Some Basic Guidelines
by Presbytera Juliana Cownie
Part One: At the Divine Liturgy
“Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16)
Of course, we Orthodox Christian parents want to bring our children to Christ. We bring them to be baptized, they are present with us at the Divine Services, they receive communion regularly. Isn’t that enough? No, we are still holding them back if we are waiting for them to absorb Orthodoxy by osmosis. Their bodies may be in the church, but their minds and spirits are far away. They come into the presence of the Lord but they do not know where they are or Who He is. Their boredom and restlessness should tell us this but, unfortunately, we often render ourselves oblivious to the messages the children are sending. We ignore their behavior, hoping that this is merely symptomatic of youthful ignorance and that time will take care of the problem. In fact, it will. When they are older, these children will leave the Church, a church of which they have never been made to feel a part. They will leave and we will be answerable to God for their departure.
We have a responsibility to our children and to meet that responsibility we must stop listening to worldly wisdom and listen instead to eternal wisdom. The world tells us to indulge our children and make sure that they are never uncomfortable or unhappy. If we heed this kind of philosophy, we will feed our children’s egos and starve their souls. God, in His infinite love for mankind, allows us to suffer terrible hardship and grief for the sake of our eternal souls. We are afraid to allow our children to suffer a temporary aggravation for the sake of theirs. The world has taught us to have no confidence in our ability to teach and discipline our own children. We want teams of child psychologists to approve our every action and we fear losing the love of our children every time a conflict arises. Even when we are willing to admit the Church into our child-rearing decisions, we have a tendency to want to hand over all of our responsibilities to some hapless individual who suggests having Protestant-style Sunday school sessions during the Divine Liturgy. This is nonsense. Our children are our responsibility and we can begin all by ourselves with two basic principles:
1. We must instruct our children from the day they are born in Orthodox Christian life BY OUR EXAMPLE, in our every thought, word and deed.
2. We must concentrate, from their earliest childhood, on teaching our children basic civilized behavior, without which any further education, either secular or religious, will be impossible.
This is not at all complicated or difficult. The key is consistency.
Now, let us proceed to examine how we can apply the above principles at a Sunday Liturgy. Please remember that Divine Liturgy is a culmination of all the prayer and worship that takes place in the home during the week. If Sunday is the only day your family gives a thought to God, do not be surprised if your children feel confused and out of place. They cannot be expected to put on a show of piety once a week. They only know how to act out of heartfelt belief and habitual prayerful expressions of love for God. Let that be our first example to them and proceed then to preparations for Sunday Liturgy.
Preparing for Sunday Liturgy
On Sunday morning, the family should get up in a timely manner, so that all can be properly prepared to go to Church. Large families sometimes find it difficult to have all the children washed, dressed, and brushed in time without a lot of nagging, arguing, and rushing around frantically trying to attend to last minute details. A little organization can go a long way toward a serene beginning to this holy day. First of all, have each child’s church clothes laid out the night before, already inspected by a parent so that there will be no last minute arguments about inappropriate, mismatched, stained or torn apparel. Children four years old and older can certainly dress themselves. Older siblings can help the younger ones.
Good grooming is important, both from a spiritual and a psychological standpoint. Dress a child in playclothes and he will be prepared to play. This was once a guiding principle behind school dress codes and is a reason that many public schools nowadays are requiring uniforms. Little boys should wear suits to Church, just as the men do (or should). It is not necessary to spend a fortune. A hand-me-down or a thrift shop bargain will suffice as well a new suit to fix the idea in the child’s mind that he is wearing special clothing to a special place where he is expected to act like a man. Not only will the suit serve to instill in him a sense of dignity, but it will also restrict his movements somewhat so that sloppy, casual behavior is rendered far more difficult. Dress shoes go with a suit. Not only do tennis shoes look ridiculous on someone attired properly for Church, but they contradict the message (which should be reinforced constantly) that Church is not a place to play.
Little girls should wear nice dresses and dress shoes. Even from infancy, their heads should be covered. Some people who are misinformed about Orthodox tradition may try to tell you that girls do not need to wear a scarf or hat until they are twelve. Perhaps this has become confused with the age children are usually confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church or they think that the head covering somehow signals to the community that the girl will soon be available for marriage.
Whatever the source of the misconception, it has no basis in Orthodox tradition whatsoever. Girls and women should arrive at Church with their heads covered, stand throughout the service with their heads covered, and leave Church the same way. This is done for spiritual purposes concerning modesty and humility. Therefore, do not be misled into believing that the headcovering needs to be worn only when confessing or communing (another popular myth).
