The following article is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming Orthodox parenting book by Conciliar Press.
Recently, as we were finishing dinner, sitting and talking peacefully, my 7 year-old Markos appeared with a toy car and sat quietly playing. “That’s my car!” exclaimed George, our 5 year-old. “I found it and no one was using it!” retorted Markos as he continued to play. As any parent of more than one child might guess, George had recently received the car as a present and it was the new ‘toy of choice’ for both of them. “Give me it!” protested George. “It’s mine!” The fragile peace at the dinner table was unravelling and I knew I had to intervene.
I also knew that I had several ways I could respond. I could choose a side, “It’s George’s toy; give it up, Markos,” or the equally valid, “You’re not using it George; let him play with it.” I could take the toy away, reminding them of the house rule that I had let slide: “No playing with toys at the table, Markos, get rid of it.” I could also invoke the “no fighting at the dinner table” rule, just to hang on to the last strands of peace. I could send them out to play somewhere else, “Guys, go play in the other room,” which would allow me to avoid having to get into the middle of that sibling squabble. Doing nothing is always an option, but I suspected that if I left those two unattended, the situation was likely to escalate.
What is the best way to respond? In each parenting situation, the best choice depends on what our long-term goals are as parents. Sometimes our own short-term goals can distract us from our long-term goals. If my goal is to sit longer and enjoy some quiet time with my wife, sending them out of the room makes the most sense. If my goal is to make sure my sons don’t fight with each other, I should just buy two of every toy. If my goal is to teach my children how to work together to resolve their own disputes and live together in peace, I should intervene in a way that helps them develop those skills. That is my goal.
Consider what our long-term goals are as parents. Do we want our kids never to misbehave or to teach our children how to live godly, righteous lives? Is our goal to have a quiet house or to teach our children how to live together in harmony? Is our goal to get our kids to go to Church or to nurture a deep, abiding love for God in our children?
God’s desire for our children, we learn from Scripture and Church Tradition, is that all our children “be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). God’s long-term goals for our kids are that they know Him, live in His love, and walk in His way as they prepare to live eternally with Him. He tells us that if we seek Him first, everything else will be taken care of. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
God’s desire is that our children grow up to be adults who live in this world according to God’s ways—as citizens of heaven according to the values and the virtues of the kingdom of heaven. Just a few examples give us an indication of these values:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth . . .” (I Corinthians 13:4-6)
“Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.” (Romans 12:10)
Parenting is not about getting children to behave, but about guiding them to internalize these values and virtues. It is a process of shaping and guiding the persons and souls of our children toward that which is good. Daily interactions are the context for teaching our children about life and love, what to value, and how to live. It is through the daily interactions that we raise up children to live godly lives in a world that disregards God. We are teaching our children how to engage in the spiritual struggles of living in the world according to God’s commandments and His virtues and values.
However, in the midst of the daily activities and struggles of family life—the fighting over toys at the dinner table, cooking, cleaning, homework, bedtime, etc.—it is easy to forget that we are doing the delicate work of guiding the structures that will shape our children’s hearts, minds, and souls.
While there are no “techniques” or simple strategies that we can do with our kids to make this happen, there are many things we can do as parents to work toward these long-term goals. The first thing is to think long-term in the daily interactions of family life. We do not teach these things to our children by lecturing them as they are about to head off to college. Rather, we teach in each and every interaction we have throughout our daily lives. We teach by modeling these values, by relating to our children out of Christlike love in our parenting, and by living our home lives closely connected to the Sacramental life of the Church.
Prayer is always the first step in parenting. It reminds us of the purpose of parenting, calms us down in the moment, and opens our hearts to God’s presence in our home and in our parenting. Prayer and keeping our long-term goals in mind are fundamental in every interaction we have with our children as parents.
Knowing that Markos and George’s fight over the car was not just about the car but about how they are learning to be patient, kind, and loving, I chose how to intervene.
I said a quiet prayer and asked Markos to hand the car to me. I then told them that if they would like to play with it, they would need to come up with a plan, together, for how they would share. I wish I could say they smiled and calmly came up with a mutual agreement. But they are 7 and 5 year-old boys who are learning. They sighed, protested mildly, and went off to work something out. In a few minutes, Markos returned in tears claiming that George was not working with him. I handed him the toy, a reward for his efforts, and sat George on my lap. They were both content. In this instance, the dinner did end happily ever after.
Dr. Philip Mamalakis, his wife Georgia, and their seven children live in Boston, Massachusetts where he is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Dr. Mamalakis directs the Field Education program and teaches classes on pastoral care and topics related to pastoral counseling. He has recently completed a marriage preparation program with Fr. Charles Joanides for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and is working on an Orthodox parenting book.