Tatyana Abramova, sister in charge of the Nezabudka children’s community:
When we opened in 2000, there were not many smartphones around. Still, we, encountered children with no motivation for any activity. Perhaps it was the overall condition of the society. It certainly leaves an imprint on the children. In every creative project we prepared, they always had to be pushed. Now, they can do it themselves, like doing a performance or arranging a concert show. They only need a topic or a script. And they will do it with pleasure. Recently, we have been working to change this.
That is because we used to stage fairy tales, some very simple Russian tales, that we suggested and the children staged, but now that is not enough to keep them happy. We welcome children aged 10 to 15. And they are no longer happy playing Baba Yaga or the Bony Old Man - these familiar folk characters we all knew are no longer interesting to them. So I concluded that we are not on the same wavelength. That is, I do not watch the cartoons they are watching and that are now popular. But we know that children nowadays are imitating witches, or, at best, a character named Maleficenta. These are the new heroes that they have been looking to.
I understand that I am not in sync with the trend. But we need to help the children - we must explain to them why it is not a good idea to imitate someone like Maleficenta, wearing all black, with black fingernails and lips - even if she reforms by the end of the film and becomes a positive character, as the children have told me. Still, I need to understand how to speak to them, and what to say to bring it home to them that paradise is never black by definition.
The girls made a poster and called their team paradise. Nice title! But here is their idea of paradise: they painted their poster black. We could not understand. It is as if their perception gives them a fully distorted picture of their world. What can we do about that? Difficult question!
That is because flipping the colours around, calling black white and white black is perhaps what these films and cartoons were made for. They were made so we would accept death as normal, and with it the prospect of someone coming to manipulate us, to grow accustomed to living with fear and anxiety. And the girls from two years ago, whom we knew as pious, obedient and open to the world as children, are now 12 - 14 years of age, and all are interested in imitating Dracula, witches and other dark characters who are not even connected to our culture.
So we asked ourselves the question: what is happening? We came to this conclusion: children absorb information, and some of it is negative. They are children from Christian families, they need some way to let it out and cope. In what form? Over here, we have reached the stage when the older girls who prepare stories for the younger children have said to us, “We will tell this story, or none at all.” They are not interested in the stories that we know, like Goldilocks. It happened this year - we had nothing like that the year before when we could write the story script with Baba Yaga or Bony Old Man, although these, too are negative characters we sometimes wish nobody played. Could it be that the children have grown, or something has changed around them? Either way, we gave them a free hand.
The young girl whom we knew as fun-loving, kind and overall positive, became reticent and withdrawn so much that I could not recognise her last summer. She grew. But I saw a fundamental change in her after going on stage and acting in the story production. She began to smile. So we all realised that perhaps she needed a way to let out on stage what she had been keeping within. She is a very good girl, and I like her very much.
We all pray for one another, and everybody likes her as well. I asked her a question and she replied: “Imagine: I go to church where there are only old women, and they do not allow children to do anything. They cannot even open their mouth, because they say they will let the devil in.” I think I am beginning to understand her reticence. She goes to church with her grandmother. “There are no young people there altogether, but I love my grandmother very much, so I go with her,” she explains. At church, she has no company of her peers and no means to attune her to the life of the church in an age-appropriate way. That is the only way she has ever experienced church life. So when you tell children, do not go there, do not do that, they withdraw. But eventually, she learned to smile again.
For some children, even basic daily routines can present difficulties. We are an outdoor camp, which is good. It teaches concentration and self-discipline. I find that it is not just children, but also some adults who come to work here as counsellors who have problems with those.
Meal Duty at the Forget-me-Not children's summer camp
For example, a mum comes to visit her son, and he hands her a bagful of dirty socks to wash at home. But we have plenty of sun and there is always wind. He could wash his socks himself and dry them in five minutes. We notice that many children cannot fold their clothes properly at night, or dress themselves appropriately in the morning. They leave their clothes wherever they please. Every year, many pieces of clothing are left behind. We call them lost and found. And it is not just clothes, but some of the children’s most adored articles, like mobile phones. It happens. And so we all go looking for them. Because we have children from different cities, the search and return may take time.
