by Phyllis Meshel Onest, M.Div.
When our daughters were toddlers Jim and I decided that it was important for us to do all that we could to help Michelle and Maria learn how to worship and how to behave in Church. There was also certain behavior we would not tolerate. To guide us in our parenting, I had read Burton White's The First Three Years, as well as Parents magazine and articles in Orthodox newspapers and books that were available. [I wish John Rosemond had been writing then!]
We had wanted the girls to know how an Orthodox Christian enters the Church (e.g. lighting candles, crossing themselves, venerating icons), to be able to sit quietly in church for blocks of time, to sing various hymns, to behave in a manner that would not distract others praying around us. We would bring a "church bag" filled with paper and colored pencils, Bible story books, The Guardian Angel prayer book, and quiet toys. They were directed to draw pictures related to church, some of which I cherish yet today. We sat in the second row so that the girls could see what was going on. I would point out different things such as the change in the liturgical colors, the icons, processions, and remind them to make the sign of the cross. When Maria was too young to do so, I would make the cross on her and then on me.
Three rules guided us. Our friend Nick Gerassimakis, who was working on a Ph.D. in psychology, advised us to "pick our battles and win them". Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family advised parents not to allow church, restaurants and the like to become the "sanctuary for misbehavior". In other words, if they misbehaved in such locales, they would indeed suffer the consequences. We mutually agreed not be embarrassed so. And third, spanking was to be reserved for situations that could result in harm, such as walking into the street after being told not to do so.
There were Sundays when we came home shaking our heads, wondering why we even attended Liturgy that day. But we kept on going. Surely God would help us if we were persistent! There were a few occasions that required extreme measures that the girls still remember. On one occasion, when they repeatedly misbehaved after several reminders, they were not permitted to receive the Eucharist. I don't think I received that day either!
On another occasion when Michelle [age 4 or 5] was misbehaving, Jim came from the choir [in this parish the choir sang in the front of the church], whisked her out of church as she cried out, "Daddy, don't hit me!" Since she had been spanked only once before (when she had turned the thermostat to 90 degrees), Michelle realized that she had gone too far! Just removing her from church and talking sternly to her was enough to get Michelle in line. After that all that Jim had to do was give her a stern look. Maria, who is three years younger, learned from her sister's mistakes.
By the time Michelle was six and Maria three, parishioners would comment on how well behaved they were. Each Sunday Maria would go down the center aisle kissing the crosses engraved on the end of the pews. When Lent came and it was time to make prostrations, the girls quickly learned to move to the aisle and drop to the floor.
Sometimes parents look back on their parenting and regret some aspect of what they had done. This is one area that worked out well; the jury is out on others. Now when the girls - ages 19 and 16 - observe a child misbehaving in church they turn to me and say, "If we had done that when we were young, we would have been toast!" or "Why do the parents let that child get away with that?" They know what has to be done and have even told me that they plan to do the same with their children.
During my years as our parish's Church School Director I tried to encourage parents of young children. When I would see them after Liturgy, exasperated, I would encourage them to continue bringing them, relating that Jim and I had felt the same way at times. I also took note of those parents who seemed to be "succeeding" in their parenting and would compliment them and pass on the techniques that I had observed to those asking for suggestions. I finally compiled these and distributed them at parent-teacher meetings with the hope of equipping parents in their task, and continue to do so at workshops that I lead. (If you have other suggestions that work, please let me know.) Each section builds on the previous one, so behavior that is begun in the early years should be reinforced as our children get older.
By age three the preschooler's little hands can be guided to the correct position for making the Sign of the Cross: thumb & first two fingers together [signifying the three persons of the Trinity], remaining fingers touching palm [signifying the two natures of Christ: human and divine]. If you have puzzles that have pegs on each piece, practice grabbing the pegs. You need the thumb and first two fingers.
When showing your child how to make the sign of the cross, consider looking in a mirror and doing it together. Touch the forehead, the chest, the right shoulder, then the left shoulder while you say, "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." If you don't have access to a mirror and your child is facing you, you cross from left to right your child will follow and cross from right to left.
It doesn't take much for our children to be able to identify their favorite Sesame Street or Disney character, so why shouldn't they learn to point out Jesus, Mary and various saints, especially the patron of the parish. Review this each time you enter church. Make sure that your children have icons in their rooms and in your home to which you can refer.
Lighting candles (Jesus is the "Light of the World") and venerating icons (kissing Jesus, His mother and His friends) and the Cross come easily to little ones.
Each time you enter, remind the children that the Church is God's House, someplace very special. We behave in a certain way in God's House: we sit & stand quietly; we walk rather than run; we speak softly using what I call our "Church voice".
Pray "Holy God" and begin saying the "Lord's Prayer" together daily. Work on the prayer at meals. Getting children to fold their hands and bow their heads while you recite a prayer is a start. "O Christ our God, bless the food and drink of Your servants, for You are holy, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen." Pray before the icons. Pray at bedtime.
I suspect that most families have a children's library of secular books. My girls have kept their favorite childhood books and now read them to their godsister Katie Krause and other children who visit our home. We also need to add Bible storybooks and Orthodox books. Today there are many Christian and Orthodox books available. There are even Preschooler and Toddler Bibles! These make great bedtime reading on Saturday evenings as we prepare for Sunday Liturgy. Plus, they are great for our church bags.
Continue to work on the "Lord's Prayer" and other prayers that the Church School class are learning.