Girls, no matter what age, should NEVER wear pants to Church (or anywhere else, for that matter). It is easy to fall to the mistaken idea that toddlers should be exempt from such a rule. Yes, they are cute and they crawl around on the floor but little girls are not puppies. They will grow up to be women, hopefully women worthy of praise and emulation. It is much better to train a child correctly from a very young age than to impose something suddenly at an arbitrary stage of maturity. The very fact that it is arbitrary and based on personal opinion rather than any teaching of the Church will create feelings of rebellion in the child for which you may have difficulty finding an adequate response. In any case, if your concern is primarily that the weather is cold, have the child wear leggings or tights under her dress.
Boys and girls should be clean and their hair brushed. Even a very small child experiences anticipation and a sense of awe about an event for which they are being so carefully prepared. When a child is allowed to go to Church looking unkempt, dressed in whatever assortment of clothes that came to hand that morning, that child will look and feel like an afterthought – someone who had to be dragged along when the parents wanted to go to Church. No one should expect an “afterthought” to be terribly thrilled about the idea of attending services or to be very cooperative when he gets there. Another important aspect to be considered is that, fair or not, the child will judged by the adults at Church according to his or her appearance and treated accordingly. Warm approval and compliments from adults other than his parents can have a very positive and encouraging effect on a small child. He will not receive any such attention if it does not appear that even his parents think enough of him to do more than toss some wrinkled clothes at him in the morning.
The tone of parental expectations and familial participation can be set during communion prayers before the family even leaves for Church. As at all prayer times in the icon corner, the children should be expected to stand quietly and reverently. Even very small children should be with their parents at this time because even if they do not understand the words of the prayers, they do understand the serious attitude of the parents. This will help to accustom them to particular behavior whenever prayer is being said, thus preparing them to be quiet and attentive in Church. Children who are old enough to read should be allowed to read some of the communion prayers. This will help them to understand that, as they mature, they will be expected to take on some of the responsibilities of adults. Spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally they will respond with enthusiasm to this invitation to become a contributing member of the family Church.
Entering the Church
Before arriving at Church, it may be necessary to remind the children that they are about to enter a holy place. Laughter and loud speech must cease before we even approach the Church, as it is inappropriate, disrespectful and may distract those already inside the Church. We should all enter quietly and reverently. The reason we get up on Sunday morning in a timely manner is so that we will arrive BEFORE THE SERVICE BEGINS. Showing respect for God, the Church, the priest, and the Church community, we thereby set a good example for our children to follow.
Children should be taught from earliest childhood how to reverence icons properly. Their first act upon entering an Orthodox Church should be to reverence the icons in an orderly and pious fashion as they have seen the adults do. Parents should help very small children by holding their hands and going through the motions of making the sign of the Cross with them until they are able to do it by themselves. Small children should be watched carefully and guided as they reverence the icons. Left to themselves, many children who have not completely grasped the idea that these actions are serious will show off or make a joke out of making the sign of the Cross. They do this, perhaps, out of self-consciousness but it cannot be tolerated. A firm correction must ensue followed by a demand that the child make the sign of the Cross properly. If he cannot or will not obey, the parent should take the child’s hand and guide him through the proper motions.
Candles are not playthings, lit or unlit. Neither are they teething- rings. Churches and monasteries purchase candles for a specific purpose – so that the people can light them and set them before the icons in remembrance of prayerful intentions. Once lit before an icon, the candle itself is considered holy and must be dealt with reverently. Children who are old enough and have shown a certain degree of maturity may be allowed to light their own candles before the icons, but only under the watchful supervision of the parents. If, however, the child makes a game of this, the privilege should be revoked until such time as he understands what he is doing. A note of caution is in order here. Candles are open flames which can cause injury to the child. Little girls with long hair are particularly susceptible to setting themselves ablaze. Always stand next to your child as he handles the candle because a moment of inattention on the part of the child (or the parent) can have serious consequences. Let us also refrain from sending bored children to “tend” the candlestands. The distraction often created by adults noisily blowing out candles and tossing them into a box is bad enough, but the effect is magnified when the job is undertaken by a child who craves diversion.
After reverencing the icons and lighting candles, men and boys should take their places on the right side of the church; women and girls should stand on the left side. Of course, babies still small enough to be held comfortably should be with their mothers, but it is important that boys learn to stand with the men at a young age. Many people at first object to the idea of their family being separated during the Divine Services. They are accustomed to standing together at home when they pray together as a family.
