Most of us are familiar with the main principle of parenting: leading with your personal example. What should you do if you are far from being a perfect Christian? How can you plant the proper values in your children’s hearts? Even though in theory we are generally aware of what we should be aiming at, we frequently fail at practical implementation of our stated goals. For example, when and how should you begin to explain the basic tenets of the Orthodox faith (such as, the Holy Trinity or the Sacrament of Communion) to your child? How do you explain to your little human why he or she needs to confess his or her sins? What is the age at which your children are required to fast before taking communion?
Today, we have an interview with Fr. Artemii Vladimirov, whose vast pedagogical and priestly experience enables him to come up with answers filled with a little bit of humour and inexhaustible love towards kids.
Father, speaking of children’s confession, how would you explain to a child why he or she needs to see a priest?
First, the mother has to enter into a “separate agreement” with the priest, “Father, my cutie-pie is going to come to you. She is four but she is very eager to confess like her mum. My sweetie wrote down her confession last night, it’s hilarious.” Dear priests! Please don’t say, “What an affront! Get away with your child, and don’t disturb me!” Look at that paper sheet and say, “Hmm, I see, I see. You didn’t do your bed, you lost your toothbrush, and you demanded from your mother to buy something or played up. God will forgive you for these sins, and I’m waiting for your next confession next week.”
The priest must also put a little effort into turning from a “strict rabbi” into a tender and radiant father. He should deal with the little sinner with joy and turn the confession into a fun event. A child will be happy to meet a priest if the priest has (or maybe, the mother gave him) a book, some felt pens, or some sweets. Actually, it’s easy. My recent book First Steps to the Cross and the Gospel contains my thoughts on the Sacrament of Repentance and on how to make children ready for and accustomed to confession.
In fact, you can give your child the chance to talk with a priest even when he or she is three or four or five years old. What really matters here is that the priest must not be too formal. “Honey, what did you want to tell God? What was wrong or not quite right?” And the six-year-old boy replies, “Father, I almost stepped on my cat’s tail yesterday.” “Wait, did you step on the cat’s tail?” “No, I didn’t. I almost stepped on its tail.” “God will forgive you. Be cautious, say hello to your cat, draw a picture of the cat with the tail, and the cat will enjoy it.” You know, that is how little by little you will become the young boy’s favourite friend, and then he will tell you the next time, “Father, I said hello to my cat.” “That’s great! You’re an honest, reliable, and good boy. By the way, does your mother have to repeat twice or three times for you to obey her?” “Umm, four times.” “Well, it’s important to grow and improve. What bothers you today?” The boy replies, “I don’t know what my favourite subject in school is.” The priest makes a serious face and says, thoughtfully, “Oh, it’s a hard question, I know. Don’t worry, God will help you to figure it out. Let’s pray to decide what you like most: reading, arithmetic, or PE. Or maybe you shouldn’t worry and start loving all subjects at the same time? Okay, God will forgive you, my boy!”
We should adapt to those who come and confess. We should touch the strings of their souls tenderly and with extreme caution. There was a priest who was very ardent and made a disastrous mistake. Sure, people learn from their mistakes but the mistakes must not be brutal. A young girl came to confess and whispered into his ear that she stole someone else’s things. The priest raised her hand and said in a loud voice, so that all parishioners could hear, “This is the hand that is used to stealing other people’s possessions!” The girl even began to stutter… The priest wished her the best but instead, he caused a serious trauma. We must be really careful.
How should children fast before communion? I’m not talking about older kids who can be talked into not eating anything before the Liturgy but is it so critical for toddlers aged 3-4 to fast before a Liturgy? It is difficult for them to do without breakfast, if you consider the time to get to the church and the total duration of the service.
Of course, it is difficult. Let’s bear in mind that agape meals in ancient times did not require fasting before liturgies. Nowadays, there are people who have to eat something before a liturgy, e.g., those who suffer from diabetes and some other health issues. Naturally, if a priest doesn’t approve of a baby who has milk on his or her lips, it’s wrong. You know, “Hey, you’ve had some milk — go away — fast and pray — and take communion next Sunday.”
We shouldn’t be sanctimonious because if we want babies to stay quiet during a divine office, then they require something to eat and drink. Our main emphasis must be on different aspects, which we have pointed out in the first part of our interview. Parents can fast on the baby’s behalf. Apostle Paul says that meals neither make us closer nor farther from God. A baby by nature has to eat something to feel comfortable and not to have memories of suffering and staying hungry in the church, for unknown reasons. There are quite a few priests who stick to the hardcore approach but I don’t like it.