Christian education of children should be carried on chiefly within the home, within the family. Instruction given in Sunday schools and attendance of church services are very important, but dependant, of course, on the family’s cooperation and attitude. Family is recognized as the ‘home church’, and the task of the parents is really a kind of lay priesthood. Within a Christian family our Christian faith must be incarnated; it must be brought to life in the daily, hourly experience of living. Children attend Sunday school for an hour a week; they attend church services for another hour or two, but family life goes on all the time, every day of the year, and is embodied in every detail of living – in personal relationships, in providing, preparing and partaking of food, in health and in sickness. It is the environment within which the life of the child unfolds.
Love in Family Life
The nature of the family is that it is based on love, is an embodiment of love between several human beings. A family is not made by legal definition; it is based on the love of husband and wife for each other and the love between parents and children. The experience of family love is different from other expressions of love. It is essential in the sense that – unlike romantic love or devotion to some cause, that demand proclamation and explanation in words – family love does not have to be consciously verbalized. Furthermore, it is a universal experience, because every human being belongs to some kind of family.
The Christian concept of a family and of family love has a special character. It is similar to the Trinitarian concept of God: a human being cannot exist completely by itself. It becomes fully human within a relationship of love with other human beings. Such a relationship can be violated – human beings may not love each other, parents may not love their children, children may not love their parents – but lack of love is always a violation of the true nature of the family.
Husband and wife relationship
The husband-wife relationship is very different from the romantic period of ‘being in love’. As much as romance is very important in a relationship, in the husband-wife relationship each one of the partners gives up his or her ‘selfness.’ One person becomes only a part of the new unity. In order to be happy, both of them have to be happy; if one is unhappy, both are. O decision can be isolated one. The hurts of the other person mean as much as your own hurts. Whatever you do, the other is involved. In a very real sense in marriage two become one.
The difficulty of the relationship is that loving is not the same as liking. There are always traits and qualities that a couple dislikes within each other. It may be arrogance or laziness, talkativeness or impatience, some habits and tastes inherited from one’s former family, some superficial mannerisms. There are circumstances in which a husband and wife simply get on each other’s nerves. How does on then deal in love with traits one dislikes? This abrasive nature of the married life is what one might call its ‘askesis,’ and experienced monks say that the ascetic effort of married life is greater than that of a monk in a monastic community. In other social groups you can avoid a person who has irritating traits. You can control yourself and put up with another’s exasperating traits for a limited time; but in a family there is no way of isolating yourself. Such as you are, you have to come to terms with the other members of your family as they are. A Christian family comes into being only when the ‘coming of terms’ is a true incarnation of Christian faith, hope and love.
Chapter 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians remains forever the most helpful and practical manual of love in human relationships. The effort to apply this kind of love, the constant effort to deal in this spirit with the thousands of aggravating difficulties in our daily relations goes on throughout the long years of every Christian marriage. Love does not exclude anger. Something is wrong with your love if you are never angry. Precisely because a husband or a wife has a lover’s vision of his or her partner as a person who is worth loving, anything that destroys this vision cannot leave that person indifferent. Anger rooted in love is a necessary element in husband-wife relationships; marriage is not a ‘society of mutual admiration.’ There is nothing wrong in a certain fear of one’s spouse’s anger. In a sense husband and wife become each other’s conscience. But anger is not resentment, nor is it irritability. Anger flares up quickly and then comes reconciliation, forgiveness and compassion for the one who is hurt. Marriage is not about the coming together of two perfect individuals, but about imperfect individuals coming together and enjoying their differences.
As family life progresses, it gains a new dimension and a new perspective. If marriage involved giving up one’s singleness, each spouse becoming a part of the other one, then with the arrival of children parents find themselves giving up more and more of themselves and sometimes feel lost in the whirlpool of family preoccupations and duties. In this process each member of the family has to find his or her own new personality, a stronger and richer one. This true ‘askesis’ of family life is a difficult and painful process. The ‘self’ of each member is constantly squeezed, abrased, trodden upon because of the needs of the others. And this has to be made whether you are supported by your Christian faith or not. Broken nights, physical exhaustion, limitations of one’s freedom, worry cannot be avoided. The father may feel neglected because his wife becomes more mother than wife. This violation of ‘self’ can be resented and cause much bitterness. In terms of Christian faith, a willing sacrifice of one’s swollen sense of ‘selfness’ or self-importance can become the sacrifice from which a new and bigger person is born. Parallel to the willingness to sacrifice something of oneself, there has to be an equally willing effort to recognize the ‘self’ of others, to understand their personalities, their points of view and their gifts.
Parents need enlightenment and guidance in understanding the meaning of their relationship with their children. The basis of this relationship is a responsible love, which includes authority and respect and understanding for the child’s personality. From a Christian point of view parental love has all the emotional richness of love, but it must not be possessive. At its best it is completely unselfish, its model given to us by the love of Mary the Theotokos for her Son. Parental love should not be felt by the parent as a gift given to the child, for which we can expect gratitude. That is why it is common to hear parents complain that their children are ungrateful. This brings serious doubts about the quality of their parental love. A mother’s love for her child fills her own life, enriches it. It is felt as a love for something bigger than herself that does not belong to her in the sense of ownership. Children have to grow away from their parents. The sacrificial or Christian meaning of parental love is precisely the acceptance of this, a joyful acceptance of the children’s growth into independence. Every parent today should be willing to offer the life of the child to God.
