A Small Child's Cry (Joseph Tershay)
Orthodox parents are given by God the responsibility of raising their children as 0rthodox Christians. This task to be sure, is a difficult one. Parents must make a commitment not only to become active in the Church but also make one to the religious education of their children.
The primary role models are the parents. Children’s beliefs, likes, dislikes and attitudes are usually learned from their parents and other adults to which, they look to for guidance. It is understandable when a parent has a distorted view or understanding of the Orthodox Christian life or of Orthodoxy in general, their children will usually make those views their own. Children see in their parents an example for their own Christian life later on. What the parent does, the child does. We all have heard, time and time again, that the primary responsibility rests on the parent. In my opinion the responsibility to bring up the child in the Orthodox faith not only rests on the parent but also on the parish community.
In a sense, every parish in the Orthodox Church is part of the child’s extended family. Every Orthodox Christian no matter what jurisdiction is part of that extended family. We are all God’s children, united in Him and Him in us. He is our Father, making every member of the Church our brothers and sisters. It is the responsibility of this extended family to make sure that all its young people become active members of that family. A positive and loving atmosphere must prevail. Like any family there will be differences, but those differences need to be worked out in a loving and peaceful way. It is the Church community’s obligation to share with the parents, in a joint effort the religious education of their children. All parish members are teachers be it as direct teaching, advisors, or role models. It is this support that parents need for the formation of an Orthodox Life Style for their children.
Children pick up clues and impressions from the environment on how to behave and what to believe. Parish communities that are unfriendly or are in battle arguing, squabbling is made up of unhappy families and children become turned off. They don’t see the Church as a nice place, so the children develop a lack of trust. Children eventually may leave the Church when they are old enough. Children see themselves in relationship to their parents, peers and community. A person’s self-concept is a very important part of how one grows, behaves, thinks and most important how they see God. As role models and religious educators parents and the Church community have an important task in front of them which will determine the spiritual life of their children. If children see God and Church as an important part of their parent’s life, it will make a great impact on them when they grow older.
It is their self-concept which helps them to perceive the world. Self-concept can be seen as two levels of mind, the conscious and subconscious. The conscious level works much like a judge, collecting and evaluating information. The subconscious level functions much like a computer it stores information and makes it available at a later date. The subconscious never attempts to sort out fact from fiction or truth from misperception. When information flows from the subconscious, it comes forth as fact. Therefore all misconceptions eventually become truth and are treated as fact by the conscious level of thinking.
The development of Orthodox Christian thinking is a serious undertaking for all of us to consider. The souls of our children deserve the full attention of all of us, parents, priests, community and religious educators. We all have an important role to play in the religious development of each child.
Children work very hard at trying to understand their parents as well as their environment. They are great observers, but horrible interpreters. This is understandable considering their immature brains and limited experience. This is why we as adult role models have to be aware of what images and concepts we are conveying to the children around us. The bad part is when we become adults and look back, all of our perceptions, both accurate and inaccurate becomes our reality. A child who has a perception that his parents prefer not going to church or does not go on a regular basis will say, “Church and God must not be important”
What was once his mistaken idea has now become his truth. How many Orthodox Christians do you know who have the same misperceptions about their church ?
We must remember children are constantly observing, interpreting and storing information into the subconscious. These billions of thoughts and experiences later become the truth which runs and directs his or her life. The challenge is to help a child to interpret what he or she sees and hears in ways that can be used later as proof that he or she is capable, loveable and responsible. This is why it’s important that children attend Liturgy and religious education programs. This hopefully helps clear up misperceptions about the Church and God. In the home, as well as in the church community many adults have negative misconceptions about children. We consider them not old enough to have any responsibility. We are constantly telling them to keep quiet, we do not listen to them because we think they have nothing to say. The child stores this information in their subconscious: “I am not capable, lovable and responsible. I am not important, If I’m not important than God does not love me”.
I often wonder what mistaken beliefs and interpretations have been stored in the subconscious minds of youngsters who constantly make poor decisions, involve themselves in self destructive behaviors such as drugs or turning then from learning. It makes me wonder how many of these people have misinterpreted their parent’s love in the following ways:
- Some parents show love by hovering over and rescuing their children from the harsh world. This is often interpreted by the child as, “My parents know that I could never handle the world without help. I am not capable”.
- Some parents show love through control. These parents constantly tell children how to lead their lives. This is often interpreted as, “My parents know that I am not capable of thinking for myself of being responsible. I am not capable”. This sometimes results in the child rebelling against his parents, leaving home early, and developing a poor self concept about life, the church and God.
- Some parents show love by always being available with advice. They allow their children to make many of their own decisions. This is often interpreted as, “My parents know that I can think for myself”. These children grow up to respect authority, the Church and God.
The Church community outside of the child’s immediate family can help strengthen a sense of trust in the children. The task is awesome as the children will often be coming in contact with the church community from situations which are not trustworthy. Some of the Church communities are not trustworthy themselves. How many of us have had the sad experience of closing down programs for children because of indifference, lack of interest or other priorities. We must realize the outside world is typically far less trustworthy than the family.
