Cut Back on Phariseeism! Part 1

Archpriest Maxim Pervozvansky speaks about the delicate aspects of children’s confession

Can we teach a child to be conscious of their confession, repent sincerely and seek forgiveness from God, striving to make things right? What common concepts of upbringing no longer work and why do children drift away from the Church? Can we foster the feeling of fear of God and protect the child from spiritual callousness? Archpriest Maxim Pervozvansky, father of a large family and a grandfather, speaks about it.


Father Maxim, tell us about the hidden aspects of children’s confession. After all, if we had a specific format for the Sacrament of Penance, or its particular “talking points,” it would cause no difficulties at all.

Confession takes place between a person, a priest, and God. It is always a profoundly individual process. The issue of confession has to do with the problem of a person's awareness about the concept of sin. You know, I see sometimes how people aged forty or sixty come and say, “I have no sins, and even if I did kill someone, there was a reason for it.” That’s why the question is not how old a person is, but how familiar he is with the concept of sin and whether he is willing to ask God’s forgiveness with the intention of mending his ways.

The penitents, including children, must consciously take part in the confession. To achieve this, they must have an understanding of God, have a certain idea about their relationship with God and people, and understand the fact that these relationships may be broken.

This subject is truly of a sensitive nature. Because there is a risk of bringing your perception of confession down to nothing but the listing of sins. This Pharisaic approach to repentance, when a person is listing the commandments he has violated and assumes, “that's exactly what God wants from me,” is what we see happening most of the time. This dangerous tendency can be seen with the confessions of both adults and children alike. Unfortunately, far from everyone knows that we should develop a relationship with God and sin violates that relationship, distorting the human soul. This is why confession is not about the articulation of a list of sins, but an attempt to fix and understand something. It is also a very subtle and delicate process, so it happens in different ways for various people.

A person must have a relationship with God, while sin violates that relationship, distorting the human soul

There are children who are scared of confessions. Sometimes it is due to mistakes their parents made, or there may be no parental mistakes. But then, there are children who at the age of ten already repent of their sins sincerely, tearfully, and consciously. There are also adults who have attended church for thirty years, but haven’t yet reached that level of awareness and regret. Let me say it again: It is a very challenging question that depends on many factors, apart from the mental and spiritual disposition of a particular person.

The approach to the confession of a child raised in a religious family versus a child raised by non-religious parents differs, doesn’t it?

—If a small child has a positive relationship with his parents, brothers, and sisters and all of them attend church, he will imitate their actions. It doesn't mean he will confess consciously—but that he has discovered a new game. And that's fine. It is actually great if parents bring their children to get a blessing from the priest before Communion from infancy. As they grow up, these children will run up to the priest upon arrival at the church and later will want to stand next to him with their heads bowed. Later still, the children will start to wonder what is going on during the service, how and why. And it is really wonderful!

But can't you learn to confess consciously by simply imitating your older siblings?

—Sure, but I have to point out that someone’s level of genuine relationship with God will always ultimately remain a mystery. Even within one family everything can happen differently.

It seems that if a child is brought up in the Orthodox faith, there should be no problems whatsoever. But we often see that a child clams up as he grows up, develops shameful sins and gets rather indifferent to his father’s or mother's admonitions about confession and prayer. Something has gone awry. How can we help a child to open up and learn to sincerely repent to his Heavenly Father?

—In the majority of cases, 99 percent of all children conceal their shameful sins and don’t talk about them during confession. They quit coming to confession, certainly not because they are holding back something shameful, but because we are always doing what we can to make sense of something, when we realize that it is something important.

For example, why am I talking to you and you to me? We both probably view our interview as an important, necessary, and interesting undertaking. It is the same with confession. When a child is still small, he thinks it’ s important because everyone around tells him, “It's important!” His parents tell him it’s important to go to church and it’s important to have confession; it’s important to receive Communion. A child observes how others approach a priest sour-faced, tell him something, bow their heads—and then leave, looking happy and radiant. Or, he sees something quite the opposite—they leave looking indifferent or dejected. The child will think that all of that is an important matter.

But when a child reaches adolescence, he doubts and reevaluates everything as he seeks answers to all kinds of questions. Before he reached adolescence, a trip to the church wasn’t his personal choice—he simply trusted the adults because he was told how important it was. But now he decides for himself whether it is important or not. He wonders, “Why are we doing this? Why is it essential for us? What if we get paid for it? What if we do it to satisfy our secret passions? Or, maybe it gives us the highest level of satisfaction? Or, does it give us relief from a burden, and it doesn't hurt as much to live afterwards?” These are individual experiences. By far, not every child who was raised in the Faith and the Church from infancy will choose to attend church afterwards, or have confession and think of it as an important matter essential for him personally.

But the problem is also with the child’s school where he is surrounded by people who don’t go to church or have confession. He certainly knows that. We have a law about compulsory secondary education. But we’ve got no law about compulsory confession. That’s why a teenager makes a choice and starts on his own path in life.

