Know your children well…
As parents, you know your children better than anyone else. You can interpret their cries, read their body language, decipher their messages. You’ve likely figured out the approaches that will and will not “work” with each of your children. You know that each child is a unique combination of moods, mannerisms, and traits that make him or her like nobody else.
This means that all children have their own ways of learning, processing, responding, and growing in the faith. Maybe one of your children peacefully gazes at the icons during a liturgical service, while another is constantly moving, picking up books in the pew, or pacing the church. You may have a child who sings along with hymns, reads along in a book, or vocally responds to the priest’s petitions or to people around you.
We are all called to be ourselves.
Our church tradition and theology embrace the ways that each person is unique, as part of our creation and human vocation. What is this vocation, this “calling” that is ours as human beings? The second-century Church Father Saint Ireneaus sums it up eloquently: “A person fully alive is the glory of God.” What a beautiful idea: God is glorified when a person is fully alive, most authentically him- or herself.
When do you see your own children most fully “alive”? These are the opportunities for you to incorporate each child’s individuality to bring glory to God in the church and at home.
St. Ireneaus was intimately familiar with the creation narrative in the book of Genesis, which teaches that, “God created us in the divine image” (Genesis 1:27). Every person carries a divine spark, an inherent dignity from God. However distinctive each child is, everyone is a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and shares in the same potential.
In fact, it is one’s uniqueness that likens a person to God. St. Paul explains this as “different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit…To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” (I Cor. 12:4-7)
God blesses people in various ways, and everyone responds uniquely, offering back to God and to the human family in forms and expressions that are truly his or her own. We are called to give our gifts back to the Giver, for His glory and our growth. We see this concept of mutual giving during the Eucharist, when the priest proclaims that we “offer these gifts to You of Your own, and for Your own.”
The Parent in God’s Image
Parenthood itself is a vocation that glorifies God. Like God the Father and Vinedresser (John 1:15), you can nurture and cultivate the traits in which you see your children growing and thriving. When you do so, you participate in God’s work. Like the Father who lovingly raises each person to the fullness of life, you can invite and inspire your children to grow to their full capacity, in whatever ways work for each.
“How are you smart?” not “How smart are you?”
The diverse gifts of the Spirit can manifest as various ways that children learn, their ways of “being intelligent.” In the 1980’s, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner contributed to the field of education the theory of “multiple intelligences,” that students learn and express in varying ways. Educators and parents can capitalize on the modes of learning that best fit particular children, instead of measuring all students according to a single concept of intelligence.
He summarized that learners have strengths in one or more of eight “intelligences,” classified as language-related, object-related, and person-related.
Multiple Intelligences and our Orthodox faith
Our Orthodox tradition is richly and “multiply” abundant with ways to know and grow in God through Scripture, liturgical worship, icons, hymns, and personal prayer. However your children are “smart,” you can engage them in ways that are true to their personalities and to our faith. Discerning your children’s “intelligences” is the key to helping them learn and grow. Below are the different kinds of intelligences, and some practical ways that your children can use their gifts to glorify God.
Use the following ideas according to the season of the Church and Liturgical cycle, and adjust them for your child’s age and level. Some engage more than one intelligence at a time, and others can be combined. Apply, integrate, or modify in whatever way may help your child.
Language-related intelligences include linguistic and musical intelligences.
Read aloud stories from Scripture or children’s books about the faith.
Discuss words of a prayer, the Nicene Creed, or liturgical petitions. Ask children to explain who are “the sick and the suffering,” or what it means to “grant our whole life to Christ our God.”
Teach musically inclined children simple melodies about the faith, and festal hymns to include during family prayer times.
Object-related intelligences include logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and naturalistic intelligences.
In church, younger children can count crosses, images in icons, or how many times they hear something.
Point out important numbers in our tradition:
- Three for the Holy Trinity. Explain that the number three is complete; the Holy Spirit invites people into the love between the Father and the Son.
- Twelve, for the tribes of Israel and Jesus’s Apostles.
- Forty, the days that Moses led the Israelites to freedom, Jesus was alone in the desert, and that we journey through the season of Great Lent.
Surround visual learners with icons that teach about feasts, saints, and Scripture, and have them “visualize” or illustrate if you read aloud to them.
Use maps to show Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, flight to Egypt, travels around Nazareth, and baptism in the River Jordan, as well as the places where Saint Paul sent letters.
Help kinesthetic learners learn from making the sign of the cross, prostrating, venerating icons and relics, and lighting candles. Teach them to tie these actions to prayers for others and praises to God.
Help them come up with signs and movements to express imagery in festal hymns, like the “wise fishermen” in the hymn of Pentecost.
Naturalistic learners can help prepare materials we use in worship, like boiled wheat for koliva, beeswax candles, and incense.
Connect natural materials to Christ’s words, like “faith as small as a mustard seed,” “living water,” and “bread of life.”
Help children plant and grow flowers, vegetables, or fruits, like God the Vinedresser.
Person-related Intelligences include interpersonal and intra-personal intelligences, intuitive children who understand themselves and others well.
Help them reach out to others through service, letter writing, or praying for people.
Share stories of saints’ lives, and invite them to “write letters” to or “interview” saints.
The extroverted, “natural leader” may want to lead prayers at home.
Introverted children may enjoy journaling or drawing pictures to reflect upon what they learn in church.
Authentic Giving, True Glory, Real Growing
You know your children’s gifts and strengths, but more importantly, you know the unique combination that makes up the whole person of each child. The ideas we’ve shared are a starting point, to inspire you to engage your children in ways that fit them. It is only in offering our gifts back to the Giver, glorifying God in authentic ways, that our children can truly grow more into His image and likeness. We pray that you find ways to use and enhance some of these examples, and that you will see your children’s spiritual lives bear fruit.
Stephania Gianulis has a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies and Master’s degree in Elementary Teaching from the University of Virginia and is completing a post-Master’s specialization degree in Religious Education from Boston College, with a project on children’s literacy and Orthodox Christian children’s books. She writes and reviews curriculum for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Religious Education, and has experience teaching and tutoring students from elementary school through college.