As a nurse practitioner in a Pediatrics practice I see lots of kids every day. While many children are brought in by their parents for the sick visits that are a normal part of growing up, invariably these visits touch on the child's life in school and at home. The sad fact is that many children I see daily are growing up in homes that are unable to prepare them adequately to become competent, well adjusted, law abiding adults. Many parents are ill equipped or unmotivated to raise kids properly. Certainly this does not include all parents or all kids. Many are doing just fine. Unfortunately, there such a growing number of at risk kids produced by a growing number of dysfunctional and broken families that I fear for the future. I won't pretend that I have all the answers either, but I have been around long enough to pass on a few things that I strongly believe will help parents raise good kids in a bad world.
The question we must all ask nowadays is: Who is raising the children? Is it the TV, the movies, pop culture, the daycare provider, their friends or is it the kids themselves? If we look for barometers of crisis, I believe they are everywhere; runaways, suicides, kids committing murder, delinquency, teenage pregnancy, epidemic numbers of sexually transmitted diseases. Parents are frequently so preoccupied with careers, themselves and acquiring stuff that they have precious little time left over to devote to what should be their primary responsibility, raising their kids. Parents are also too inclined to separate at the first sign of trouble in their marriage rather than work things out to preserve it. Kids need both parents. When parents divorce, kids need to know that both parents can at least respect each other and work together. The red flags are quite obvious to anyone who takes the time to bother looking at what is happening around them.
When I talk to other parents, they often blame society, the Church and the schools for the mess we find ourselves in. Parents rarely think that the problem may emanate in the home. Speaking as a parent, there is no doubt in my mind of the tremendous influence that parents exercise over their children. The Church or school can do nothing unless they have parents who teach kids the really important things they need to know in their home. I am not talking about teaching kids how to read, I am talking about giving kids the "inner braces" to face life outside the home. Giving kids faith in a loving God who will walk with them in life, strengthen and heal them, guide them, give them meaning and peace and lead them to life eternal. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that it is parents who have the sacred, God given privilege and responsibility to prepare their children within the Church to accept the grace of God.
The Orthodox Church embraces the child from day one. When the child is baptized, he is immersed three times in water and is reborn, "putting on Christ." From that moment on children must be taught to live their faith not only in Church, but more importantly at home. Often parents wait until their children are teenagers to get them involved in matters of faith. Unfortunately by this time it is too late, if not impossible. Children need examples to follow and they need parents to show them the way. What the child does at church, he does at home. Simple things like praying before the family icons, saying grace at meals and crossing themselves, fasting and so many other traditions of our Orthodox faith.
Parents need to turn the TV off. Its violent images and depiction and glorification of consumerism and a bankrupt pop culture can only be a negative influence, especially on young minds. Video games serve a similar purpose. Children who spend hours on such pursuits never learn a very important part of childhood, how to interact and play with their peers. Get your children involved in after school activities: scouting, sports, music, art, Sunday school.. These activities help them to learn and to socialize in a healthy way. Most importantly they offer some protection against substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Families need to spend time together, ideally they should set aside one day a week as a special Family Day at home where they spend time talking, playing games and praying together.
It is essential that parents create a "faith atmosphere" at home so that God becomes real in the lives of their children and they can develop a relationship with him. What the family does at home, something as basic as grace during meals, has a lifelong impact. Parents should set a time at the end of the day for prayer as a family that includes a reading from scripture or bible story or parable for younger children. At the end of this prayer, either Mom or Dad should bless their children by crossing them and saying: "May the spirit of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with John/Jane now and forever. Then kiss them good night.
Talk to your kids about the Saints, the heroes of our Church. They are the true role models for them, ordinary people who live trule extraordinary lives. Common folks who fought the same battles that we do in our everyday lives, yet emerged victorious in God's eyes. Emphasize acts of service to others. Kids need to understand that its not all about them and there are disadvantaged people in the world that we need to care about. Just as important is to teach our children to be stewards of our Church. Stewardship is much more than putting a buck in the tray at the end of the liturgy. It is working and serving in the many capacities that we are afforded to help our communities and churches in a meaningful way by giving of ourselves.
Parents need to understand their role is that of parent and not friend. That means that sometimes parents are unpopular. Don't be afraid to SUPERVISE your children or to say No. Know who their friends are, what they're doing and where they go. Establish standards for your kids in the way they dress, interact with others and how they treat others. Consistently enforce those standards but don't nit pick constantly. Pick three behaviors that drive you up a wall and use the power of positive and negative reinforcement to get them to change those behaviors. Don't forget to praise kids when they do well, to admonish them gently when they fall short, but always send them away feeling good about themselves.
Teenagers are especially difficult to deal with. Try not to lose your cool. They are going through a tough time. They are part adult and part child, striving to be more independent. Be approachable. Your teenager should not be afraid to talk to you about really important things. Probably the best advice I ever got was that teenagers are like young ponies, sometimes you have to know when to pull the reins back and sometimes you need to know when to loosen them.
Finally, don't get discouraged. Kids are resilient; all of us make mistakes as parents and that doesn't mean that our children will be emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives. The key thing is to learn from our mistakes, love our kids and put God in their lives. For more information read: "Making God Real in the Orthodox Christian Home" by Anthony M. Coniaris.
May our efforts as parents be blessed.