by Kh. Maggie Hock
WHEN PARENTS AT THE TIME OF CHRIST brought their children to Him for a blessing, the disciples rebuked them. However, our Lord commanded them, “‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ And He laid His hands on them” (Matthew 19:13–15). Christ did not dismiss the children because of their youth and inexperience; instead, He brought them close and honored them with His blessing.
Everything about a little child speaks of his innocence and trust. Their refreshingly innocent spirit inspires us as parents to live a life that honors their trust. Children love with their whole heart, a love that inspires us to see God’s unconditional love. And little children believe completely in their parents’ ability to protect them, which inspires us to live a life that provides the direction and security required for their healthy growth and maturity.
A child’s very nature provides a context in which parents are inspired to provide the best possible life experiences for them. A natural synergy develops in the parent-child relationship. As the parent loves and provides for the child, the child returns that love and motivates parents to do their best job in representing God’s love in the context of this intimate human experience.
Parents are for the child the first door to the Kingdom of God. By the way the parents live a godly life, they provide the first example of God’s love and care. Saint Theophan the Recluse (The Path to Salvation) advises that “the upbringing in the home is the root and foundation of everything that follows.” Setting a right foundation, then, is the first priority of the parent for the child. When an infant has such a beginning in life, there is little that can change his belief later as he matures. The foundation of belief becomes a part of the concrete, so to speak, that hardens and forms the person the child grows into.
Saint Theophan also has a warning to parents: “What can one say of someone who not only does not love Christian life and truth, but has never even heard of it? In this case, he is a house without protection, given over to robbery, or a dry branch given over to a burning fire. . . . Therefore, a spirit of faith and piety of the parents should be regarded as the most powerful means for the preservation, upbringing, and strengthening of the life of grace in children.”
An Atmosphere of Holiness
Parents may be inspired by this saint’s words to provide an atmosphere of saving grace in the home as soon as the child is born into the family. The family is the soil into which the soul of the child is planted and out of which the child’s character develops. Therefore, it is critical that the home environment reflect the sanctity of life that God has placed within its walls. The family should strive to be that image of godliness that will preserve the holiness that is intended to be its identity.
Surrounding the child with the Holy Sacraments and sacred images, a regular life in the Church, and strengthening the good in the child are what instill this life of grace. A lifestyle or ethos in this type of atmosphere imparts its saving grace to all who witness it. This grace acts as a powerful hedge of protection around the family. A child that is provided such a hedge has the advantage of becoming a true witness to the love and holiness of God.
These first impressions in a child’s home have a strong influence on the development of the character of the soul, because it is the nature of children to be greatly influenced by what they absorb through their senses. Have you ever seen a fussy baby who is just a few weeks old in church? Turn him to the icons and watch his spirit calm. Often, because a crying child is embarrassing, we rush them out too quickly and don’t allow them a moment to absorb the surroundings. Even a sleeping child in church is storing up the memories of being in the presence of holiness. The peace of the prayers in the Liturgy pervades his soul without his conscious awareness.
Another example of the environment acting on a child is when he has been allowed to hear the prayers of his parents from his birth. He begins to pray willingly from a very young age. Children with this early experience are able to develop a profound communication with God as a normal everyday conversation. By being regularly exposed to this type of environment, the child is influenced at a foundational level.
Babies are quick to model the actions of those to whom they are bonded most closely. Even a six-month-old child begins to make her cross by tapping on her chest or moving her hand back and forth as an attempt to emulate the piety she witnesses around her. And soon, in their own way, they echo the chanting they hear in the church. Many of the smallest children in our parish try to talk to the priest as he is delivering the homily. They don’t yet understand that he is not talking to them directly. My youngest grandsons, who are under one year old, see their grandfather priest at the altar and babble to him, trying to get his attention during Liturgy.
When my first grandson was only two, he would struggle to reach the icons on the iconostasis to kiss them. Since he could not yet climb the step to reach them, he would kiss whatever he could reach—the railing or the icon’s frame. Sometimes he would throw kisses at the icons he couldn’t reach. One day after the Divine Liturgy, I heard him having a conversation with the icon of Saint John the Baptist, who was too high for him to touch. As I moved closer I heard him say to Saint John, “Wanna kiss Julian?” It was completely within his imagination that the saint would bend to kiss him since he was too little. Now, his younger brother, Isaac, who is just learning to talk, quickly points to the icon of Christ when he comes into the church and says in his baby speech, “Jesus!”
Another grandson, Dimitrios, who was also two at the time, could not bear to leave church after the Liturgy until he had circled the nave, kissing each icon good-bye. It was just as if he were kissing those in his family when he left home. And I have seen on several occasions little ones toddle over to the priest and tug on his cassock to be lifted up to kiss the pectoral cross. These small acts of piety from a child’s heart are precious to God because they are so natural in their love for Him. These are just a few examples that demonstrate how, as children grow in this holy atmosphere, they are imprinted very early with the grace of God. Their souls become saturated in such a rich environment of piety and faith, especially if what they witness in the church is also modeled daily and naturally in the home.
An Awesome Responsibility
One of the harshest punishments named by Christ was directed toward anyone who would betray a child’s innocence and trust. “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
The severity of this judgment is echoed in the writings of Saint John Chrysostom (On Education), who warns that “neglect of children is one of the greatest of sins, and it is the highest degree of impiety.” At another time Saint John says, “even though we may have everything we need, and all is beautifully arranged, we will nevertheless be subjected to the most extreme punishment if we do not take care for the salvation of our children.” These harsh warnings give us clear direction as to the next priority for parents—teaching our children the Faith so that they may have a vibrant relationship with God.
As we have seen from the earlier examples, our children, grandchildren, and godchildren absorb the environment in which they are raised. They look to their parents for an understanding of spiritual things. They eagerly emulate our example. And for this reason, it is important that we live a godly life for their salvation as well as our own. A parent cannot give to her child what she does not have, and nowhere is this more important than in the life of the spirit. A parent who seeks spiritual guidance models a healthy respect for godly authority to the child. Parents who regularly attend Divine Liturgy, go to confession, and take the Eucharist, by their example, provide the path that a child gladly follows to God.
Because of their eagerness to please, children have a natural inclination to do well. This is a powerful motivation for parents to teach their children the truths of the Faith. Saint Theophan wrote, “Of all the holy works, the education of children is the holiest.” A child will not have nearly the experience of faith he needs if he is simply dropped at the door for church school and watches his parents drive away.
We battle such a fierce cultural war today for the hearts and souls of our children. And yet we become like those of whom Christ warns, unless we provide the type of home environment that naturally leads a child to our Lord. This is difficult for many parents because of the many outside influences that infringe on their home life. Popular figures in the media, movies, and entertainment today are, for the most part, certainly not the people we want our children to come to emulate. Yet many parents allow their children too much freedom with what they permit the “eye of their souls” to watch.
We must diligently guard our children’s hearts by watching what comes through the doors of our home. And as parents we need to watch our own example of what our children witness us doing in our homes. In the end, they will become what they have experienced through us.
And at that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.” (Matthew 18:1–5)
Whenever we say to each other, “Christ is in our midst!” remember that little children are that image of Christ in our midst. They are the kingdom of heaven humbly set before us as a witness to Christ’s unconditional love, and their presence provides us the inspiration to love God as freely and naturally as they do.
Originally published in The Handmaiden, Vol. 11, No. 4