The primary lesson for life must be implanted in the soul from the earliest age. The primary lesson for children is to know the eternal God, the One who gives everlasting life.
- St. Clement
The birth of a baby is an exciting time! Everyone rejoices when a new life enters the world. There is much to be concerned with as new parents. You now have a life that is totally dependent on you for everything, and you want to do what’s best for your little one. In pursuit of this, you have read all the books about feeding, sleeping, and developing. You’ve done your research, but there is one thing missing from the mainstream “how to be a parent” book—how to help your newborn grow as a child of God.
At no other time in your child’s life will more growth and development occur than between birth to age three. Even when you think nothing is happening, your baby’s body is doing all sorts of wonderful things that are laying the foundation for his or her future. In your little one’s brain there are hundreds of thousands of pathways making connections that will help them walk, talk, and even to have a temper tantrum. With all of this critical physical and psychological growth occurring, it is vital that your baby’s spiritual development be nurtured as well.
As Orthodox Christians, our concern with our child’s spiritual development should be just as important to us as giving them love, protection, and nourishment. If we really think about what it means to be a Christian, we understand that our time in this world is relatively brief and the purpose of our life here is to prepare ourselves for everlasting life with God. In his book Baptism and Chrismation, Fr. Peter Chamberas writes, “It is truly a noble task to nurture our children to become citizens of heaven.” Raising your child to be a citizen of heaven is more than just teaching him or her to be kind. Rather, it is about helping them to experience the love of God so deeply that it shines brightly to all those around them. It is not just about going to church on Sunday; instead it is about bringing the church home with us and “being” the church in the world.
We know you’re exhausted—those 3:00 A.M. feedings can be brutal! But just as your child needs this physical nourishment from you, your little one is also counting on you for their spiritual nourishment. But where do you start? Here are a few suggestions to get you going; take it one step at a time. The rewards will be eternal!
Start with Yourself
If your heart overflows with faith and love for God, you will find a thousand and two ways to pass on these feelings to your child. -On the Upbringing of Children by Bishop Irenaius
The greatest way to help your child fall in love with God is to love Him yourself. This is how children learn everything—from watching those closest to them.
So turn your heart towards God and let Him permeate throughout all that you do. Live your life in a constant awareness that you are a Christian and that your life is to be centered on Christ. For guidance, talk to your priest or spiritual father about how you can follow the Lord each day of your life.
Pray, Pray, and Pray More
If we pray, and learn little by little to live in the spirit of prayer, we create an atmosphere in which children taste prayer and God’s presence. If we dwell in this spirit, even without words, even before children can speak, they can acquire a natural taste for prayer, and the desire to know God. -Children in the Church Today by Sister Magdalen
Your child is never too young for you to pray with them. As a matter of fact, the younger you begin to pray with your children, the more prayer will become a part of their being. Hold your little one close in your arms each night, stand before an icon and pray to Your Heavenly Father. Chant familiar hymns from the church to help your child get acclimated to their sounds. Don’t worry about your voice—everyone has a beautiful voice when singing praise to God, and your baby loves your voice because it is yours. As you lay your child down, make the sign of the cross over them and ask the angels to protect them as they sleep. But don’t stop there. Pray for, and with your child throughout the day during the simplest of tasks—bathing them, feeding them, and especially when consoling them when they’re fussy. Constantly turning to God in prayer will give you the focus you need to raise your child up to God.
Go to Church
…Liturgical living is a vital, vivid, vivifying reality. It is exciting and moving. It is important; one of the most important aspects of what it means to be a Christian… It is in the Divine Liturgy that we find the reality of our union with Christ and one another as the Church of God. –Living the Liturgy by Fr. Stanley Harakas
Oftentimes people think babies are too young to understand what is going on in church. But in actuality, participation in the divine services and sacraments of the church at a very young age lays the foundation for future worship. The youngest members are familiarizing themselves to the beautiful experience that is Orthodox worship. They are smelling the incense, seeing the candles, hearing the hymns, tasting communion, and touching the icons. As your child grows, involve them in the Liturgy. Point out icons, teach hymns, and allow them to learn through worshipping with you every Sunday at the Divine Liturgy and other services of the Church.
But what if they start to cry and fuss in church? This is perfectly natural and likely will happen at some point. When this happens, remember this: the majority of people in church have children—grown or otherwise—and have all been in your shoes. Then take a deep breath, and ask God to guide you to focus on helping your child during this challenge. In church, surround yourself with relatives, friends, and other parents that can support you when things get difficult.
Strength in Numbers
Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken. -Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NKJ)
Parenting is the hardest job in the world and, unfortunately, in today’s society we have greatly isolated parents from one another. There is great benefit from gathering together with other parents to share joys, frustrations, and sorrows. Some churches have groups that allow parents to come together. Oftentimes these are mothers’ groups—but I would challenge you to not forget about fathers. Their role is critical and they need support also. If your parish doesn’t have a group, consider starting one. It doesn’t need to be a major effort. Just meet at the church and ask the priest to join you for prayer. Connecting with other parents with similar beliefs will give you the assistance you need for the amazing, yet challenging task of parenting.
Give it to God
Finally, we must remember that our children are gifts from God. They have been entrusted to us for a short amount of time. We need to offer them back to God and remember that it is not our will in their life but His. We need to keep them close to Him by keeping them active in the sacramental life of the church. As Sophie Koulomzin writes in her book Our Church and Our Children, “Over and above all we have mentioned in speaking of religious growth in infancy, there remains the holy and mysterious action of the holy grace of God that touches it. No one can measure or evaluate precisely the effects of the sacraments which our Church gives to young babies. In faith and awe we can only make sure that these channels of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are kept open in the life of our children.”
Melissa Tsongranis is the Associate Director of the Center for Family Care.