On the upbringing of children

This sermon combines an article published in the Sept. 2000 issue of our Church newsletter, “The True Vine”, with a sermon preached in 1997.

On the occasion of the feast of the Nativity of the holy Theotokos (Sept. 8), and of the commemoration of her holy parents the day after, we will offer a few reflections on the upbringing of children. The subject is timely since September is the beginning of the Ecclesiastical year and of the Church School year. In addition we will attempt to answer the questions, “Where are our children?” and “How can we raise our children properly?”

Where are our children?

The first question on this subject is, “Where are our children?” The answer is, “Not in Church.” They are in athletics, in music, in dancing, in school and school projects and homework, in scouting, in “fun time,” in traveling, in relaxing, in the movies, in-different—but not in Church. The questions, “Where are our children?” and, “Why aren’t our children in Church?” are complex, but basically the answer is, because their parents are not in Church, because their parents don’t have a faith deep enough to pass it on to their children, because they don’t live their faith at home (and everywhere they are), and because their home is not a “church at home.”

Despite our best efforts, our children may go astray, much like the Prodigal Son, especially when they are in college, away from home—although the “process” begins earlier, usually when they stop going to Sunday School. Generally, however, a child is not “lost”—if the parents are themselves people of faith and prayer. Elder Ieronymos of Aegina said to a mother who was complaining about her son going astray: “Show me either your son saved or the calluses on your knees.”1 As long as the calluses are there we can say, “We did everything we could.” But if they are not, we will give an account to God, because God gave us the children to raise them to be holy children.

Once the children reach adulthood the parents can only pray that they will recall the loving upbringing they had received and come to their senses, as the Prodigal Son did. The fact, though, remains that some children will rebel, to the great sorrow and frustration of their parents. Somehow it is difficult for children to admit their mistakes. Do not despair, but continue to pray for them. To once more quote Elder Ieronymos: “When the children are young, talk to them about God; when they grow up, talk to God about them.” Raising children has never been an easy task. In fact, St. Gregory the Theologian calls it “the art of arts and the science of sciences.”

St. John Chrysostom too advises the Christian parent:

“If you raise children well, and they will do the same with their children and they with theirs, and so on, we will have a holy community.”

And further on he adds:

“The parents must see to it that their children become rich, not in silver and gold and the likes of them, but in piety, understanding and virtue.”

If we leave them many riches, he says, they will run to enjoy themselves, and they will be deceived in the wide road of sin, and they will lose the path of salvation. Therefore, he says, pay attention to their whereabouts, find out exactly with whom they are and what they are doing, because if we neglect these things we will not obtain forgiveness from God. If they lose their soul we will have to give an accounting to God.

We are ready to do anything for our children, and buy for them whatever money can buy. Unfortunately money cannot buy piety, respect, reverence, wisdom, virtue. We must train our children from their earliest days. That’s why mother Church has instituted the Prayers on the Day of Birth, the Eighth Day Name-giving ceremony, the Forty Day Blessing, the Infant Baptism and the reception of Chrismation and Holy Communion thereafter. She immediately introduces the children to the life of the Church. Doesn’t a mother start feeding her baby immediately? A young mother in our church, who was a regular at Vespers, said that her baby recognized the voice of the priest from the time it was in her womb! St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “From the hearth the grace,” that is, God’s blessings begin from home, from the family.

Your children will hear about God in church, but they will imitate your example:

  • Talk to them constantly about how to behave in the House of God.
  • Go as family and be on time.
  • Drive with the radio, iPhones and tablets off. Perhaps it is a good time to recite on the way the Prayers Before Receiving Holy Communion.
  • Go directly to your place, without the usual greetings by the candle stand—your children will follow your example.
  • After church have some fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ, avoiding at any cost idle talk and especially small talk and gossip. Be careful who you keep company with and how you spend your time.
  • Work for your church, support it, be involved, offer your talents, volunteer in any way you can.

What can we do to raise our children properly?

A great aid to young couples, but also to Grandparents and Godparents, about the subject of Christian upbringing of our children, is found in the book Raising them Right by St. Theophan the Recluse (+1894). Here is an excerpt from this book, concerning the earliest formation of our children and how to raise them properly. After holy baptism, besides receiving frequently holy Communion, the Saint advises us as follows:

Saint Theophan the Recluse

"A great influence is exercised on the children by frequently taking them to church, by having them kiss the holy Cross, the Gospel, the icons, and by covering them with the veils. Likewise, at home frequently placing them under the icons, frequently signing them with the sign of the Cross, sprinkling them with holy water, and the burning of incense. Also by making the sign of the Cross over their cradle, as well as over their food, and everything connected with them, the blessing of a priest, the bringing into the house of icons from Church... and in general everything from the Church, all of these things warm and nourish in a wondrous way the life of grace in the children and constitute always a most safe and impenetrable protection against the attacks of the invisible dark powers who everywhere are ready to penetrate their developing souls so as to infect them by their activity." (p. 27, slightly edited)

If you are concerned about your children, show them that you love them.

  • Spend some valuable time at home with them, with the TV off, with a good book on hand, with a calm discussion on their life and the moral issues that occupy them.
  • Teach them to have the fear of God.
  • “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
  • Teach them to listen to you and respect you and honor you, so that their days may be lengthened and that everything may go well with them (cf. Deut. 5:16 and Eph. 6:2-3).
  • Pray together as a family at mealtime and at other times.
  • Let them see you when you study the holy scripture or the life of a Saint.
  • Follow the fasts of the Church, during the week and throughout the year.
  • Cense your homes on Saturday evening and on the eves of major feast days.
  • Make a prosphoron (altar bread) every once in a while, for the health and in memory. Make it a family project. Write down the names of all the family members, living and departed, and bring them to church to be commemorated.
  • Light a candle before your home icon-stand.
  • Go to confession, if you want them to go to confession.
  • Say, “Sorry,” when you see that you are at fault. Say, “No,” when you must, and explain why. It’s not easy. It never is.

If we are to raise holy children, we must raise holy fathers and mothers. We must raise young adults who are committed to Christ, who will marry young adults who have the same commitment, and who thus together will raise a holy family. St. Paul writes to his disciple Timothy:

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, dwells in you” (2 Tim. 1:5).

One of the things the Three Hierarchs had in common was that all three of them had holy mothers. The main responsibility for raising your children rests with you, dear parents, grandparents and Godparents. Follow the example of the holy Theotokos and of St. Joseph the Betrothed, and bring your children to church, to present them to God! Be people of faith, and then you won’t have to raise this question, “Where are our children?”​​

Heading image: fresco from the Catacomb of St. Priscilla, Rome, 3rd century.

  1. From a future publication of Orthodox Witness, The Holy Elder Ieronymos of Aegina.

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