Entertainment consumes most of our children’s inner motivation. “We have come here to rest,” they will often say to us. But what about chores? If one uses the toilet, why is it a problem to clean it once or twice in two weeks? Or to help out in the kitchen? With good role models, the children will follow. They begin to do chores even if they had never done them at home. Little by little, they become accustomed.
Serving at the refectory
Here is a good example. A boy stayed with us for several summers. He was in residential care and had no parents. All the other children in his facility were with their parents, and he was the lone child remaining. So the administration contacted our camp. Because we expected him to have problems with relationships, we asked that a staff member from his facility would chaperone him. His chaperone told us this. "Sister Tatiana, if we were allowed to stay here for another six months or so, and do chores as the rest do, he would have had no visible developmental problems."
We had a pencil sharpener that looks like a meat grinder. He spent at least half a day trying to understand how it worked. He was very interested. He was like that with many other things that form a part of our everyday lives.
Well, look at the other children. One ten-year-old could not find his cap. He could not remember where it was. So his grandmother or mother comes, asks about it and begins the search. The child does not have even the slightest idea where he may have left it. Or someone may bring their football but will not keep an eye on it. They will let one child play with it, then another, and not know who has it. Many children seem to have lost the habit of taking responsibility for their things.
Children get many things too easily. Almost everyone has a smartphone, often costing more than their parents' salary. That’s more common than you think. So many children do not know the value of things and have too little understanding of what their belongings had cost their parents in time or effort.
Changes have also affected play. Clearly, group play is quickly becoming a thing of the past, and team games are also losing popularity. So many children do not even know how to play with others. But children develop through play. They learn to make concessions and be patient with one another or with things they do not like. But sometimes children play violently. One may start strangling another, or tie them to a bench with sticky tape, or whip one another with stinging nettle, and they all seem to enjoy it. They agree to be tied to the bench with the tape. I attribute this to the influence of the internet and all the mobile devices that children have unlimited access to and maybe even know how to operate better than us adults.
Athletic games at the camp
Especially during the teenage years, I believe, the ultimate challenge for every parent in particular and every adult in general is to refrain from condemnation. Judging is a mortal sin that destroys relationships. As soon as one begins to condemn, one conditions oneself to see evil in their son or daughter. If the adult is a teacher or an education professional, they set themselves up for failure. In essence, one needs to be in a peaceful state of mind. One can have peace through the enduring exercise of confession and introspection.
Why do you lose self-control when a child misbehaves, whether yours or somebody else’s? When that happens, it happens through your sin, because to a saint, everything is sacred, as the lives of the saints teach us. To quote Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, if you wish to help someone else, and it is your genuine intention, you must descend into the Hades of their soul - this you can only do in peace when there is not a trace of condemnation in your heart.
Parishioners of St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk
If you condemn, you are not at peace. You view the other like a hunter views his prey. You can do nothing but accuse, demand and punish others. And these three reactions are harsh in and of themselves. But that does not mean being indifferent to your child, like some parents who say, “I will just leave him alone, and wash my hands of him.” Clearly, prayer is essential, and also loving support comes from the heart. Being there for your child is a two-way street, as you must also be a friend to your child. I think we should all bear in mind this one thing.
Whatever your child has done, even if it is the most horrible thing you could imagine, you should always be able to rise above the situation. We set an example for our children: they will react to events in their own lives as we react to things right now. To put it simply, if you shout, your children will model your behaviour and shout, too. It is often said that children are our reflection, our mirror image. Sometimes, when they grow up and we recognise ourselves in them, only then do we begin to understand that we had done something wrong. But if the parents care to look at themselves and their children, and question themselves how it might have happened, they will come to the same conclusion.
Here is one incident that impressed me. I was standing at the church stalls close to the automobile factory when a woman approached me. She was a floor manager, very quiet, tactful... and good-natured, I would say. Still, she could not believe that her son, who was so obedient, loving, kind and gentle, became the antipode of himself when he grew up. She complained: “I never imagined my Vitaly would become like that. If someone had told me he would when he was small, I would not have believed.”