Of course, a child can go to confession under pressure. Mom told him and he went. You don’t know how many times I saw moms taking their offspring to church and shoving them towards the priest to have confession while the children stubbornly refuse to go. At some point, a child will capitulate and come up looking penitent, and, with his eyes firmly locked on the floor, he’ll begin to recite the sins he learned by heart from infancy, his head humbly bent down. But didn’t I just see that he was forced to come to confession?!

I also know some people who never went to church in their childhood, but who grew interested in the Faith later in life. They developed a sense of the Divine presence in their lives. So, it is very unique in each specific case.

As for shameful sins—it is better not to talk to your child about them, if he is unwilling to start a conversation about the subject himself.

I always thought it was important for a person to understand the underlying idea behind any situation. Can’t we explain to a child using simple language why he goes to church and what for, plus why he needs to have confession?

—He should experience it! He can’t simply grasp it with his mind, but should feel it and share that secret.

Go outside, walk up to the first person you see and try to convince him that it is essential to be Orthodox and attend church. How successful will you be? Ok, maybe you don’t do it on the street, but what if they are your non-believing colleagues, or relatives...? Try to explain how important it is for them. Have you ever tried it?

It depends on the sower and how fertile the soil is...

—Are you talking about the Savior’s parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-23)? Yes, certainly. But you rarely, if ever, can meet someone who has never heard about God, but who will jump with joy just to hear everything about Him. The same with a child: maybe he will understand and take your words close to heart, but he may not, either.

The difficulty is also that as children come of age, their former figures of authority are not authorities any more. Their parents’ opinion is no longer meaningful for a teen.

It sounds kind of scary.

—Why? It's a natural process. Remember the commandment, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (Matthew 19:5). In order for a man to leave his parents and create his own family, and to grow up, he must first learn to make his own decisions. By himself. To achieve this, he must first overthrow the authorities.

Figuratively speaking: in infancy and early adolescence, a child deifies his parents. The authority of parents to a young child is as absolute and unquestioning as the authority of God. But by the age of eighteen, the child must cease to be a child. He will be drafted into the army, and he could die defending his Motherland or keep living and gain victories for it. The law allows him to get married at that age. But before that, he must become an adult and learn to live using his own mind.

It is a very short period, from the age of thirteen to eighteen, when the young people have to learn how to be independent and mature. Naturally, sometimes it happens rather dramatically. It gets particularly dramatic if the parents don’t grasp the subtleties of the moment, and, as a rule, they don’t. A child matures very quickly, going through changes all the time, but parents continue to lecture and moralize as if he were still a baby.

I see it all the time when a seventy-five-year-old mom continues to treat her fifty-year-old son like a “clueless baby,” lecturing him about things. I also come across thirty-year-olds, with three or five children of their own, who are embroiled in a lifelong conflict with their parents because the parents keep lecturing them about life. Parents are terrified when their children start to grow up and rebel. You know, what can that child really decide for himself aged fourteen or sixteen? Still young, how dare he ask questions and declare what he does or doesn't believe, what he will do or what he won't! Parents keep implementing the age-old principle, “If you don't want to,we are going to make you; if you can't,we'll teach you.” But it doesn't work this way—and so, the child proceeds to stage a rebellion.

If the parents are ready to let their child go, it’s good. But then, a fourteen-year-old girl from an Orthodox family suddenly comes home and declares, “I am in love with my gal pal.” Now, imagine her parents’ reaction.

I am not quite sure how to react to that... “How could you? I did my best trying to raise you and teach you...”

—“It has nothing to do with you, Mom,” the child replies. “This is my choice. Or do you really think I should be the way you want me to be?!”

That’s why I say that everything is quite individual in this matter.

I must say I kind of assumed that if parents brought up their children in the Faith, this sort of thing simply couldn’t happen.

—It has nothing to do with raising a child in the Faith. Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel, who not only trusted their parents (I don't think Adam and Eve raised them differently);they even talked to God Himself. Let’s recall the conversation Cain had with God after he killed his brother. Where is Abel your brother? (Genesis 4:9), God asks Cain. And Cain answers. So, they speak directly. This is what the holy fathers called not simply faith, but knowledge. That’s the mystery, the paradox, and all the beauty and, at the same time, the danger of having free will. We can raise our child in any way we want.

And what should we, as parents, do in this case?

—Show them love, trust, keep in touch with them and pray.

And after what is said, how can we trust our children and support them? You can't simply assume , “I'm going to fix the situation now.”

—No, of course not, you won't fix anything. But you’ve got to stand next to him. Thanks be to God if your child trusts you, tells you the truth, and you are able to hear his doubts about the necessity of going to confession.

Because not every parent is lucky enough to have a child come and ask him. He might be afraid to ask you for a time. Besides, it’s not that he is afraid he will be beaten, but moreafraid of you “driving him crazy” with your endless lectures, with their meaning long lost on him. Because he does not care and he isn’t interested in what his parents are saying.

The Upbringing is a tough job. All we can do is pray and hope that we as parents will gather due wisdom.

