Chrysostom's Address to Parents

In classical Christian schools there are a number of common words/sayings that we use. If you walk into a classroom or teacher meeting you may hear phrases like festina lente (make haste slowly), multum non multa (much, not many), or “delayed obedience is disobedience”. Though something may be common or sometimes overused, it does not take away from its true significance. One of these phrases that is important for us to not only contemplate but act upon as parents is, “raising children is a timed event with eternal consequences.” That is, our parenting is a timed event with eternal consequences. The habits we cultivate early on in our children can direct them toward the path of life or the path of death. One path leads to Biblical wisdom, virtue, and affections, while the other leads to folly and corruption. One an ordered soul, the other a disordered soul. The pagan Greek and Roman educators such as Plato, Isocrates, and Quintillian recognized this and wrote on the importance of cultivating piety from the earliest of ages. They described the soul of man as a city or republic, used illustrations of raising youth as training athletes, artists at work, or farmers preparing soil. Grounded first in Scripture (e.g. Deut. 6 and Eph. 6), early Christians also used similar illustrations as applications of cultivating a proper love for God, family, and community from the earliest of ages. Below is an important excerpt from an “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up their Children” by John Chrysostom (c. 345-407AD). Chrysostom implores parents to take to heart the importance and seriousness of being intentional in the way we are shaping our children. May this serve as a conviction and an encouragement to all of us involved in teaching children.

Raise up an athlete for Christ and teach him though he is living in the world to be reverent from his earliest youth.
If good precepts are impressed on the soul while it is yet tender, no man will be able to destroy them when they have set firm, even as does a waxen seal. The child is still trembling and fearful and afraid in look and speech and in all else. Make use of the beginning of his life as though shouldst. Thou dost labor for thyself.
They say that pearls when first they are collected are but water. But if he that receives them is skilled in his craft, he places the drop on his hand; and moving it with a gentle rotating movement as it lies on the palm of his upturned hand, he shapes it skilfully and renders it perfectly round. Then, when it has received its form, he can no longer mold it; for that which is soft and with its proper shape not yet set firm is in every way adaptable and therefore is easily suited to every purpose. But that which is hard, having acquired a certain material outline, can be deprived of its hardness only with difficulty and is not changed into another shape.
To each of you fathers and mothers I say, just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours. Painters when they have set the canvas on the easel paint on it day by day to accomplish their purpose. Sculptors, too, working in marble, proceed in a similar manner; they remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking. Even so must you proceed. Like the creators of statues do you give all your leisure to fashioning these wondrous statues for God. And, as you remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking, inspect them day by day, to see what good qualities nature has supplied so that you will increase them, and what faults so that you will eradicate them. And, first of all, take the greatest care to banish licentious speech; for love of this above all frets the souls of the young. Before he is of an age to try it, teach thy son to be sober and vigilant and to shorten sleep for the sake of prayer, and with every word and deed to set upon himself the seal of faith.
Regard thyself as king ruling over a city which is the soul of thy son; for the soul is in truth a city. And, even as in a city some are thieves and some are honest men, some work steadily and some transact their business fitfully, so it is with the thoughts and reasoning in the soul. Some make war on wrongdoers, like soldiers in a city; others take thought for everything, both welfare of the body and of the home, like those who carry on the government in cities. Some give orders, like magistrates, some again counsel lewdness, like profligates, others reverence, like the virtuous. And some are effeminate, even as are women among us; others speak folly, like children. And some again receive orders as slaves, like servants in the city, while others are wellborn, like free men.
Hence we need laws to banish evildoers and admit the good and prevent the evildoers from rising up against the good. And, just as in a city, if laws are passed which permit thieves great license, the general welfare is undermined, and if the soldiers do not devote their ardor to its proper use, they ruin the body politic, and if each citizen abandons his own household affairs and busies himself with another’s, he destroys good order by his greed and ambition–so it is also in the case of the child.
The child’s soul then is a city, a city but lately founded and built, a city containing citizens who are strangers with no experience as yet, such as it is easy to direct; for men who have been reared and have grown old under a bad constitution it would be difficult to reform, though not impossible. Even they can be reformed if they be willing. But those who are quite without experience would readily accept the laws that thou givest them.
Draw up laws then for this city and its citizens, laws that inspire fear and are strong, and uphold them if they are being transgressed; for it is useless to draw up laws, if their enforcement does not follow.
Draw up laws, and do you pay close attention; for our legislation is for the world and today we are founding a city. Suppose that the outer walls and four gates, the senses, are built. The whole body shall be the wall, as it were, the gates are the eyes, the tongue, the hearing, the sense of smell, and, if you will, the sense of touch. It is through these gates that the citizens of the city go in and out; that is to say, it is through these gates that thoughts are corrupted or rightly guided.*

Chrysostom then goes on to describe the importance of each of these gates to the soul, how a well-guarded city can build virtue and order as well as how an unguarded city welcomes vice and disorder. Our children are impressionable imitators, what things are we allowing them to watch, listen, indulge, and participate in? How do our daily practices encourage virtue and vice? Are our children seeing us read, work, pray, worship, laugh, contemplate, love? How might we improve our parenting (this timed event with eternal consequences) before the pearl hardens?

* Richard M. Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being (pp. 193-4).

Author: Nicholas Dellis
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