TEACHING OUR CHILDREN TO PRAY
I used to have this image of what I thought my children would look like during prayer. They’d be knelt down with their hands neatly folded, eyes closed with a tranquil look upon their faces as they conversed with our Heavenly Father. Something resembling a Precious Moment figurine or like the pictures I’d seen in children’s prayer books.
Reality, however, painted a somewhat different picture. One where they’re knelt down picking at the carpet, the eye closest to me squeezed shut with the other one wide open, as one child pinches the other causing him to scream and cry. I never imagined I’d have to bribe them into praying with us; if you say prayers with us like good boys, we’ll read an extra story tonight, etc. I also never realized that once I had children I would never hear all the words of the Divine Liturgy again. I would be too busy hushing them during the Gospel reading or fishing “quiet” toys out of my backpack during the petitions or pointing out every object inside the church to buy myself an extra 10 minutes of silence. And those are on the good days when I’m not stuck outside or in the narthex. Sometimes my most prayerful moments are when I’m praying for them to stay quiet.
I know that even though they’re not “participating” in the services, their little souls are partaking in the Divine Grace that permeates each and every service. I also understand that their attending church and partaking in the mysteries is pivotal in their upbringing but I still had the overwhelming feeling that I was somehow missing the boat. While I don’t wish these days away, knowing full well my boys will be grown and gone before I know it, I do wish I knew a way to get through it a little less, well, frenzied.
What am I doing wrong? I ask myself as they sprawl out on the floor during Compline or after reminding them half a dozen times to venerate the icon before leaving the house. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I was doing wrong. I was making a serious effort to do all of the things I’d heard parents were supposed to do: Making sure they stood and prayed with us; Reading them the Gospel lessons; Coloring icon pages and reading the story of each saint; Continuously explaining to them the importance of our faith and traditions.
As I searched my mind to figure it out, I remembered that in the back of the book Wounded By Love by Elder Porphyrios, there was a fantastic section on the upbringing of children. I opened the book to that section and that is when I read this,
“Pray and then speak. That’s what to do with your children. If you are constantly lecturing them, you’ll become tiresome and when they grow up they’ll feel a kind of oppression. Prefer prayer and speak to them through prayer. Speak to God and God will speak to their hearts. That is, you shouldn’t give guidance to your children with a voice that they hear with their ears. You may do this too, but above all you should speak to God about your children. Say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, give Your light to my children. I entrust them to You. You gave them to me, but I am weak and unable to guide them, so, please, illuminate them.’ And God will speak to them and they will say to themselves, ‘Oh dear, I shouldn’t have upset Mummy by doing that!’ And with the grace of God this will come from their heart.” He also said, “It is not sufficient for the parents to be devout. They mustn’t oppress the children to make them good by force. We may repel our children from Christ when we pursue the things of our religion with egotism.”
You know the saying “the truth hurts”? Well, I’m sure in some cases it does but in this case it never felt so good. Did you ever have one of those moments when you read something you’re sure was written especially for you? This was one of those moments. It’s funny how you could read something over and over again but totally miss the point. I read through the entire section, taking notes. Then I began to read every other book on Orthodox parenting I owned and did the same.
St. John Chrysostom said, “The example of the parents is everything in Christian parenting.” So basically I’d “discovered” that first and foremost I need to become more prayerful and a much better example. But how exactly do I do that?
LET GO AND LET GOD
In order for parents to give their children Christian training, they themselves must first of all be pious and God-fearing; they themselves must love to pray. If the mother does not have faith and piety, if she does not find-because she does not seek-joy and consolation in prayer, she will not succeed in teaching her children to be pious.
This is something I need to keep in mind at all times. It’s so easy for me to forget how closely children observe their parents. If I expect them to treat all people and situations around them in a manner befitting an Orthodox Christian, than I first must do this.
In order for our children to become pious Orthodox Christians, it is our responsibility to teach them to pray. Here are things that have been helping me with this task and I hope you’ll be encouraged as well.
• Be Consistent. Create a schedule. This doesn’t mean at 8:00 a.m. on the dot we need to wake them if they’re still sleeping. It simply means that as soon as they awaken, change their clothes and wash up, we need to say our morning prayers and then sit down for breakfast. If possible, choose a time when the whole family can pray together.
• Lead by Example. Children do as they see, which means they need to see us praying. Not just reading the services but sincerely praying to God from our hearts. Let them see you giving thanks to God and praying for others. Let them see and hear you praying in times of fear or trouble. What a blessing it is to have our children turn to God first in the midst of trouble!
• Make them feel involved. During prayer times let them hold a candle or an icon. If they’re old enough to cense the icons, let them. Explain to them at what point they should make the sign of the cross or a prostration; allow them to sing the alleluia’s or Lord have mercy’s. Another simple, yet powerful thing to do is teach them the Jesus Prayer; even the smallest of children can utter the sweet name of Jesus!
• Send them off with prayer. Before they leave for school or in the car if you drive them, say a prayer with them asking Christ, the Panagia, their Guardian Angel and/or patron saint to guide and protect them. Pray for their teacher and classmates. Give them the opportunity to pray for their activities of the day, any special tests or other concerns they may have. This will make them comfortable and get them into the habit of including God in all aspects of their life as well as learning to pray, and ultimately love, all the people around them. Read the Akathist to the Theotokos, Nurturer of Children. This service takes 15 minutes and contains the most powerful prayers I have ever read for a mother and child.
• Make a prayer box or journal. If your children are older and able to write well, you can start a prayer journal. I have always kept a journal for each of my boys with all of their firsts and other memorable moments. Ace loves to snuggle up and read from “his book”. I started to notice that in many of my entries I was praying for things and he noticed as well because he began to ask, “Did Christouli do what you asked for?” It created the perfect situation for me to explain to him how God answers all of our prayers, though sometimes differently than we expected, but always to the benefit of our souls. A prayer journal is also a nice way to list the people or situations you need to pray for. For smaller children, I’ve found keeping a little “prayer box” works just as well. I include photos of people if I have one or just their name. I like to include visuals if possible, for example, a tiny, plastic green soldier for our armed forces or a tiny plastic baby for a child who might be ill.
And so I begin my journey to try and instruct my beloved children, not through force or egotism but through love and example. As I continue, I hope to gain a clearer understanding of the importance of my job as an Orthodox mother.
Though I have a very, very long way to go, I am already beginning to see the fruits, not of my labor but of my attempt to follow the wise instruction of our holy saints and elders, who have left us with the answers on exactly how to raise true Orthodox Christians.
The above article is from the Spring 2009 issue of The Handmaiden, The Truth about Heaven and Hell.