I get to hear the same complaints from many parents of teenage children. Children keep listening to their parents as they grow up to a certain point. They do obey, in their instinctive pursuit of peace with those around them. But one should still understand and remember that our children are distinct personalities, and they have a mind of their own. Do we always trust their opinions? Or do we start an argument, even if it is over a trifle that is not worth it?
We lived through that period with my son when he was 14 - 15. He liked to dress like a rapper, and he wore these half-lowered trousers. When I looked at him, my heart sank. Inside, everything rebelled, but I also understood that it was something he needed to get over. Today, he remembers those days with a laugh. Back then, I could have confronted him with some harsh words or arguments.
Similarly, my daughter pleaded with me in tears to buy her shoes on high heels, and she wanted more than one pair. We would come to the door of a supermarket, sit down, and I would say to her, with little money to spare: “If we were millionaires, I would let you buy a pair right now.” We went through every rational argument together. But children would not be children without doing something without asking. So she bought the shoes, and she wore them once, and never again. She is now 26, and she has never worn high-heeled shoes in principle, not to a party or any other gathering. Not a single time. Still, I understand that if I had taken a tougher position back then, if I had refused outright…
Yes, I had to make sacrifices, sometimes even spend more money to buy something more practicable and comfortable…
Ichthys school student at the entrance to a Convent church
Compromises such as these are something our children badly need, and they watch us and our reactions very closely. At this age, they look at us as if through a powerful magnifying glass. They are no longer small children led to church by the hand of their mothers simply because it makes them feel good. They are watching us. They experience life, they develop some reactions within themselves, some reference points for their future lives. They start making plans for themselves because there is a life plan for every child, especially a teenager. Plans for what they want to become, their dreams and hopes.
So I always recommend that to ask children at that age the question: “What do you yourself want? You do not want what I offered, so what would you like to do instead?” Parents should have this conversation with their children and work out a common understanding, and there are not that many areas of agreement with them that remain. Few children nowadays can remain in agreement with their parents and live through their teenage years without trouble.
But I was so happy to meet a mother who brought her daughter aged 13 or fourteen to our camp - and she was a loud, vivacious and impulsive kind of person... She brings her to me and says: “Sister Tatyana, if you notice she has swum too far from the shore, give me a call, and I will talk to her.” She loves her mother infinitely, and they have understanding. She understands her limitations, and that is obvious because they also affect others.
In principle, what is true for our camp is also true for home or school. Children will be the same everywhere, they will not pretend. So I feel good when I see there is an understanding between a mother and a daughter, and the daughter listens to her mother and works on her limitations. Perhaps she will have to live with some of them. Nevertheless, they have an understanding. Or, as children often say, “My mistake, but I will get it right.” Hearing that is also good news because admitting mistakes is something many adults cannot do. We also say to children that they can make mistakes - every person is entitled to make mistakes. What matters, however, is what lessons you will draw from them.
I think that through these conversations and a trusting relationship - you can sit down and play a computer game together, for that matter - you can build an atmosphere of sharing and find common ground. All children like movies, but what are they watching? Join them and find out. Spend some time together.
Here at the camp, we have an open-door day for parents. That is when we organise a set of joint activities for parents and children. Many children are surprised to see their mothers jump the skipping rope, do somersaults, solve logical problems or dance. It is sometimes a surprise even for the fathers: “I did not know you could still do that,” they say to their wives. We forget many things. When their parents married, they were youthful, joyful and full of energy, but the daily routine changed their habits and attitudes somewhat.
Sometimes, it seems that our children see in us some very serious people who always expect their children to do the right thing. And being rebellious - that is something present in every child. That is because, at this age, children develop a group identity and would sooner listen to somebody else, but not their parents.
For example, my son, who grew up without his father, would often say to me, in tears: "I will sooner listen to a man in the street than you. Understand?!" I know it was a cry of despair. What could I say? I could only pray: "Lord, if my child will not listen to me, send him someone whom he will listen to, give him wisdom through these people, so they help him stay safe and secure."