A child this age can begin fasting before Communion. At the least, the Kindergartner should eat just a little [ex. juice & toast]. In our own home, since the adults planned to receive each week, no breakfast was prepared. By the time the girls were three or four, juice and toast was all that was offered. As far as I can remember, we also didn't bring food to church. If we did, it was to be consumed after Communion.
Sitting close to the front so that the children can see also offers fewer distractions. Our children should be standing at least for "Blessed is the Kingdom," during the Small and Great Entrances, the Gospel reading, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and whenever the priest/deacon censes the icons and the congregation.
Standing [or Kneeling. if it is the practice of your parish] for the consecration, from the Epiclesis ["Thine own of Thine own..."] until the Hymn to the Theotokos.
Children can be reminded to make the Sign of the Cross whenever the Holy Trinity is named. Some people also make the Sign of the Cross when the Theotokos or a saint is named or when praying for a particular person during one of the Petitions.
During the Sermon is a good time to walk to the Narthex and allow children to stretch their legs. If seated in the Nave, allow children to look at religious books or icon 'photo albums', or draw quietly. Please bring only "quiet" toys to church.
It is unrealistic to expect Preschoolers and Kindergartners to be in the Nave of the Church throughout the Liturgy. Besides going to the bathroom, they need a change of scenery or to stretch their legs. I have found that the Petitions and Sermon give built-in break times.
Begin to teach the children that we do not enter or exit the Nave during an Entrance, the Epistle or Gospel readings, the Creed, the Consecration of the Gifts, or the Lord's Prayer. It is best to enter or exit during the Petitions.
Primary Grade Students should be able to make the Sign of the Cross easily, but need to be reminded when to do it during Liturgy.
Besides identifying the icons of Jesus, Virgin Mary/Theotokos, and their patron saints, primary students can begin learning some of the apostles, saints, and feast days.
Correctly entering the Church should be routine for them if you have kept at it. They will still need to be reminded that the Church is God's House and that we behave in a certain way as listed above.
Continue to add age appropriate books of the saints, storybooks and videos to your home library. There are many fine videos, such as the Hanna-Barbara Greatest Adventure and McGee and Me series, available for rental and purchase from Christian bookstores. Check with your church school director or parish priest for suggestions.
The Church School program should be encouraging the children to work on the "Lord's Prayer" and other prayers that are being worked on in class. Third and Fourth Graders can work on learning the Creed.
In the Slavic tradition, students have their First Confession in first or second grade. If so, they should also be using their Prayer Books to prepare for both confession and communion.
Continue to build on the prayers before icons, at bedtime and at meals, and to work on fasting before Communion. In the Slavic tradition children who have had their first confession now begin to abstain from food and drink before Communion.
Continue sitting close to the front so that the children can see and are less distracted. The older a child gets, the more he/she should be standing.
Since this age children are reading, it is good to provide them with age-appropriate liturgy books. If your parish does not provide them in the pews for the children, there are several available through the Orthodox Christian Education Commission and the Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Check with your parish priest or church school director.
Some younger Primary grade children cannot be in the Nave of the Church throughout the entire Liturgy without a break. Encourage them to go to the bathroom before Liturgy. If they need a change of scenery or to stretch their legs, use the Petitions and Sermon as built-in break times.
By this age students should be exposed to Vespers, Presanctified Liturgy, Akathist, Canon of St. Andrew, Holy Week services, as well as the weekly Liturgy. I encourage parents to make sure that they bring their children to as many of the services of Great Lent and Holy Week as possible. There is a rhythm in the services of the Orthodox Church that will continue throughout one's lifetime. It appears to me that the more we participate in this rhythm from an early age, the more it will become an integral part of our lives. We begin to see what it means to be Orthodox Christians.
For their lessons on worship to make sense, it is important for our children to participate in the services as often as possible. This also serves to reinforce our understanding that Orthodox Christianity is a life-style, not just a Sunday religion.
Continue to add icons of different apostles, saints, and feast days. The "Creed" should be learned during these years, and children can be using their Prayer Books to prepare for both confession and communion.
During Liturgy this age group should be able to listen to the Sermon and be able to talk about it on the way home from church.
By now this age child can have private confession at least four times a year, but it presupposes that parents not only bring their children to confession, but also receive confession themselves. Fr. Peter Gillquist, one of the many former Evangelical Christians to have embraced Orthodoxy, has said that if we want our children to stay in the church, then we should bring them to confession before they need it and they need to see us go to confession!
Having taught at this level for over twenty years, and being the mother of teenagers, I know they are capable of participating in the liturgical life of the Church. Sometimes peer pressure and our children's struggle to separate themselves from us gets in the way! When they question why they must attend church, respond with, "This is what our family does" and expect them to attend.
Encouraging them to have Church friends and to be part of the parish youth group and church school classes are vital. These situations offer a safe place for our teens, where they know "it's okay to be an Orthodox Christian", and they can talk more freely about their concerns. We can also encourage them to serve in the altar and sing in the choir. Without these ties and friends, they are much more easily pulled away from the church. Given all the distractions of the secular world, we parents need to keep them attached to the Church in as many ways as we can.
Copyright © Phyllis Meshel Onest, M.Div. This article may not be further reproduced without permission from Phyllis Onest, Director of Religious Education, 2507 Nedra Ave., Akron, OH 44305, firstname.lastname@example.org
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