How can we nurture a feeling of fear of God in someone so that it is a genuine fear of God, not some “blank terror”?

—We can threaten them with stories about hell... If speaking seriously, let’s first understand what the fear of God is. The fear of God is the feeling of awe in the presence of God. To have it, we must feel we are in the presence of God. Everything else isn’t the fear of God. You know, they say, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” or “he who has never been in danger of drowning in the sea, has also never prayed.” When you encounter a dangerous situation and it’s terrifying, you naturally think of God and begin to pray. But can we call it the fear of God?

The fear of God is the feeling of awe in the presence of God. To develop it, we must feel we are in the presence of God


—It is the fear of death. Man is afraid of death, so he begins to pray and appeal to God. We can teach our child about this fear. We can frighten him, saying that after death he will go to hell and feel the tortures of the damned, for example. Or, we can scare him some other way, if we really want to make a neurotic out of our own child. It’s the parents who choose.

But if you understand that the fear of God is actually having a feeling of awe in His presence, an ability to perceive and be aware of His eternal power, of His love for you—all of that can be learned exclusively through personal experience. This is the heart of the problem. We can introduce people to Orthodox culture, train them to attend church, teach them to love the Church, the church singing, the bearded priests, and the smell of incense, or let them play at the church playgrounds and hang out with other Orthodox children, so that they’d be more willing to attend the services. Sure, we can do all of that and we surely do do that, with varying degrees of success. It's great and the right thing to do! It provides a good foundation.

But will a child develop a sense of the presence of God when he comes to receive Communion? Well, we can surely tell him he goes to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ to become one with God. What will be your child’s response? Who knows. He could be impressed by this, or get scared. The thing isn’t about what we say, but how he will feel. What did words such as “partaking of Communion” and “having confession” mean to him personally? How exactly would he understand whether his sins were forgiven?..

When we read in the lives of the saints how they converse with God, perform miracles, raise people from the dead or heal the sick, we project this information on ourselves and our lives. However, for some reason, we aren’t too successful at holding a conversation with God. I wonder, why it is so? It’s because the experience of being in communion with God differs from person to person.

The same is true of our experience of learning about ourselves. It is quite important how you feel about yourself and how you learn about your place in this world. Actually, it is essential for teenagers, besides having get-togethers with their peers, to spend time alone. They intuitively know that it is important to learn how they feel about themselves. It’s hard to imagine everything they are going through! Let’s say they have read Homer’s Iliad and next, they exclaim along with Hamlet, “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?” I remember when I was thirteen I cried for the first time after reading a book. You'd be surprised, but I cried over the death of Porthos. I wasn’t too sentimental and that book wasn’t about love. Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan are a completely immoral gang, but each teenager will experience different emotions while reading about them. He suddenly will feel something... Something like that happens with regards to the relationship with God.

You certainly didn't cry over the death of Porthos. And even now, if you read that scene, you’d hardly weep. By the way, what did make you cry when you were a teen?

As a teenager... The first thing that comes to mind is “The Gadfly.”

—It’s an absolutely atheistic and anti-Christian book. That's why I say it’s such a huge mystery how feelings, including religious ones, arise in men. But what’s surprising is that in some of us, these feelings don’t arise at all.

That’s why it is not too easy to teach someone how to confess consciously... Do you know why it is easier with girls? Because for them, especially for the so-called “diligent A+ students” (and that’s exactly who Orthodox parents are working hard to bring up), it is important to get approval from their parents, a priest, or a teacher, so that they’d hear them praise her: “Good girl!” For the majority of boys, beginning at a certain age, getting approval from adults becomes irrelevant.

Orthodoxy is a very conservative faith, and that's wonderful. As Churchill said, if you aren’t liberal in your youth, you have no heart, and if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no brains. But the problem with youth is that it’s got no brains.

The medial prefrontal cortex that regulates the alignment of our thoughts and actions with inner goals gets fully developed only by age twenty. As for the visceral brain responsible for emotions and motivation, it evolves in adolescence. On top of that, there is pubertal development. That's why kids become “revolutionaries” like they are supposed to. This process may run smoothly or it can get violent. A lot depends on the child's strength of character. Sometimes, it is the parents who have a strong character, whereas the children have a weak one. Or, vice versa.

Part 2

Olga Mamona
spoke with Archpriest Maxim Pervozvansky
Translation by Liubov Ambrose


JohnF6/25/2022 11:04 pm
What a wonderful priest! He speaks simply, and directly - he says much of the same as our contemporary elders and Saints. There is a wealth of information on children and teenagers for our times (which is saturated on purpose with a spirit of rebeliion) by St Paisios, as well as Fr John Krestiankin (his letters are on this page as well). OrthodoxTalks has several hours of advice from the Saints on raising children, which still applies to this day, and includes the contemporary Saints above. Some distilled advice I'm trying to keep in mind myself - if a teen/young adult wants to do something sinful/damaging, you can and should say something, but need to let them go. However, we are to be the Prodigal father, that we can be there for them when they come back, and not tell them 'I told you so.'
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