As adults and parents - and I am speaking from my experience - we often begin to judge and lose our patience seeing the sins or infirmities of our child. This happens very often at the camp. But when one loses patience, they should take it as a warning sign for oneself, and an indication that they are not at peace, and they should run to church for a confession, say that before the Lord and repent. Because loving someone is also a gift of God. We can repeat as much as we want “I love, I have love”, But all too often, by trying to watch our child at every step, we are just being selfish. What we must always bear in mind is that children will eventually leave their nest. Their teen years will be over. And they will have to begin to live as adults. If not, our world will not stand much longer.
Our world is turning around. We are heading for a life in a digital environment, and so are our children. Banning the devices outright would be a simplistic move. I think it would be nice instead if parents could teach their children computer literacy and safety, and if they could show them how to filter the information that they come across, and back it with personal examples.
On my part, I keep telling the children at the camp that we deal with information even when we buy food and read its contents from a label. It is a popular subject nowadays. But why do we allow ourselves to consume information uncritically? Because the Internet is like a big pile into which all of it is dumped indiscriminately, without sorting the content into useful and harmful. It is our responsibility as adults to teach our children to work with information and separate the good from the bad.
Keeping gadgets away from children is useful until a certain age. But then, who can guarantee that the children will not become addicted once they get hold of them, and not be able to get over it even at twenty or thirty years of age? We have seen examples of this before when game stations first appeared. I saw many people who stayed up night after night playing with them, even some thirty-year-olds. What lesson can be drawn from this? We should view it as another challenge. We must teach our children to remain in control. There is no way to get around it. Our children should know when and where to stop and be able to draw the right conclusions for themselves.
Master class by the Convent stained glass studio at the children's summer camp
Raising children alone, without a father, is a very demanding task for a lone mother. The number one challenge, perhaps, is to withhold the judgement of the ex-husband. If you keep telling your child how bad your father is, nothing good will come out of it. I had this experience myself when I parted with my former husband. I was left with two children. My first struggle was to keep myself from being bitter towards him. Children suffer a lot when they become engaged in the rift between their parents. Relationships between spouses are an adult matter. When the child becomes a party to the conflict, they often begin to blame themselves that their father had left.
So I did everything humanly possible so that my children would not hear any negative comments about their father. I always welcomed him when he came to visit and spend time with us. I understood very well: if something happened to me, he would be the only one left for my children. The only person in their lives.
I think that we should never make children a party to our conflict, however bitter we might feel, and independently of the man’s behaviour. And we should never say anything bad about the father in front of the children. Children have ears, they will hear. So it is a gigantic task for a woman, a lone mother, to be left to raise their child without her husband. She should keep herself from becoming a control freak while having to work two or three times as much to keep the family going. It takes two to move the family forward, but if one falls, everything falls on the other: the house, the children, the other adult and all the rest. So the lone woman needs all the strength of the spirit she can muster. I saw that I could do it all only with the Lord.
We had money problems also. My ex-husband refused to pay child support, and my confessor did not bless me to go to court. I am not taking pride in this, but we had some hard times. However, twelve years later he helped us so much like he had never done before, even when we were together. I do believe, and I am fully confident that the only way to overcome the pain of separation is by forgiveness, kindness, patience and generosity.
A young family at St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk
If I said my children are ideal, that would not be true. We all have our drawbacks and infirmities, but we are on good terms. The children are always happy to see their father, and he also rejoices in seeing them. We have all rethought many things.
There are other examples, too. I will never forget this story told by one of our priests about a husband who left his wife and children. It showed me the way to continue with my life. In that story, someone brought the man back to his family thirty years later, without his arms and legs, and left him at the door. The wife he had abandoned took him back and looked after him to the end. This story sends a powerful message: even if your husband is not with you, he is still present in the children. That’s a fact of life, like it or not. By holding a grudge against your husband, you are doing the same to your children. Judging is a mortal sin. It destroys the person who judges above all else.
One must forgive and let go. That’s the only way. Set him free. We should not despair or lose hope, because God takes, and God gives. The children will be alright, too, if one’s attitude is right.
