If our children have a strong identity as an Orthodox Christian, from the time they are young, they will learn to love God, Christ, the Church, and the Saints. They will be able to be in the midst of our secular culture, and witness, like many young martyr saints have done, and love Christ.
Where does the majority of the children’s formation happen? Where do they get their strong identity from? The majority of the child’s formation happens in the home by his or her parents and caregivers. For our children, the one constant, comforting, and safe place for them, is their home. It is the first place they are brought after their birth. It is where the family gathers in times of joy and sorrow. It is where they first learn to walk, where they have their first food, where they rest at the end of a long day. It is only logical, if the majority of our child’s formation is at home, then our homes need to be centered on Christ.
How can we have a Christ centered home? I would like to share three ways that my husband and I have tried to help us, as a family, work towards and maintain a Christ centered home.
First, have a place in your house, free of distraction, where you have a prayer corner. This prayer corner can consist of an icon, or even many icons, a candle, and incense. It does not have to be elaborate, but make it a beautiful space, free of clutter. This is where you can gather to say your prayers, to thank God for the day and everything he has given to you and your family. Icons are very child friendly because they are images, which require no words. When you look at an icon, a whole story is told solely by the images. When my son looks at an icon, he can tell for example, that in the icon of Prophet Moses, there is a bush that is on fire- this is God speaking to Moses. He knows that the Prophet is holding two tablets and they are the Ten Commandments. Icons are windows to Heaven and each icon tells a different story. If you can, make them accessible to your children and teach them how to respect them. If you don’t know how to read a certain icon, ask a Priest or your Spiritual Father. And remember icons should be venerated and always treated with love. It is important if you have an icon corner, that you teach your child to pray to God, and that you include your children in your prayers. Always tell your child that they can pray to God and listen to His words.
This leads us to an important question, how can you teach your child to pray? I would like to share with you some of the ways that we, as a family, have included our son in our family prayer life. From the day we brought our son home, we have made it a priority to say our evening prayers before we went to bed together. It is a routine that we have. And from the time he was about 1½, he memorized an angel prayer that my husband used to say when he was little. Our son had heard it every night during evening prayers for 1 ½ years and with a little help, he was able to participate, in a verbal way.
“Angel of mine, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this night be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.”
What is important, is not the prayer itself, but that you give your child responsibility in knowing a prayer and speaking to God. It can be another prayer: the Trisagion, Our Father, Lord Have Mercy. Start with seeing what interests your child and how he or she reacts to the prayers. Offer to teach them word by word the prayer. You would be surprised at how easy it is for a child to memorize something, that they hear over and over again.
Just think of their favorite shows on television, I bet they could tell you all the names of the characters of Peppa Pig! What is important is that the prayer becomes more frequent and regular, than their favorite cartoons.
Now, we are at the time in our son's life where we are trying to prepare him to go into the altar. So every morning during prayers we try and allow him, with supervision, to hold a candle. With all of this being said: we have to remember children are children. There will be days when they will not want to say their prayers, or participate. We know that even as adults, we are flawed in this way as well. But we have to remember not to get angry or discouraged. That will not teach our children a good example. We must always be with love and continue the prayers as a good example to what our children should do.
The second thing I would like to mention relates to being a homemaker. I have a lot of chores and duties to keep the house clean and everything in order. From laundry, cleaning the bathroom, to making meals and cleaning dishes, I can sometimes get off track with my thoughts and become depressed about all the never ending work that needs to be done in the house. I like to remedy that with two solutions: the first is, I ask my son to help me with the chores of the house. Remember, he’s almost three, so he is a bit stubborn and some tasks take a LONG time, but I feel it gives us some extra time together and helps him understand the importance of cleanliness and order, then it is a good lesson. The second being, a special job I like to do with my son is folding the laundry. This is something you can do in your house too, and it also helps to form your child’s soul: when folding laundry, as you come across clothes that belong to different family members, say: “God bless (name of the person). ” You can say it for every person in your family. My son loves trying to guess which clothes belong to whom. He excitedly yells almost every time, “God bless …..” as he continues the prayer. For our children to have God’s love in their hearts, they have to see it in their parent’s hearts, and a way for that is through prayer.
This last thing I would like to mention in having a Christ centered home, and in forming your child’s soul, is saying a prayer before meal times. Praying before mealtime is essential in our home. The food is put on the table and we make the sign of the cross and say a short prayer: “God bless our food and drink and thank you for it and that we have enough of it. Amen.” Thanking God for our food is a strong starting point for children. We are blessed that our son is healthy, strong, and has a warm house to live in with food. But, something he picked up on, by himself, is that when we walk the roads in Tirana there are a lot of people and especially children begging. He always asks why they are doing this. And we explain, and make the connection to, that not everyone has a warm home, enough food, and a loving family. Which is why, when we eat our meals, we thank God for everything, because there are people less fortunate than us. We also encourage our son to pray for everyone in the world. When we can, we teach our son to offer food and drink to those that are begging on the street. We also teach him to give to the Church to help those in need. I find it very easy to be sheltered by what we have been blessed with, and praying before our meals reminds us, multiple times a day, that we have food to nourish our bodies, and Christ to nourish our souls.