Talking to Children about God

by Albert Rossi, Ph.D.

Last year at 5 AM on Pascha morning our seven-year-old, Beth, said with a thrill, "This is the first time I've seen the sun come up. And, just think, it happened on Pascha." Although she didn't really understand what she just said, Beth in fact did articulate the fundamental Orthodox importance of Pascha. All of our talking with children about God as with everything else in our lives, has its foundation in the Church Paschal Liturgy. Everything begins and ends with Pascha.

In trying to understand what this means, Mrs. Sophie Koulomzin [a well-known Orthodox educator] says that our task is to "help children know God, as distinct from knowledge about God." We do this with our total selves more than our verbalizations. We talk to children about God through the softness in our eyes, through the gentleness of our voices, through the caring of our caress. Children hear not with their ears but with their hearts.

Becoming Children First

We "let the little children come" to God to the extent that we have become God's children and listened to God's voice in our own hearts. Needless to say, [it's] not easy. The prophet Elijah teaches us a beautiful lesson about God's voice. For Elijah, God's voice was not present in the strong wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. God's voice was not clear in these dramatic and sensational events. Rather, we are told, Elijah heard God's voice in a "still, small voice," a gentle breeze (1 Kings 19:12). Somehow, the smallness and the tenderness of children helps us understand the insight of Elijah. The voice of a child is, of course, a "still, small voice" and we know that the voice of a child includes the voice of God speaking to us.

God lives and speaks to us within all reality, but is especially clear in the beckoning of our children. Our children, then, bring the best out of us. At the deepest level, Christ meets Christ.

I once heard a holy priest say, "Sometimes I think my children are my salvation." Thunder-struck I recognized this statement as an affirmation of one of my own private innermost beliefs. It's probably theologically inaccurate and grossly unqualified as a statement. Yet the thrust is probably true for many of us. Our children are probably placed in our lives to enable us to get serious about life and God.

Becoming a child is a rather sophisticated notion. The Bible presents an apparent paradox for us to consider. Christ said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:2). We also have the words of St. Paul, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Cor. 13:11).

It seems to me that the purpose of this apparent paradox is to help us examine our adult behaviors with more reflectiveness, more scrutiny. Christ directs us to be simple, defenseless and trusting as children. St. Paul tells us to outgrow self-indulgence, narcissism and unhealthy dependence, thereby leaving the limitations of childhood. We grow into adulthood retaining the exquisite beauty of the child within us. One theologian put it [this way]: we must always make the distinction between being divinely childlike and sinfully childish. The Biblical message is that we allow a certain kind of child to remain in us, that is, a "child of God."

Graceful Openings

Part of the task of the adult is to provide openings to gracefully talk about God. Sometimes family members are embarrassed to talk seriously about God's place in their lives. This is probably particularly true for older children.

I once heard a story which exemplifies the point. A father was praying and worrying about his wife's overdue pregnancy. The entire family was preoccupied with the pregnancy. The father would begin the day by asking, "Is this the day the Lord has made?" Everyone knew what he meant. His wife then gave a statement about her physical condition and a prognosis for the day. Interestingly, when someone asked the children if the baby had come, they would answer, "No, the day the Lord has made hasn't come yet." It was lighthearted and joyful, which is to say, real life, sanctified. But it was also explicitly God's handiwork in their family life.

Another delightful story I heard centered on the family garden. One family made their garden an opportunity to talk about God. As the spring planting occurred in the small garden, the family members discussed what kind of sign to put over the garden. One parent mentioned God's place in the garden. Ann, the six-year-old, suggested they take the vegetable's-eye-view and make a sign which said, "God watches over us." Then, while inspecting the summer growth, they occasionally referred to their sign and talked about God's role in nature. They made the sign which became their cue to reflect upon God in their lives.

Liturgy of Bedtime

One of the more regular times of "Letting the children come" to God is bedtime. Often stories and prayers at bedtime can be relaxed, non-competitive time with children. When everything is right, bedtime can be a time when the unconditional love of parent for child is almost tangible. Children are usually tired and sometimes less frenetic. It also goes without saying that some nights seem more like thinly veiled chaos. But, hopefully, most nights are more peaceful.

Going to sleep for children happens gracefully only within an elaborate ritual. This is the liturgy of going to sleep and is not totally unlike other liturgies. Father Alexander Schmemann spoke of the Eucharist beginning with the long ritual of getting dressed for Church and continuing through the trip to Church and all the beautiful liturgy preceding Communion. In a similar way, children go to sleep after intricate ceremony. This usually includes taking a bath, putting on pajamas, brushing their teeth, kissing everyone in the household goodnight, hearing a story, saying prayers, getting tucked in, and for little ones, a Linus blanket and Teddy for special security. This is the liturgy of bedtime. It's a tender time, a loving time. It's a rare and precious time. It's a time to be close to each other and to God.

There are many ways to talk to children about God at bedtime. As was said, we do this primarily by the way we put them to bed. We do this by mustering patience as our own busy day comes to an end. We do it with a tender kiss and an "I love you" as we leave the room. But, we can also do it with stories.

Children love stories, stories, stories. In our family there is one type of story which is the regular, nightly request. It takes the form of "Daddy (or Mommy), tell me a story about when you were a little boy." This has been going on so long that I am running dry of stories, or so it seems. Rather than forego a story, Beth will beg for a re-run of some oft-told story. I have overheard her telling these stories to her little friends as they played in her room. As I get older I am beginning to appreciate this form of story more. It tells of heritage, of lineage, of roots. Inevitably, these stories involve grandparents, moments of virtue, of relatives, humor, tales of Church events. All this is a remembrance of God's activity in one's personal history, and can occasionally be explained as such. Grandparents can have a incalculable value in strengthening the faith of a child with stories about "When Baba [grandmother] was a little girl."

Maximal Effort

Childhood is all too short. Someone once said, "Childhood is like a snowflake on a mitten" that is strikingly beautiful and short-lived. Adults often say "Where did it go" or "I can't believe she's so big."

Our primary concern during this time is to "let the children come" to God. We do this by bringing them to the sacred liturgical services and by bringing them to God in daily life. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, "With us everything should be secondary compared to our concern with children and their upbringing in the instruction and teaching of the Lord."

As adults, we are responders to the explicit and implicit questions of children. It takes a special attention and energy to try to be keenly alert to these questions. The hustle and demand of daily living can have the effect of dulling our awareness to the spiritual needs of our children, thereby prompting us to avoid the matter entirely.

One of the popular secular prophets of the day, Charlie Brown, says, "There is no problem so big it can't be run away from." Those of us in direct contact with children know that talking about God could be one of those big problems. We don't want to avoid it, nor trivialize it, nor routinize it. As with all else, we are only able to do it because the Holy Spirit within us "bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:17).

We help make children's hearts ready to be what they already are, God's living sanctuary, His holy of holies. God wants to "live abundantly" in our children. They, on their part, want to "live abundantly" in Him. Our role is to allow the Spirit within us to cultivate this "abundant life" through our efforts.

Dr. Albert Rossi is a Professor of Psychology at Pace University, Pleasantville, NY, and has a private practice in family counseling.

Reprinted with permission from The Resource Handbook (II, 1992, 1), published by the Department of Lay Ministries, Orthodox Church in America.

© 1997 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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