But children who grow up without a father do not have a role model of a man's behaviour or a healthy relationship between the mother and the father. The children may grow immature, especially when they do not even have a grandfather, and may find it difficult later in life to take responsible decisions. But ultimately, nothing is beyond repair, I think, as long as we are willing to repent our sins and place our love in the Lord.
All children must be engaged in some activity or occupation. Being busy gives the child a chance to spend their energy, which is abundant and overflowing, on something useful. Years ago, I read in a book about the poster banner at the Smolny Lyceum for girls in Saint Petersburg, which said “Idleness is the root of every evil.”
Preparing for a night event at the summer camp
Especially with children and teens, it is always a good idea to keep them busy all the time. We see this in children who come to the camp. Some will find something to do easily, others have more difficulty. If they had grown used to spending all their time gazing into their computer or mobile, they will choose to do the same, but not engage in something more creative, constructive and challenging. On the other hand, he also notices that our children have vast amounts of unspent creative energy, and a genuine need to be creative.
During one summer month, we put up a woodworking workshop where children could come and fix a broken chair. Twenty children participated, most of them girls. Perhaps adults, too, could do better by learning to resist the urge to respond aggressively.
One mother said to me: I put an icon of Archangel Michael above my teenage son’s bedroom door. Before going in to ask my son to do some chores, like emptying the garbage bin, I will always stop and pray before this icon. I see beauty in her approach. The mother understands that she is asking her son to do something he does not want, to put aside some of his own activities. She recognises it is not easy for him, and she is asking for Divine assistance. I think that if the children see their parents appeal to the divine powers, they will listen to their parents, and will love them even more - simply because they will know that their parents love God, and there is a higher power above them that they revere.
If all one does is make demands and set the rules, that will increase the distance with the child, for one, and, secondly, it puts the parents on some unreachable high ground. It almost turns them into some ideal that the child should follow. But as teens, children begin to notice their parents' weaknesses and take to judging them.
Young parishioners of St. Elisabeth Convent
At times, I ask the children: “At your confession, have you ever said you do not love your parents? Do you have any love for them?" Many said they have not, and admit that they had never repented of that. It is as if reading out one’s sin from a note. “Yes, I feel I must say this and this, repent of this and this, admit to offending this and this... But not loving my parents? How can that be? I love them.” “But these are only words. Love is manifest, above all, in one’s actions. And first among them is to listen. The Scripture also teaches parents not to upset their children, and we know this well. So it is always a two-way street, a mutual willingness to meet each other halfway."
Almost all children who come to the camp are from families of practising Orthodox believers. But what does that mean in practice? What we notice in many children is a somewhat distorted perception of the Church, faith and even the world around them, I would say. Here is why. One must take very seriously one's actions, the actions of the individuals working with young people, particularly during their teenage years.
Children of practising Orthodox will know a lot about the doctrine, they may even know it better than me. It is visible that he goes to Sunday school and attends Church. But in practice, when you ask them to wash up or weed the garden, you meet a hostile reaction. He does not want to do anything. As he walks reluctantly to do the weeding, he will tell you all he knows about the Old Testament, and narrate many Biblical truths. But when the rest of his team are beside themselves because he is the only one not doing his chores, one begins to wonder if he practices what he preaches, and not acting like a Pharisee. Outside, he looks upright and pious.
Some boys participate in worship as altar servants. Here is a scene we have observed multiple times. At the evening prayer, not only are the altar servants not reading the prayers, but they are also distracting others from praying, by playing checkers, doing other things and not reacting to criticisms. We have discussed it with several mothers. Being asked to serve at the altar may be salvific for all of these boys (we are not judges), but from what I saw, it was not benefiting them. For some, belonging to the faith becomes another routine, and even causes them to puff themselves up as if they were some privileged group and can do what others cannot.