But when we go to church, we enter into a bigger community and a larger family. We do not in our churches have family pews, or even stand apart as families, leaving those without families even more alone and isolated. (Although, of course, it is natural for young children to stand by their parents.) In this context our particular family has less significance, and we adopt all those present as our brothers and sisters, our family, in the Faith. (The Shepherd, Vol. XV, Number 9, p. 17.)
Because we are all one family in the Church, we have a responsibility to one another. Therefore, it is appropriate for other members to help look after small children who stray from their parents or who appear to be acting in rebellion to their parents’ wishes. This should not be interpreted by the parents as interference or someone passing judgement on their ability to control their children. It is well known that familiarity breeds contempt and that children will often mind a stranger rather than their own parents. This is also often necessary to keeping good order in the Church. Naturally, the primary responsibility for children’s behavior rests with the parents but if they are absorbed in the service and do not notice their toddlers playing at the candlestand or their older children slouching against the wall, it is perfectly appropriate for an adult or older child to intervene. Rather than be offended, the parents should thank those who care enough to take action.
The Service Begins
Once the service begins, our participation requires that we, as Orthodox Christians, stand, listen attentively to the service, and make the Sign of the Cross whenever Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Theotokos, or the saints are mentioned by name. Our children are also Orthodox Christians and we do them great spiritual harm when we do not teach them how to participate in the service. How tragic it is to attend Divine Liturgy and see children left to themselves to play in the choir loft or on the stairs, or stuck in a back corner somewhere with a pile of toys. This conveys a powerful message to the children that Orthodoxy is for adults only and that Christ and His Church are not concerned with children at all. This is untrue and unfair. They have been baptized and they need to be brought into the fullness of the worship.This is not necessarily easy, however. Toddlers can be especially trying because they become easily frustrated when their movements are restricted. At first, we may be able only to keep them within arm’s reach and quiet their louder outbursts. While we have to allow them a certain latitude, we must very clearly define specific boundaries to their movements and their behavior. All children (including toddlers) need and crave such boundaries. This defines their world and gives them a sense of security. If no boundaries are defined, a child will ultimately wander aimlessly throughout the church until somebody stops him. This is natural. However, this aimless wandering is unsettling for a child because he has no secure place where he can feel he belongs. So we set the boundary for the child close to us, within arm’s reach, so that we can effectively enforce the boundary. The boundary will be tested, we can be assured of that. The child needs to test his limits to verify that they are real. Expect any limit set to be tested many times. Because of this, consistency is essential. As many times as the child tries to wander, we must bring him back. Any time the child makes a loud disturbance, we must insist he be quiet. If he chooses to persist or become even louder, we must immediately take him outside and discipline him in such a way that he will connect going outside with something unpleasant. We should take note that rebellion does not always manifest itself in a noisy way. Silent sobbing and sullen disobedience are just as indicative of self-will as tantrums and just as spiritually destructive if not corrected immediately. Frankly, early rebellion is best dealt with by administering a spanking. As controversial as this subject has become, an explanation is in order here.
A surprising number of parents have fallen for the trendy philosophy that spankings cause children to become hostile and violent. The fact is that most small children learn very quickly from situations in which pain is the consequence for wrongful actions. If they touch a hot stove, tease a grumpy dog, or shut their fingers in a door, pain ensues. They do not hate the stove or try to pick a fight with the dog. They simply avoid the action which led to the painful consequence. Spanking as a consequence to rebellion is therefore much more comprehensible to a small child than lengthy emotional appeals to their better nature (which has not yet been developed) or long periods of being ignored followed a furious pounding (which is not only abusive but confusing to the child).
A spanking is to be reserved for use in response to willful defiance, whenever it occurs. Period! It is much more effective to apply it early in the conflict, while the parent’s emotional apparatus is still under control, than after ninety minutes of scratching and clawing. (James Dobson, Dr. Dobson Answers Your Questions, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. p.157)
When a parent attempts to apply the method described above, he must expect a certain amount of criticism from other members of the community. For some reason, people want to see a well-behaved child without ever seeing the discipline applied. Some will say the parent is being too harsh, while others will complain that the child is unruly. We cannot expect to please everybody. We must set our own standards for our children’s behavior and hold them to those standards on a consistent basis. This approach will teach the children proper behavior and will ultimately gain them much praise when they begin to act like civilized human beings. The praise will be the more so because such behavior is so rare nowadays.