A consequence for this lack of trust in the Church community is an intensification of anxiety in the individual child or adult. Whenever we become anxious we become self conscious. When our consciousness of self is too heightened, our awareness of others and their needs are greatly diminished. Change in an environment can have profound implication to a child’s self-consciousness and self-esteem. We are fortunate that in the Orthodox Church its Liturgy, icons, music and form of worship appeal to small children because it's unchanging. A child can identify can predict what will happen next. The sounds, smell and movements are all familiar. A child feels secure and has a trust in the Liturgy of the Church because after a time he/she knows what to expect and knows how to act. But again children are active learners and they are attuned to everything in the environment. Children are very social, they are aware of the smile, the frown, the friendly gesture, and the unfriendly, in the Church community. The children who do not feel secure and are anxious have developed untrustworthiness for the Church Community.
In the church school programs, parishes must find individuals who are loving, trustworthy and love children. Formal education and training should be a secondary concern the parish can help those individuals get the training that is necessary. One of the functions of the Department of Christian Education is to provide the necessary training. Not many parishes take advantage of the Departments resources and experts to train church school personal.
Church school teachers and parishioners will not love and should not love children as parents do. However there are different kinds of love. A child learns to love by being loved by others. Isn’t this the foundation of faith? How can a person love God if that person does not know how to love? Many children in our society lead very unhappy lives because their parents do not realize how important it is to satisfy their children’s need for love, for friendship, and for stimulation. A prime qualification for a church school teacher should be the ability to love. This requirement should stand above all others. They must love children unconditionally, to be able to communicate to them, without patronizing and without strings attached. A teacher, who commands because he is strong and expects a child to obey because he is weak, need to rethink why he is in the classroom. A teacher and parishioners should show themselves to a child as a loving and enlightened guide assisting the child along the way, leading to the kingdom of heaven.
Love, patience, understanding and respect are the key ingredients needed to develop a child’s self-concept. It is those who are in the child’s environment who have the greatest impact. Adults are the role models, which children will later emulate, as Christ is our role model and whom we strive to emulate. In the Gospel of St. Mark (10: 13-16), we are all reminded that Jesus Christ wants the children to come to Him.
How many of you wondered why parents can’t control their child? How many of you can’t concentrate and say to yourself, “I cannot pray or pay attention to the Liturgy because this child is making noises or sliding across the pew in front of me. They should leave the child at home if they cannot control him”. Does this sound familiar? I’ve seen many parishioners literally pushed out of shape because children were making to much noise or were just fussy. I have heard complaints to the parish priest concerning fussy children. I’ve heard priest talking to parents about controlling their small child.
If I were a child I would say:
I can’t help myself if I make noise in church. I don’t understand what’s going on but I am learning. I cannot learn things by sitting still. I have to move. I have a lot of energy. I hear the prayers. I hear the music. I smell the incense. I see the priest and the people praying, but I don’t know what it all means but I am learning. My mind is like a sponge. I absorb things that are happening in the environment. I see, hear, smell, and sometimes touch things. I have a great capacity to learn. I don’t know what it means but I will someday. As any learner I will imitate what everyone else is doing but I don’t know what it means. My parents have not told me very much but I am willing to listen. I’m sorry that I am too young to understand. I am sorry that my parents and I are in a struggle. I need my independence but I still need my parents love and affection. I need to learn to trust my parents, the parish community and God. I need to develop a positive attitude towards the environment in which I live. If I am to trust that God loves me, I first must learn to love. I can only learn to love if I am loved. If you look at me with a frown on your face, if you scold me, if you pick me up and shake me, if you spank me, if your are impatient with me, if you are unpleasant toward me, if you argue in front of me, if you tell me to shut up, if you tell me children should be seen but not heard, if you do all those things, I will not like to go to church. I will not be learning what love is about. I will have no trust in you. How can I trust God? God does not love me.
If you see me looking at your smile, I will smile. If I am making too much noise pick me up and hug me and tell me what a fine person I am. I have a short attention span, you can show me an icon or show me what you are reading or tell me about it. I don’t understand what is going on but I want to learn. I am too small to see anything, pick me up and let me look at everyone. Give me something to occupy myself with like a book, especially one with lots of pictures. If I misbehave put your hand on my head and smile. I have difficulty in controlling myself. Sometimes I act the way I do because I want to be independent but you have to set the rules. You are in charge, but you must control me in a loving way. I need to be loved if I am to learn what love is about. When I learn to love I will love God, because I have learned to trust in Him. God loves me because I am a unique person who is loved by everyone in the church community. So please love me. Please give me the tools I need to love. Teach me what love is. I can only learn though your example. You are the role model. Please don’t teach me not to love. I need you for my salvation. I need you to teach me about Jesus Christ and his church. I need to be part of the community. Please don’t drive me away with your indifference and non-Christian behavior. I will follow your example. I have only two choices: Trust my parents, the church community and God or mistrust my parents, the church community and God.
Joseph Tershay is the Christian Education Diocesan Coordinator for Los Angeles and the West of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.