Saint John Chrysostom reminds parents: “Having children is a matter of nature; but raising them and educating them in the virtues is a matter of mind and will.” Parents will have little problem nurturing children in the Christian faith, if they themselves have love for God. The Second Century saint, Bishop Irenaios of Lyons, explains: “If your heart overflows with faith and love for God, you will find a thousand and two ways to pass on these feelings to your child.”
The starting point in brining up children in a Christian manner is devotion to God…by the parents. Saint Clement of Alexandria explains, “Those who have devoted themselves to the Almighty Father have proved to be good parents to their children.” Devotion is founded in personal prayer. In Counsels for Life, Elder Epiphanios exhorts parents: “Speak more to God about your children, rather than to your children about God.” With a similar voice, Elder Porphyrios of Athens teaches:
If you have a child with a reactionary character, whatever you want to say to him, say to God first. Kneel before God, and through the grace of God, our words will be conveyed to your child…. Another child may listen to what you say, but though he hears he easily forgets. Therefore, you will kneel and ask for God’s grace again, so that our fatherly words will fall upon good soil and bear fruit… Don’t pressure your children. Whatever you want to say to them, say it with your prayers. Children don’t listen with their ears. They will only listen to what we want to tell them when divine grace appears and enlightens them. When you want to say something to your child, say it to the Panaghia instead and she will do all the work. Your prayer will become a spiritual hug, which embraces your children and captivates them.
Maintaining an active life of heartfelt and sincere prayer, parents are also to be examples through their daily commitment to Christ. Elder Epiphanios explains: “For the correct upbringing of your children: few words, much example, and more prayer are necessary.” Similarly, St. John Chrysostom reminds parents to be the example to their children by taking them to the Church. He writes: “Fathers and mothers: Go and lead your child by the hand into the Church.” We lead them through example knowing full well as Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk affirms:
Young children pay greater attention to the actions of their parents than to their teaching. Therefore, if you wish your children to be pious and good, you yourselves should be pious and good, and show yourselves as an example to them…
This is illustrated in the practical counsel of Fr. Thaddeus:
“An old lady asked Fr. Thaddeus what she was to do in order that her grandchildren might become pious. Fr. Thaddeus replied, ‘Let their grandmother always be meek and good; let her never be angry and always be happy. Let her obey everyone, since no one will obey her. Perhaps the grandchildren will not become pious, but one day they will remember their grandmother, and the memory of her will make them better people.’”
As biological or spiritual parents, we pray for our children, attempt to nurture them through our examples and then offer words that instill a love for Christ. What lessons do teach our children? St. John Chrysostom offers these words:
Your children will always be sufficiently wealthy if they receive from you a good upbringing that is able to order their moral life and behavior. Thus, strive not to make them rich, but rather to make them pious masters of their passions, rich in virtues. Teach them not to think up illusory needs, reckoning their worth according to worldly standards. Attentively watch their deeds, their acquaintances and their attachments—and do not expect any mercy from God if you do not fulfill this duty.
Similarly, St. Tikhon reminds parents to teach what is lasting as opposed to what is temporal or fleeting:
Many parents teach their children the arts that serve the temporal life, and spend no small sum on it, but they neglect the Christian teaching and are remiss in teaching their children to live as Christians. Such parents beget their children into the temporal life, but close the door to the eternal.
In his fourth chapter of Journey to Heaven, he introduces the six duties or lessons to be imparted by parents, which together instill holiness in children:
1. Remind them often of Holy Baptism and that at that time they promised God to live decently and steadfastly, to serve Him with faith and righteousness, and to keep away every evil and sin.
2. Repeat to them as often as possible that we are all born and begotten in Baptism not for this temporal life, not for the sake of obtaining honor, glory, and riches in this word…
3. Let them understand Who is the God of Christians, and what He requires of us, that He hates evil and loves good, that He punishes man for evil and rewards him for good, and although we do not see Him, He does see us and invisibly present with us everywhere and sees our every deed and hears our every word.
4. Enlighten their inward eyes as to Who Christ in Whom we believe, and for what cause He came into the world and lived and suffered and died.
5. Teach them the Law of God, and tell them what that Law demands of us: That is, that we should love God and every man; that everything that is contrary to that Law is vice and sin, while everything that is in agreement and accordance with it is virtue.
6. Set before them the last things: death: Christ’s judgment, eternal life, and eternal torment, that the fear of God may so abide in them ad preserve them from every evil.
If, as parents, we pray, set an example – as much as possible – and instruct our children in the faith, then we are left with one last, yet grand task, trust in God. One mother relates a conversation she had with Elder Epiphanios, with which I conclude:
“Once, in confession, I told him: I worry a lot about my children, that they might suffer something, that something evil might happen to them. I place a thousand and one things in my mind.” The Elder’s response came very quickly, intensely and in a shattering tone: “And who told you that the children are yours? They are God’s! They are His little sheep and He has [simply] put you to guard them!” Amen.