Food should never be brought into the church in the form of snacks and drinks to keep small children quiet. (By the same token, teenagers should never be given gum to keep them quiet either.) For one thing, it is uncanonical. The only food consumed in the church is Holy Communion, Antidoron, and the Artos. The eggs for Pascha and grapes for Transfiguration are brought in only to be blessed. Other foods are forbidden by the canons. Besides, it is just not a good idea to bribe children with snacks. This teaches the child an unhealthy attitude toward food which can promote obesity and creates a bad habit which is very difficult to break. Imagine how difficult it will be to teach such a child how to fast for Communion and Antidoron when he is of age.
School age children should be required to stand throughout the Liturgy, except at the reading of the Epistle and during the Homily. Standing does not mean leaning against the wall, slouching with hands in pockets, or hanging on to a parent (or anybody else). Children need to be standing reverently with their hands at their sides or folded in front of them. If the parent senses that the child is unwell or unusually tired, then it is for the parent to indicate when the child may sit down. We must not allow the children to make such decisions for themselves. This is an opportunity to train them in obedience. There is a world of difference between a self-willed child deciding that the service is too long and that he must take a rest, and the parent permitting a necessary rest. The key is who decides what is necessary. Orthodox spirituality is based in obedience, as manifested in the obedience of the Theotokos and each of the Saints. Even in the smallest acts, teachings of the Church are imparted to children.
The same parental discretion must be used in allowing children to leave the church to go to the bathroom. Generally, it is a good idea to be sure that each child goes to the bathroom before entering the church. In most cases, noone should need to go again until the conclusion of Divine Liturgy. Children are very apt to use the excuse that they must go to the bathroom so that they can leave the church and play for awhile. In cases where the parent discerns a real need, the parent should accompany the child to and from the restroom to insure against any dawdling. This will also discourage any false alarms.
Should the parent need to leave the church for any reason, the children should remain in the service under the supervision of the other adults there. In such cases, it should be understood that the other adults have the authority to issue corrections and administer discipline where necessary. Neither adults nor children should leave the church during the reading of the Gospel, the Great Entrance, or at any time during the consecration of the Gifts. To leave at these times is very disruptive and irreverent.
Babies and toddlers should, of course, commune every Sunday and Feast Day and they require no particular preparation beforehand. By their demeanor, however, the parents convey their personal sense of reverence for the Mysteries to the child. As the child matures, the parents’ responsibility increases. When the parents and the Priest feel that the child is articulate enough and able to understand right from wrong, it is time to have the child go to Confession. There is no specified age when this should occur. Some local churches have arbitrarily chosen the age of seven, but this is merely a guideline and should not be considered absolute. Some children are able to confess at a very early age, while others may need more time. The same holds true for fasting before Communion. The parents should accustom their child to the idea, first of all, by their example. When the parents observe that the child does not seem to require food as frequently (for example, the child is able to play all morning without showing interest in food), they should help the child understand that we do not eat or drink in the morning before we commune. Again, this is a matter of parental discretion but our goal is to strive to teach the child to put off gratification of physical appetites in favor of a higher, spiritual good.
It has been mentioned several times here that children must learn to move and speak reverently in the church. This must especially be emphasized when they approach the Chalice. In some churches, children are communed after the adults. This helps them to learn humility and respect for their elders. In whatever order the people are communed, however, children should not be allowed to push in front of others, fight among themselves, or in any way be disruptive. They MUST be made to understand that they are approaching God Himself and that those who partake unworthily (or with an unworthy attitude) do so to their detriment. Because parents risk taking this condemnation onto themselves, they should be vigilant of their child’s behavior at all times. Should the child misbehave as he is approaching the Chalice, the parent would do well to take him out of the communion line and not permit him to commune that day. Communion is a sacred privilege, not a right. The child will learn a tremendous spiritual lesson when he learns not to take this privilege for granted.
The child should approach the Chalice silently, arms folded across his chest. He should open his mouth wide so that the Priest can easily put the spoon in the child’s mouth. The child should then close his mouth around the spoon and wait for the Priest to pull the spoon out. If some of the Mystery should spill on the child’s lip or chin, he should let the person holding the Veil wipe it off.
After communing, the child should move to the place where the Antidoron is being given. There he should take one piece of Antidoron, dip it into the wine, and put it directly into his mouth, cupping his other hand under his chin to avoid spilling crumbs on the floor. If any crumbs do fall, the parent should consume them. A small child should wait for someone to assist him, rather than risk spilling the wine or knocking bread on the floor. Children should be told that Antidoron is holy and should be treated reverently.
Until the child eats a full meal, he must not be allowed to put anything in his mouth which will be taken out again, such as his thumb, his pacifier, lollipops, or chewing gum. This is done out of reverence for any trace of the Mysteries which might remain in the child’s mouth.For the same reason, the child should be discouraged from spitting. Should a baby spit up after Communion, a tissue or paper towel should be used to clean up and then taken directly to the Priest so that he can properly dispose of it by burning.
