“Here am I and the Children Whom the Lord has given me.” (Is. 8:18)
Children are a gift from God, as it is written in the Psalms, "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward." (Ps. 127:3) Parents have a responsibility towards their children, as St. Paul wrote, "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." (Eph. 6:4) God told the Israelites to teach their children His commandments, "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up." (Deut. 6:6-7) St. Paul praised his disciple Timothy’s genuine faith, which dwelt first in his grandmother then in his mother. He wrote, "I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also." (2 Tim. 1:5)
Raising children in the fear of God, passing on to them the orthodox faith, and making them become children of God is a very important and vital matter, since children are a precious trust in the parents’ hands. Raising them in a spiritual way is a holy duty to which the parents will have to give an account for on Judgment Day. God will ask every father and mother, "Where are your children? What did they do with them?" Will every father and mother be able to stand in front of God and say, "Here am I and the children whom the Lord has given me."? (Is. 8:18) The salvation of every father and mother is directly related to the salvation of his or her children. There are many parents whom the Lord punished, because they neglected their duty in raising their children. Eli the priest offers us the perfect example. Although he was a righteous man, yet the Lord punished him, because of his children’s evil actions, since he did not raise them well (refer to I Samuel 2).
The Church exhorts the fathers and mothers to place great care in upbringing their children in the proper Christian way, since the virtuous Christian home is the proper environment to bring forth good children. In this article, I would like to offer some advice and guidelines in the proper Christian child rearing, using the writings of St. John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople, as the foundation for this.
The Goal of raising children is to make them children of God
Parents have a responsibility to raise their children properly. The goal of their upbringing must be clear from the beginning. St. John Chrysostom specifies this goal to be making the child become God’s child. He compares the parents’ task to that of a sculptor. The parents must be firm guides and zealous criticizers so as to shape the child to become the Lord’s child. According to St. John, parents are "like ones who make statues, removing the excess and correcting the imperfections. They examine their children day after day to see what virtues they acquired so as to instill more of it and what shortcomings they have so as to remove." He also said, "We have to care for these beautiful statues in our hands to shape them for the sake of God. They are not hard and inanimate, but the King of the universe has desired to dwell in them. Therefore, let us use God’s words to form the child, because you raise a philosopher (a godly wise person) or a hero racing towards the Kingdom of God to become a heavenly citizen."
The Importance of Discipline from Early Childhood
Proper discipline must start in early childhood. The young child is easily influenced and convinced. The sooner we start teaching him to live a Christian life, the better we are at achieving our goal. St. John Chrysostom said, "If the good commandments are imprinted on the soul while it is still young, then no one can destroy it… The child still has fear and awe in his sight, his speech, and in every thing else." He also said, "It is easy to lead him since he doesn’t have to struggle for honor or greatness, because he is still a child. He doesn’t have a wife or children. What reason does he have to be arrogant or to speak evil? He competes only with his peers."
Discipline at Home
The home is the small church in which the child develops. Passing down the faith to the child is an important and decisive matter. We have the example of Moses the prophet, whose mother nursed him with the faith in God. Consequently, all the idolatries in Pharaoh’s castle did not make him forget his ancestors’ faith. Because of his saintly mother, Jochebed, he himself became a hero of faith. St. Paul wrote, "By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy passing pleasures of sin." (Heb. 11:24-25)
St. John Chrysostom presents to the parents a comprehensive program to teach their children the principles of the faith. He wrote, "Teach your child a chapter of the Bible with all its facts and meanings." For the young child, he advises that one should start with the attractive and happy stories. He specifies dinnertime as a suitable time for narrating the story step by step, using simple and easy phrases, without any additions to the facts, so that it wouldn’t seem like a fable. If both parents are present, then one should tell the story, while the other can comment on the events; that way teaching the child becomes a joint parent effort. Don’t worry if the child doesn’t understand one of the words or phrases, because he will understand the overall meaning from your facial expressions and tone of voice. Repeat the story several times at one sitting, then allow the child to recount it. If the child shows signs of inability to retell it, help him by reminding him of some of the expressions so he can recollect it and repeat it. St. John also advises that it is important to apply the events of the story to the child’s daily life. He wrote, "If the story has a deep meaning, then its significance will fill them with awe and admiration."
As the child gets older, St. John calls for gradually teaching the child more. The simple and happy stories are taught in the young age. When he is older, we present to him deeper meanings, e.g. divine punishment, works of grace and damnation, giving some details about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the bondage of the Israelites. St. John wrote, "Afterwards, when the child grows, you can tell him stories, which inspire divine respect and fear. When he is young, you cannot overwhelm him, because he is still fragile. Otherwise, you will scare him."
Naming the Child
St. John Chrysostom gives special importance to naming children after the names of saints, so that from his early childhood the child becomes attached to his saint’s namesake. Then the family should celebrate this saint’s feast day in a way similar to celebrating the child’s birthday. St. John advises the parents to give the child an icon of the saint so the child can imitate the saint, who was a true disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than taking fictional characters, movie stars, or sport athletes as role models.
St. John wrote, "Let the image of a saint be imprinted on the child by one way or another. Let us provide the child with opportunities to allow him to escalate in goodness by means of the name he is given. Let us not give the child the name of one of the family members, but rather the name of one of the righteous martyrs, apostles, or saints. This way we start caring for our children and instructing them, as well as introducing the saints’ names into our homes. As a result, the parents will also meditate on the life of the saint, whose name they have given to their child. If the saint’s name happens to be the same like a departed relative, then as both the parents and the child meditate on the life of this saint and pray with him, they will find comfort in losing their relative."
This illustrates the importance of the role the parents play in raising their children in a Christian way, whose goal is making the child truly a child of God. This has to start from early childhood. In fact, it should begin at the moment the infant is given a name. Connecting the child from his early life to the character of the saint he is named after imprints the saint’s life on the child. Child rearing is a continuous process and must follow a calculated method so that, according to his developmental age, the child will gradually grow in the faith.
If the Lord wills, we shall continue to discuss this subject in the next issue.