplishment, while joyous and deeply satisfying, don’t happen without a ton of hard work!
Has it ever been easy to raise balanced, God-fearing children who are wholeheartedly committed to Christ and His Church? Orthodox parents have labored under the yoke of pagan Rome, barbarian invasions, famine, the spread of Islam, Communist oppression. While this is not our context, my quick poll of fellow parents revealed that we too have our own challenges and we carry our own heavy burdens.
In the world, you have tribulation
Just what is it that makes it difficult to parent in today’s American milieu?
In 2009, the accelerating rate of change, the spinning pace people keep, and the lack of quiet is an enemy that contends for our souls and the hearts of our children. We don’t know how to be still or to “throw things off the boat” as my father confessor aptly puts it. In our hectic lives, we multitask continually, and much of this activity has very little to do, at least overtly, with our lives in Christ. No matter how I might justify it, my overcrowded schedule leaves little room for quiet dinners and evenings with my children, for a walk around the neighborhood that might open the door for me to connect with them, or just a cozy snuggle and prayer before they go to sleep.
“You feel like you’re spiritually dying, like you never have time to pray,” one mom told me as we reflected on this treadmill. Worse, our kids have no clue how to be settled in their spirits, to allow room for thought and contemplation which would open the door to a sense of God’s presence. Constantly over stimulated by activity or portable media devices, they lose an experience of the world as it is, given to us from the hand of God in all its beauty and variety, steroid and hype-free.
Fr. Meletios Webber, monastic, author, and family counselor, once told us that today’s parents are trying to do the impossible—we are solo parenting. Unlike any other generation or culture before us, we are bringing up children without help. Where are the safety nets of the past? Of extended families that provided babysitting, words of wisdom, even food and housing if needed? Where are the communities which provide back up, looking out for each other’s children and reinforcing mom and dad?
Today, in a basic example, parents don’t receive support from the culture for church attendance on Sunday mornings. Birthday parties, sporting events, overnight Scout campouts—all are planned on what used to be considered a day set aside for families to attend church, even in less religious regions of the U.S. My husband once said that living in a world where God and faith have been expunged, there’s a lot of white martyrdom happening around us, as Orthodox Christian parents and their children strive against the odds to keep their faith intact. Or as Sister Magdalen puts it in her book, Children in the Church Today, “A teenager who believes in Christ, who attends church, and who wishes to remain pure until marriage, is already rare among his contemporaries…Even among the minority of churchgoers in our children’s schools there will probably be no one else who ever fasts, or venerates icons, or goes to confession.”
I can remember a time when I didn’t have to wonder if my kids were going to see images of two men passionately kissing on the evening news. Whether it’s the movement to redefine what a marriage is, the onslaught of unwholesome, prurient media, the explosion of portable devices to bring these images and sounds everywhere we go, or the visibility of occultist symbols and sorcery—all of these are a part of our vacuous, post-Christian culture.
Those who’ve stepped into this vacuum are advice gurus, support groups online, books, books, and more books, therapists, seminars and experts of all shades. The net result of some of this can be even more confusion on the part of parents. Spanking or no spanking? Shared sleeping or individual beds? Public or private or home school? All too many voices are clamoring for our attention, voices that contradict each other, and sometimes it’s just so much noise.
It’s hard not to feel alienated as an Orthodox parent, and it’s tempting to lose heart. As parents, the rewards are deferred, and deferred gratification isn’t something we are good at. While we labor to raise our children to love and serve God, the daily grind is so—well, so daily. Our hours are filled with the same temper tantrums, the same teenage eye rolling from our older kids, the same laundry, the same messy family room, and the same dishes. In the monotony, especially in my years of pregnancy and early childrearing, I was often tempted to think that what I was doing lacked significance and eternal worth. Often, I forgot that my work was my offering to God, and that my home was His sacramental space.
But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.
In the midst of these contemporary parenting challenges, we can still claim our Lord’s words in the Gospel of St. John, that He has overcome the world! We are blessed with many tools if we would but seek them out, and use them.