After Divine Liturgy
Children, as well as adults, should refrain from socializing until they are outside the church. If there is a place provided for children to play, now is the time. Children who have stood quietly throughout the Divine Liturgy should be praised for their good behavior and allow to burn off some energy before the Agape meal. There is a time and place for everything and just because we do not allow children to play in the church does not mean that we do not understand their need to play.
If there is a meal at the church after Divine Liturgy, children’s good manners can make for a very pleasant social experience, while bad manners can make the meal difficult for everybody. If the food is being served buffet style, children should always be served after the adults. Small children will need their parents to make up a plate for them, but even older children may need parental supervision to be sure that they do not take more food than they can eat. Of course, nobody should take any food until the blessing has been given by the Priest. The parents should take responsibility to clean up any mess made by their children. Older children and teenagers should be encouraged to assist in serving the food and cleaning up after the meal. This will help them to feel that they are a part of the community.
It is quite natural for parents to become discouraged when initial attempts at disciplining children appear to fail miserably. None of what has been written here can be accomplished overnight. There is no “instant” formula for teaching children reverent and civilized behavior. Patience and, above all, consistency are absolutely essential in attaining the desired results. This consistency must be based on a sincere desire to set a proper example so that we, the parents, demonstrate the best of Orthodox behavior.
True Orthodoxy is reflected in a way of life which is practiced in the home on a regular basis. To have children live one way at home and then suddenly to expect them to act differently in the church is an unrealistic (and, frankly, hypocritical) approach. If, during the course of the week, the child has not been expected to stand quietly at prayers, act respectfully to his parents, and exhibit good table manners, why should we be surprised if he acts badly at church?
There is no reason to be afraid to set high standards for our children.
When we have high expectations, children not only gain self-esteem by meeting those expectations, but they come to love and respect those who set them. Children want the House of God to be a place of awe and mystery. Though young children may have difficulty being attentive during long services or understanding what these services mean, they yearn to be taught and naturally seek to understand anything for which their parents show a deep reverence.
Traditional Orthodoxy is a priceless pearl, a gift which we bestow upon our children. If we act as though we are depriving our children in some way by insisting that they adhere to the teachings of the church, we are blaspheming. When we bring our children to Christ, we must not forget that we are bringing them into the presence of the King of Kings. We do no service to our children when we deprive them of the means of understanding this blessing. To give them the false impression that they are equals with their “friend, Jesus” is to give them a counterfeit Christ. We love our children and therefore we want to bring them to Christ as He truly is, in all of His glory. To give them less is to give them a stone in the place of bread.
If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him? (Luke 11:11-13)
Our job as parents is to teach our children how to ask.
Part 2: The Orthodox Child at Home
As has been stated before, the child will do nothing at church which he has not learned at home. Children, not being hypocritical by nature, act according to what they have been taught by their parents. Curiously, parents are often unaware of what they have really taught their children until they see the results manifested in public. That is why this book began with the child at Divine Liturgy—with all the incipient problems highlighted. It is often easier to choose to blame the traditional Orthodox Church for making the church atmosphere uncomfortable for parents of uncontrollable children. But if we are honest with ourselves, then we are forced to take a hard look at our home life and our methods of discipline in order to find out where we went wrong.
What most of us will find when we view our child-rearing methods through an Orthodox perspective is that we have allowed the child to develop a powerful self-will. We have come to expect disobedience rather than obedience from the child. Indeed, we have often conformed ourselves the child’s will, striving to mold ourselves to the child’s every whim and desire, desperate to win and hold the child’s love and approval.
What’s wrong with this picture? It is a perfect photographic negative of what Orthodox family life is supposed to be. Black is white and white is black whenever we embrace worldly standards of parenthood. This also means that we are calling good (strict discipline and high standards) evil (repressive, fanatic) and evil (no discipline, low standards) good (“affirming”, understanding of “differently-abled” children).
Self-will, once it is firmly established, is so antithetical to Orthodoxy that it will render spiritual growth impossible. It is the responsibility of the parents to impose their will upon the child, even in the smallest details, even in the seemingly insignificant areas of the child’s life.
The will of the parents should be imprinted upon each step— of course in a general way. Without this, the behavior of the child can easily become corrupted. After enjoying himself according to his own will, the child always returns unwilling to obey even in the smallest things; and this if it happens only once—what then can one say if this part of bodily activity is completely neglected? How difficult it is later to uproot self-will, which so quickly seats itself in the