by Fr. George Morelli, Ph.D.
Consider Our Lord’s words on the importance of how children are influenced: “And he said to his disciples, … woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk. 17:1-2). Parents and any caretakers of children have one of the most important vocations in the Church, namely to teach their children about Our Lord Jesus Christ and His message. Teaching may take many forms.
The place to start is with those who care for children themselves. Parents are the primary teachers of children by the blessed marriage they possess. One of the blessing prayers said by
the priest in the Holy Mystery of Matrimony is: “Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and
grant them fair children for education in thy faith and fear” (acknowledging the awesome, transcendent God).
If parents and others who teach or care for children are not keeping a “life in Christ,” how can children be expected to follow Christ and His teachings? Psychologists have long emphasized the powerful effects of modeling on children (Bandura, 1986). Recently, news media have even reported that a gene for imitation has been discovered. Children have a propensity to make a neural copy of a behavior modeled and to repeat it (Milner and Goodale, 1996).
I remember when I was first in clinical-pastoral practice. Parents would come to me and present a behavioral problem. For example, their ten-year-old was smoking. Inside the shirt pocket or hanging out of the pocketbook of the parent would be a pack of cigarettes. This was and still is hypocrisy. It is nearly impossible to change the child’s behavior. Parents, guardians, and others who have children in their care are supremely powerful models. I have never met one child in my pastoral or clinical career who bought into the usual “lame” explanations: “Well I can do it, and when you get to be my age then you can make up your own mind,” or “You are not old enough yet.” Children are bright enough to see right through such explanations.
The Holy Spirit imparts grace in the sacraments. The parents have to bring their children to their parish church where the Holy Spirit is sacramentally imparted. If a child is not brought in to be baptized, the child is not an Orthodox Christian. If the parents do not bring their children to attend Divine Liturgy, they do not receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. If the parents bring the child to church but do not go themselves, children see right through such hypocrisy, just as in the cigarette example above. The message is: “Grown ups do not have to go to church.” So the child is no longer getting the grace of Christ. Often the greatest teaching, or, in this case, scandal, is teaching by what is not done
A child may hear a family conversation about a nasty neighbor or relative in which a parent says, “That no good for nothing @#$%^&,” yet in church the child hears preached from the altar our Lord’s words of love, forgiveness, and not holding anger against a brother. If they then see and hear their mothers or fathers doing just the opposite, does this add to the child’s faith and commitment to Christ? It destroys it! And we wonder why morality and values are breaking down in modern times?
On the other hand, no one is perfect — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, bishops, priests, teachers. We all sin and fall short. What a beautiful lesson could be taught to a child we care for, when we do fall short, if we go to the child and say, for example: “You know, I lost my temper today. It was not right, I am sorry and I will try to do better. This is what Jesus would want me to do.” No one may speak exactly like this, using such words. However, using their own words parents will get across the substance of the message: I did wrong, I will try to do better and I want us all as a family to follow our Lord’s teachings. Thus, the first and most important lesson in Orthodox Christian parenting is to live the life in Christ as thoroughly as can be done. Despite our failings, we must remember the words of Jesus: “He said to them: The things that are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27).