This is a common concern among parents. We wonder, "Will our children grow up to become self sufficient, able to deal with the tribulations of life, provide for themselves in a fast changing world, and maintain their Orthodox faith?" Children need to be nurtured, but as they grow older they also need to have limits set for them, learn to participate in family routines and be obedient to their parents directions. We as parents are faced with the dilemma of balancing their immediate needs for gratification and the larger life lessons that they need to learn.
Dr. Mark Bertin tells us that current research shows that children benefit from strategies that build self-control and emotional resilience. these strategies involve saying-no, setting limits and not trying to satisfy them with stuff.
This is congruent with sound Orthodox teachings. To know God we must overcome our passions. We need a high degree of self-control to become united with God so we are obedient to do His will, living out the virtues that lead us to eternal life in His kingdom. This can be taught at an early age.
Saint John Chrysostom tells us,
Children who are submissive and faithful to God in their obedience to His law will have found an abundant source of happiness, even in this temporal life.... The youth to whom you give a good upbringing will not only enjoy general respect, he will also become dearer to you yourselves! Your attachment to him will not be a mere natural attraction—it will be the fruit of his virtue. For this, during your old age, you will in turn receive from him the services of his filial love. He will be your support.... Therefore I beg you to take care for the good upbringing of your children. First of all think of the salvation of their souls. God has placed you as the heads and teachers over your families. It is your duty to watch, and to watch continually after the behavior of your wife and children…The Apostle Paul tells us, "You fathers... bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4).
It is most critical to make sure we raise our children in a way that they learn to respect their parents and love God. The main element for this is the loving environment of the family home. We as parents must be examples for our children. We must not only teach what Christ has shown us, but we must practice it. This love does not mean we accept bad behavior, but that we teach and practice the idea of repentance. We must teach them to acknowledge their mistakes, and learn the power of forgiveness. Sometimes our punishments, especially when we respond out of anger, only cause a child to suppress their mistakes to avoid future punishment rather than seeking help and asking for forgiveness. Repentance is the nature of a loving relationship.
Prayer is also an essential element in a Orthodox Christian life. This too we must practice and teach. We should have our children pray with us. A child who is brought up in a family atmosphere where daily prayer is practiced, will naturally be drawn to a pattern of daily prayer. Prayer should and can be just a normal part of our family life. It does not have to be a moment of upheaval to the family routine but instead the routine of daily family life itself. In addition to our daily prayer routine we also need to have a regular practice of participating in the worship services and partaking of the sacraments. When our children prepare to take communion the parents should also be prepared to take communion with them. As a Deacon who administers Holy Communion, it always breaks my heart to see parents bring their children for communion and then turn away without receiving it themselves. This is not the right example to set. Worse yet are those who drop their children off for Sunday school and then come to church as it is ending. We must be ever conscious of what example we are setting. Only a sincere practice of faith will educate our children properly.
Obedience is another essential discipline our children must learn. To live the life of Christ we must become obedient to His teaching out of our love for Him. This begins with learning obedience to our parents. Children are very clever at finding tricks to get their own selfish way. These tricks do not lead them to true love and obedience that is necessary for a Christian life. We need to expose them and teach them to respect and obey their parents who love them. Depending on age and maturity we move from "do as you are told" to a natural action that comes out of love for another person.
We can easily over do our attention to our children as well. Elder Paisios gives us a thoughtful warning about the harm that comes from this. He says,
Many parents bring their children spiritual harm by demonstrating their love for them in an inappropriate manner. For example, out of an excessive human love for her child, a mother may hug and kiss him, and say to him, “ O what a wonderful child you are,” or “You are the best little boy in the world, ”etc. As a result, from a very early age(while he is still unable to comprehend or object to the meaning of those words), the little one acquires a high opinion of himself, thinking of himself as the best of brightest. Naturally, for the same reason, he will not sense a need for God’s grace, and will not know to ask God for help. Thus from early childhood, the child will have a high opinion of himself that is rock-solid, one that he will never be able to overcome and will take with him to the grave. Moreover, the first to suffer from this haughtiness are the parents themselves. Really, will children quietly sit and listen to parental instructions when they are certain that they are the best, that they know everything? For this reason, parents should be very attentive to their children’s spiritual development; they bear responsibility not only for themselves, but for their children as well.
Orthodox parenting begins with a understanding that we are responsible for developing souls. Our task is to raise saints that God will embrace with great joy. To do this the parents also need to be like saints.
Elder Porphyrios says,
The parents need to devote themselves to the love of God. They need to become saints in their relations to their children through their mildness, patience, and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children. And the joy that will come to them, the holiness that will visit them, will shower grace on their children. Generally the parents are to blame for the bad behavior of the children. And their behaviour is not improved by reprimands, disciplining, or strictness. If the parents do not pursue a life of holiness and if they don’t engage in spiritual struggle, they make great mistakes and transmit the faults they have within them. If the parents do not live a holy life and do not display love towards each other, the devil torments the parents with the reactions of the children. Love, harmony and understanding between parents are what are required for the children. This provides a great sense of security and certainty.”
Examine your family life and evaluate how well you are practicing the Orthodox Way of Life, keeping in mind you are nurturing not just your own soul but also your child's.
Reference: Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, trans. by John Raffan (Limni, Evia, GRE: Denise Harvey, Publisher, 2005), 196.