Young acolyte at a children's Liturgy in St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk
We should notice these distortions on time and respond appropriately - with council from the confessor. Like asking him to stay away for a while, maybe. Either way, here is a good comment I overheard from one Matushka. She said that as far as religious education was concerned, it is better to do less than to overdo it. These families are practising Christians, but perhaps we still have some way to go to become like the pious families of old, with a patriarchal way of life, where the younger kin obey the older, and the older kin and I apply this to adults also - treat the younger with respect.
More than one generation of children have grown up going to church with their parents from a young age. Unfortunately, however, some (but certainly not all) of these children have learned to live a double life, being one person at school, and another at home. Their parents uphold a high standard of behaviour and have high expectations from their children. The child pretends to be the person they want them to be. But as it often happens, his true personality is very different. His way of thinking and his life aspirations are remote from this imagined life.
It is also no secret that many children leave the church altogether, and many do not even remember what they were taught at Sunday school. But some develop a numbness, they become insensitive and lukewarm, and that can be even worse than not going to church or leaving it, but coming back later in life.
Evening procession at the children's camp
Perhaps one reason our children behave this way is because that’s their perception of their parents. Perhaps they see us as not being fully genuine ourselves. Understandably, we are living in times when we are learning to be churchgoing, and we are forcing ourselves to do the right thing at times.
However, there are other examples. The Holy Venerable Grand Duchess Olga only saw that she had converted to Christianity two generations later. Many questions still cannot be answered at present.
But we surely need to pray more vehemently. We should begin by changing from within. In one of my conversations with my children, I told them that my mother was a deep believer. They replied, “Yes, she was. We remember our grandmother like this.” It is so heart-warming to hear them speak of her like that. That means that they have seen her pray and fast in earnest, not on words. They formed this opinion of her, despite her sometimes dictatorial behaviour.
But if it comes from love and a sincere drawing towards God, the Lord will cover any imperfection, in a child or an adult. One thing balances another, and we are not in a position to know which balance is right. We, too, are proceeding by trial and error. We must all have an inner encounter with God, adults and children alike. For many of our children, it has yet to happen. They had been going to church because their mother was taking them, or because it was the tradition in their family.
Children with parents attending children's Liturgy at St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk
But here is an incident I will never forget. The children at the camp go to confession. Father Andrey Lemeshonok came to hear them. One of the children staying with us was the daughter of a priest. Her confession with Father Andrey took an hour, and when she finished (she was 10 or 12 years of age) she said, “It has happened to me, at last. My father told me that one day God would touch my heart.” Father Andrey asked us about that girl. “How is she? I was so worried, she took it so seriously”. It could be that something serious had taken place in that child’s heart.
As it happens, children need to be talked to seriously no less than adults. It was more than a conversation, it was a moment of repentance. God touched that girl’s heart, and she said: “Yes, it happened, as my father had said. A touch of God.” Her father must have prayed hard. This meeting with God is equally important for an adult and a child. It is something for the child to experience, and it is best if he had this experience by looking at his parents. If it happened like that, it would be ideal.
In the early years of the Church, children would confess to their parents. The love of their parents and the love of God were so strong for these children that they did not fear any criticism. Another day of their lives was coming, and they confessed without lying or avoidance, in an act of repentance. By today’s standards, it sounds unreal. But it is still essential for the child to be able to come to their parents and share what had happened to them during the day, however good or bad, and tell them how they felt and what they experienced.
This sort of closeness and family life is at the centre of the 16th-century "Household book" which we read by the syllable nowadays. Today, its tenets are difficult to implement, because the times have changed, and the historical context has changed fundamentally; with the destruction of the churches came a different era, so different from the old times.
We must rebuild our churches, and equally, we should rebuild our souls, adults and children. As adults, we still misunderstand many things, and maybe we are still too far from true Orthodoxy. It seems that what we are missing the most today is love for our children, a love that is sacrificial, all-embracing and all-forgiving. It is a love that God has bestowed on us.
Our summer recreation camp holds the utmost importance; however, the camp still lacks camping tents, essential equipment, and food. I ask that you consider making a financial contribution to help our summer camp.
To assist Sister Tatiana and the Nezabudka project, please follow the link https://obitel-minsk.org/donate-st-elisabeth-convent