*Pray! While one baby after another arrived in our home, it began to dawn on me that I was going to have to learn to pray, really pray, as I never had before. Messages I’d heard in my youth—“Why worry, when you can pray?” “Prayer changes things”—suddenly seemed true rather than just trite. I knew that before anything else, I needed to pray for my children. Fortunately, a group of mothers in my parish had discovered the Akathist to the Mother of God, called “Nurturer of Children.” We banded together to pray these prayers and were greatly comforted and encouraged. The supplications of the Church are particularly good for verbalizing exactly what it is we need. We would pray,
“Raise my children to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Raise my children to have knowledge of good but not of sin. Raise my children to be wise against the snares of the devil. Raise my children to order their lives wisely, following the example of the saints…Raise my children, O Lady, to be made worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, and make them heirs of eternal blessings.” (Ikos Two)
Isn’t it true as parents, that we want our kids to have enough knowledge of the world to be able to act in a wise manner, but not so much knowledge that they know about sin and evil in a way that is harmful to their souls? Don’t we want them to be able to “order their lives wisely,” deciding each and every day towards the good and the eternal, fleeing from those actions and thoughts which would lead them to do wrong?
Ikos nine of the same Akathist says, “Deliver my children from association with falsely-theorizing orators, who speak lies about Thine all-powerful intercession, and look upon me, faithfully singing: Raise my children to strongly oppose atheists. Raise my children to stand firm against God-hating teaching. Raise my children to reject the deceitful teachings of the teachers of unbelief. Raise my children to not accept the spirit of the sons of the adversary. Raise my children to run from the world and the delusion of the world. Raise my children to turn away from evil and do good. Raise my children to love their enemies and to pray for them.”
It’s wonderful how the prayers of the Church instruct us even while we are praying them. Here’s the perfect balance between rejecting false teaching, yet loving all people regardless of religion or status. Recently, an Orthodox friend told me of her daughter’s experience at a selective private school. A Moslem teacher on staff came into her classroom of twelve year olds, taught the children all the basics of Islam, and proceeded to lead the class in prayers to Allah. Her daughter, a baptized Orthodox girl, was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do.
Our children hear all kinds of religious and psychological theories, presented by credible voices, and they have to sort them out. The Protestant Christian groups tell our kids they aren’t saved while their teachers tell them, at least subtly if not overtly, that they are creatures of chance. From every direction our children are taught the gospel of materialism, that all of life consists in financial success and climbing the economic ladder to reach a higher level, so that one can acquire still more things.
Yet, while we pray for them that they might reject deceitful teaching, we also pray that they will “love their enemies and pray for them.” Our children may be very different from some of the people they encounter every day, but God’s desire for us all is that we would learn to love even those who oppose us. This is very difficult but it is the way of Christ. How will any of us find the strength to do this, much less expect our children to be able to do this, unless we pray?
Attach to a parish and a father confessor, and be totally committed. Bring your children to church often, from the time they are babies until the day they leave home for college. Even during the teen years, Sunday morning church attendance needs to be non negotiable. Our kids should know, without even having to think about it, that this is their family’s foundation. Even though problems exist because parishes are made up of human beings, it’s critical for our children to think of their church with warm associations and fond memories, as their home away from home.
Other adults in our parishes will care for our kids and support us in our parenting. If Grandma lives far away, we might adopt a yiayia from church. Many times in our fellowship hall, the chatter turns to how to manage a difficult toddler, or what to do to help teens survive puberty. When our kids are older and not listening to us, we will be grateful beyond words for any relationships they have formed within the parish. There will be the Matushka who puts her arms around our son, not put off by his grumpy face. And thank God for that youth group leader who cooks spaghetti dinners for parish teens in her home.
My parenting has been greatly helped by confession. My father confessor has often helped me understand my own reactions as a mother, and how I can grow in love and patience. We all have faulty parenting assumptions and prejudices and our confessors and priests can help us figure out what these are before they end up being destructive within our families. Living together in a family, we wound each other, we talk past each other without really listening, and we react and defend ourselves and seek our own way. If parents will make confession and repentance a way of life, we can be a source of healing for our children. How else will our children learn about humility or how to give and obtain forgiveness? We don’t need to stuff our faith down their throats as much as we need to faithfully practice it ourselves, to the best of our ability. Then that day will come when our teenager or young adult will flee to the safety of the father confessor, in his or her own time of doubt or confusion.
