This blog post has me reflecting on the place of children in the Orthodox church and our choices as parents. In the Orthodox church children typically attend services with adults. There may be a cry room for the inevitable temper tantrums, diaper changes, and boisterous outbreaks, but there is no nursery. Parents are encouraged to take care of their child’s needs and return to the services.
As a parent, I know how hard this can be. We have inconsolable infants in church. We have had to carry out a screaming toddler on more than one occasion. We have had to chase down a toddler intent on checking out the alter – at top speed. We have had to hush her when she got too loud and calm her when she just could. NOT. sit still any longer.
Many parents bring an emergency stash of toys or crayons to keep their kids occupied. We have largely resisted this temptation (tempting, though it may be). Why? Well, there are many reasons. For starters, our experience is that a child can make distracting noise with pretty much anything. Crayons can be poured out onto the pew at a quiet moment. (Been there, done that. Repeatedly.) Plus, having toys sends the message that this is play time which makes it harder to convince her that she needs to be quiet.
However, one of our main reasons for limiting toys (and having kids in church more generally) is that if she is completely absorbed with toys or other distractions, that means she is not absorbing anything from the church service going on around her. Or rather, it means we are not making the effort to involve her in the service. We’ve developed a whole arsenal of toddler-management strategies for when she can no longer keep herself occupied and quiet.
- We can point out and discuss what’s going on the services. (“Oh look. Father has the censer with the bells. Can you hear them?”)
- We can discuss the icons. (“Who is sitting on that donkey?” “Mar-wee and a baby!” “What’s the baby’s name?” “Jesush!”)
- On a particularly bad day, we can take a tour of the icons in the back of the church. We name each icon and given them a kiss.
- We can “read” the service books (i.e. look at the pictures).
- We can join in with an “AMEN” or by making a cross.
These moments may only account for 5 minutes of a whole service (more on a bad day) but a lot of learning happens then. All of which is enforced at home with prayers and books. Julie knows the name of some saints and can recognize them in icons (Jesus, Mary, Joseph, St. Julianna). She is beginning to learn some prayers – she can cross herself (not well but we’re getting there) and join in with an unprompted “Amen” or a “Fa-der, Son, Ho-wee Spiwit”. And since we sing at home (a LOT) she also knows some church music by heart. She can sing all of “Christ is risen from the dead” and “Thy resurrection oh Christ” as well as “Jesus loves me”, “Zacheaus”, “Away in a manger”, and others. We often find her singing or reciting prayers as she plays by herself at home.
Does she understand all the words? Or the greater theological implications of the hymnography? Or any of it, really? Not in the least! But it’s still very, very valuable because she is learning the vocabulary that will be the building blocks of that knowledge. Much more importantly, she is learning to participate (with joy) in the life of the church. She is learning who these people are and how they are a part of her life. Many saints did not have the “book-learning” we take for granted in the modern church but every single one of them had these building blocks – they loved God and His church.
It’s not easy, though. I rarely get to attend to the whole service. Even when Julie is occupying herself (usually “reading” a service book or such) I am distracted keeping an eye on her. She has bad days and even bad months. Toddlers test limits, find out if the rules still apply. (Moving to a new parish gave us a really rough couple of months.) We do let her bring her favoritest stuffed animal to church. Some days she reads to him from the service book or makes him cross himself and say prayers – other days she swings him around by the arm, hitting people. And we are just now seeing these benefits. In the long run it pays off, though – some now and a LOT later on.