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And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
The pitter-patter of little feet upstairs told me that Ben, our five-year-old, was out of bed. He had been tucked in well over an hour before, and he knew that evening walkabouts were verboten. I looked in on him to see what was going on, prepared to read him the riot act. As I stuck my head into the room, I saw that his brother Stephen, age seven, was awake as well, but that Ben was back in bed. Stephen told me that Ben was afraid and had come to his bed so they could pray the Lord’s Prayer together. My usual “well, don’t let it happen again” somehow didn’t seem appropriate.
In the raising of children, it is difficult to tell if you are making much progress. Every once in a while you see small steps of progress, but in general, advancements in the spiritual life are as difficult to see in your children as they are to see in yourself. Unfortunately, you can’t get a complete view until the children are grown, at which time it is too late to change tactics.
Many parents seem to think that the teaching of spiritual things is best left to the church, through Sunday school programs, and so forth. But from the earliest days of our faith, this has been considered to be the parents’ responsibility, not the church’s. For example, in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom often encouraged parents to fill their children’s minds with thoughts of the faith:
For let no one tell me that our children ought not to be occupied with these things; they ought not only to be occupied with them, but to be zealous about them only. . . . It is this very age that most of all needs the hearing of these things; for from its tenderness it readily stores up what is said; and what children hear is impressed as a seal on the wax of their minds.
St. John argued that by diligently teaching our children, we would help them to form spiritual habits that would shape their lives.
Besides, it is then that their life begins to incline to vice or virtue; and if from the very gates and portals one leads them away from iniquity, and guides them by the hand to the best road, he will fix them for the time to come in a sort of habit and nature, and they will not, even if they be willing, easily change for the worse, since this force of custom draws them to the performance of good actions.
This is what being a parent is all about: teaching your children when you sit with them in your house, when you walk with them during the day, when you tuck them in at night, and when you wake them in the morning. Teaching them the things of God diligently is the seal on the wax of their minds.
As I look at my children, I often wonder if the seal on their minds will be deep enough to leave a lasting imprint. I cannot look into the future to see how they will grow up, but I can pray, be as diligent as possible in the few years I have with them, and beyond that, trust them to God’s hands. Perhaps that isn’t such a bad formula for my own spiritual growth as well.