While we bring our children to the Church, we can also bring the Church into our homes. We can cross our children and bless them as they leave the house or car, give them holy oil or water when they’re sick or stressed, stop to pray before meals or read the Gospel of the day after we’ve eaten, pray together at the end of the day, all in the warm context of a hug or eye contact. We can remind our children of their guardian angels, and supply them with attractive Orthodox books and icons. Let’s not let a feast day go by without them at least knowing about it, and sometimes we can take them out of school for a service and treat them to breakfast afterwards. Our children used to think of feast days as days to eat donuts!
An open, fun home becomes a haven. Tim and I noticed before we had children, that the families we admired had fun together. In this way, our homes become magnets and Christ and the Church are brought to many others who will otherwise never meet Him. What can make your home attractive to your children and their friends? For us, the draws have been a trampoline, a busy (and often messy!) kitchen, and a smile and greeting for each person who enters. Generally speaking, other people’s children will learn to respect our household rules when they are enforced in a loving way. Let’s lavish kindness on our children’s friends, so that our sons and daughters aren’t forced to lead a double life of home and their outside world. Our homes are the closest things to church that some of our children’s friends will ever see.
Strive for regular family time. Whether its dinner a couple times a week or some other point of regular connection, plan for it rather than just waiting for it to happen. In our experience, family vacations have been absolutely indispensible for building a cohesive, loving unit. Establish family traditions that are right for you—because you and your children are unique, there’s no one perfect activity or schedule. Find one thing you all enjoy and can do together—it might be surfing at the beach or playing crossword puzzles. The important thing is to do it!
St. John Chrysostom has great wisdom for us: “Recompense him (our child) with many presents, so that he can bear the scorn that his abstinence will bring upon him.” This doesn’t mean that we spoil our children. But as Sister Magdalen says, “Let our children have and do things which make them occasionally the object of natural childish envy. This is not based on some psychological theory…we are speaking about a spiritual weapon which we give to our children to help them preserve Christianity in this world without being crushed.”
Let’s not worry about making our kids happy; worry instead about making them good. We need to allow difficulty and challenges in the lives of our children, commensurate to their ages and capabilities to handle them. Without setbacks and discouragement from time to time, our children won’t learn how to tackle problems with strength and tenacity. They should have to feel, to loosely paraphrase St. Theophan, a little cold sometimes, a little hungry, a little frustrated, a little put out by someone else. In a big family, this is easy—my kids feel this way on a continual basis! But even in smaller families this can be accomplished. We shouldn’t do things for them that they can do for themselves. We are a culture in danger of bubble wrapping our kids, but we don’t do them a favor by over coddling them.
Above all, let love rule our families. We can’t love our kids enough. With all determination and faith, we must fight the curse of cynicism, a primary spiritual illness of our time. Love must be the rule for all of us in our families. As parents, practically this means that we can’t let the kids be mean to each other. A passive attitude towards sibling meanness is popular, but sarcasm is acid that erodes the family’s metal. And we need to set the example, by speaking to them and to our spouses, in the tone with which we would want to be addressed.
As one wise mom put it, “I finally realized that you can’t spoil your children with love. You can spoil them by trying to buy them things because you want to be doing something else. But by the kind ways that we speak to them and discipline them, we can end up respecting Christ within them.”
Love and respect has to start in our marriages. We can’t afford to give up and break up our homes, for the cost in lost faith and wounded lives is simply too high. Protect your marriage; rather than fighting with your spouse, fight for your relationship with him or her. Treat anything that comes between you like the enemy it is, and don’t give up working on your relationship! Nothing is a greater threat to your children’s happiness than a broken relationship between parents.
Which brings me full circle back our daughter’s wedding scene. Sitting on my mother-of-the-bride chair at April’s reception, I knew with absolute certainty that the work was more than worth it—it was infinitely, eternally worth it. May we, as Orthodox parents, not grow weary in well doing, but remember that we will reap in due season, as God wills and to His glory.