Children’s love for parents and siblings
The difficulty involved in the changing love of children for parents is that it is a part of a process of growing away from the parents. The total dependence of early childhood, the complete reliance and confidence in parental omnipotence, is very important and satisfying for the parents. But a child’s normal development takes him/her through stages of growth, of independence and rebellion. Under the best circumstances relationships of friendship and mutual respect eventually are established; and gradually these change into the compassionate, understanding and grateful love of adult children and elderly parents.
The love-hate relationship between brothers and sisters is, in a sense, a pattern of our relationships with all human beings. Affection and love between brothers and sisters is often taken for granted. To a certain degree this is justified, but we all know the violence of the opposite feelings among siblings. It is normal for a growing child to experience anger at others, just as it is normal for an infant to scream when it is hungry. It is good to get it out of the system and there is certain wisdom to this attitude. Because simply repressing one’s anger and never showing it is probably more unwholesome than a good clean quarrel, after which all is forgotten and forgiven.
Yet there is another side to it. If quarrels and anger are symptoms of inner needs, these needs must be recognized and dealt with. Anger is a way of saying that something in my relationship with another person does not satisfy my wants. It is a conflict in the desire to dominate, possess or of obtaining love. It may even be a form of jealousy, an effort to determine one’s own position, one’s own role, to determine ‘who is the boss?’
The purpose of education, especially Christian education, is to help a person grow up and mature, to help him adopt a creative, constructive and ‘good’ way of dealing with these problems. In handling children’s quarrels and fights a parents should first of all recognize the symptoms. Repressing symptoms does not help, though obviously a measure of self control must be taught: one cannot allow children to hurt each other or to make life intolerable for all around. Symptoms are a wholesome thing if they help us to recognize and deal with the cause. Many causes of anger, such as frustration at not being recognized or inability to do something, are properly and adequately dealt with in the normal process of growing up in a basically secure and loving family. This provides the opportunity for the parent to help the child gain understanding of himself/herself and of their place within the family and their life.
Children’s anger and their quarrels can draw the parents attention to some conditions that cause them, and these should be dealt with by the parents. A child that feels rejected has to be given more attention; his sense of inferiority can be relieved by discovering and recognizing his gifts and abilities that have been ignored. A ‘bossy’ child may need to be given more responsibilities. Most of this can be done and should be done, through actions and attitudes rather than with words. Preaching at children does very little good; as a matter of fact, it can do harm when it teaches them to conceal real motives and emotions with words that do not really correspond to them. The basic aim of Christian education within the family is to convey to children the concept of what is good and what it means to feel good. This ‘good’ means the condition of blessedness, joy, inner peace and love for others. If the children have in their home the basic desire to be good and have really experienced what it means ‘to feel good,’ a solid foundation has been laid for their Christian growth.
The larger family
The trend in our society today is to have the family reduced to the parents-children unit. There is probably not much that an individual can do about this, but at least it can recognize the importance of the larger family group in a Christian home. Those who have had the opportunity to experience growing up in a large family will always have blessings to share, but we should not be carried away thinking that there were no flaws in that system. For younger children, family and their home is their world. Their relationships with parents are unavoidably of a rather selfish nature: the parents are the providers of all things; the parents are the power that regulates their life. Generally speaking, children are the centre around which the parents’ life revolves.
On the other hand, relationships with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are generally of much more relaxed nature. There is a bond of affection, of mutual belonging, but it is looser. For children this provides a great opportunity for new experiences in relationships. Though the days of the large family are over, we should at least make an effort to maintain family relationships through memory, through correspondence, through visits and through family celebrations. There is still a place for the family album. Affectionate relationships within the ‘larger family’ are a very wholesome transitional experience leading from the small family ties into membership in society as a whole.
The family world-view
One of the most important aspects of family life is common understanding of life, of the purpose of life, of happiness, of the ‘hierarchy of life values’ – of all that makes up one’s world-view. Many would argue it is difficult to attain a common understanding in the case of ‘mixed marriages’, but I would strongly argue that very often it is quite absent even when husband and wife are formally of the same faith. I have seen married couples who truly realized a union of love in their marriage and whose ‘oneness’, or common vision of life, somehow included accepting one another’s differences.
Basically a common vision of life is built on a common concept of happiness. The desire to be happy is ingrained in the human being. Many of the influences that surround us are an appeal to the human desire for happiness. The longing for happiness, the instinctive feeling that it is a desirable state of life and that which is intended for us, seems to be inborn in man. However, the truth is: we feel unhappy when we accept evil as an authentic part of our real self. Everyday life, and especially family life, is a means of reaching for the real person, establishing relations with the real person and refusing to accept that which is unreal, temporary and evil as part of the essential nature of the person we love. Every day of our life is given to us for finding at least a particle of that goodness and joy which are the essence of eternal life.
The Christian understanding of happiness as a ‘blessed state,’ like that described in the Beatitudes, need to be taught to parents and in turn to be taught and exemplified by them. Blessedness is a state of love and of loving communication, a sense of trust, and the freedom to grow and fulfill one’s God-given creative gifts. Unfortunately the idea of Christianity held by many lay persons is lacking often this sense of joy and blessedness, and instead Christianity is identified with a formal set of duties. The most urgent task in the Christian education of parents is not so much to emphasize their duties in observing church rules, in making their children attend Sunday school, etc., but in unfolding to them the meaning of the basic realities of life. Only when parents begin to ask themselves such basic questions as ‘What is happiness?’ ‘What is sin?’ ‘What does it do to us?’ ‘What is love?’ ‘What do my children mean to me?’ ‘What do I want for them?’, will they begin to perceive the true nature of their duties and obligations. Observing rules is important and laws must not be neglected, but first the parents must be motivated by an insight into the meaning of life.