What is it that we, as a community of faith, want for our children? This seemingly simple question is riddled with complexity. The social environment allures us with a carnival of enticing considerations. The Internet and social media provide us with an additional kaleidoscope of possibilities and access to information about the personal and professional lives of others that makes competition fueled by social comparison almost inevitable. These images sculpt a sense of what is “normative” to strive for and secure. As our networks extend, so do the distractions and comparisons. The culture of modern life likely distances us from maintaining and modeling a Christ-Centered home.
Most adults would agree that we have to monitor and be selective of the content of our children’s social scope, television programming, and Internet activities. They are the vulnerable ones we need to protect. However, we inadvertently forget the pervasive and powerful influence of what we, the adults, select to ingest personally, professionally, recreationally, or simply as social bystanders. We pay limited attention to how our beliefs and behaviors impact the our children. For the contemporary Orthodox family, it is easy to become focused on “fitting it all in” (e.g. school, sports, Church, family time, etc.) rather than “putting in” the Christ-Centered virtues and resources that will serve our children better in the long run.
Opportunely, modern psychology has recently uncovered the science behind what our Church has taught through its inception. Positive psychology involves the scientific study of strengths and virtues that empower individuals and communities to thrive and flourish. This field of study examines factors that contribute to the pursuit of the engaged and meaningful life (Seligman, 2012). One of its outcomes is the recognition that as individuals we long for things more substantial than what we may appear to chase at a glance. In other words, the characteristics identified for living fulfilled and healthy lives (Seligman, 2012) are those qualities our Church Fathers identified as vital to living a Christ-Centered Life.
Our emotional wellbeing helps us engage in a meaningful life. Positive psychology identifies six virtues that contribute to emotional wellbeing and an engaged, meaningful life: wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In the language of the Church these virtues are none other than the fruits of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, charity, faith, meekness, and temperance.
Practicing gratitude daily through journaling and other verbal/written reflections significantly improve our physical health, emotional wellbeing, and relationships (Emmons, 2007). As Orthodox, we offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God through the spiritual disciplines of prayer and almsgiving.
Mindfulness grounds us to the present and focuses our whole being on the here and now. Taking time to practice mindfulness has been shown to change our brain chemistry, increase feelings of wellbeing, improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and decrease aggressive behavior in children (Rosenkrantz et al., 2013; Siegel, 2009). As Orthodox Christians, we primarily practice mindfulness, that is, mindfulness of God through: prayer (particularly the Jesus Prayer); worship; reading the Bible and other devotional materials; the Sacraments of Eucharist and Confession; and appreciation for His Creation.
Routinely expressing compassion leads to increased levels of emotional wellbeing and social connection (Seppala, Rossomondo, & Dotty, 2013). Compassion is the hallmark of our Lord, Jesus Christ’s life and teachings, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20-35). Thus, compassion is at the heart of a Christ-centered home where children are taught primarily through the modeling of the parents to give and care deeply for the world around them.
Practicing self-compassion promotes physical/emotional health and human connectedness through the understanding that we more alike than different. In children, promoting self-compassion can be a more powerful tool than promoting self-esteem (which is based on comparison to and competition with others) (Neff, 2012). For the Orthodox Christian, self-compassion is an extension of God’s mercy upon His beloved through the sacrament of Holy Confession and our ability to accept His forgiveness. Self-compassion speaks to the fact that we have an all-merciful God who created us out of His love in His image and likeness and continues to love despite our brokenness.
How, then, do we take these findings one step further and use them as an impetus for Orthodox living? We begin by directing our efforts toward one modest act: the intentional pause. That’s right, we need to pause. Each day. Every day. Multiple times a day. On purpose. In Christ. And we need to teach our children to do the same. Only in this way can the fruits of the Holy Spirit be manifest in our lives and in the lives of our children. Because the more our commitments, activities, and pursuits consume our every breath, the less likely we are as families to be intentionally working to develop, exercise and let breathe the very strengths, virtues, and behaviors that will serve as the foundation for living a life in Christ. We as Orthodox Christians need to intentionally grow more intimately in communion with our Lord Jesus Christ and become aware of the grace of the Holy Spirit working within our homes and families. It is this grace of God that reveals to us and to our children the very spiritual gifts that our Lord has bestowed upon them for His purpose and good. By teaching our children to pause, pray, and rest in Christ, we teach them to allow Christ to live through them and make manifest His virtues and unique gifts.
What, then, is our greatest responsibility to our children as parents, grandparents and a community of faith when the developmental needs of children are ever evolving, and confounded with distractions? As a professional my answer would be to provide them with resources that afford enduring foundations in order to navigate the world with courage, humility, compassion, open minds, and grateful hearts. As an Orthodox Christian my answer would be to provide an environment that can enable them take on the identity of Christ each day, as they were called to do so in love and in faith on their baptismal day. As a parent, my answer would be to model all of the above and pray for the grace to do so each day and with every ounce of my heart, mind, and soul.
Evelyn Bilias Lolis, PhD is an educational psychologist, school climate consultant, and assistant professor of Psychology & Special Education in the Graduate School of Education & Allied Professions (GSEAP) at Fairfield University. She has worked in adolescent mental health for over fifteen years, helping to design numerous therapeutic programs for at-risk youth with a concentration in crisis counseling and intervention in the schools. She is the former district chair of Psychology for the Stamford Public Schools. She is a devoted member of the Church of the Archangels in Stamford, CT where she is the supervisor of the Archangels Church School Program and the chair of the Archangels Greek School Committee. Fifteen months ago, she and her husband Elias became parents to their two beautiful daughters, Thalia and Natasha.