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Bringing up Children according to St John Chrysostom*
The subject of bringing up children is especially important nowadays. Many parents protest about the rebelliousness and unconventional behaviour of children today, whereas many young people object to the inept behaviour of their parents, teachers and all those involved in their upbringing. This chapter will deal with the issue on the basis of the teaching of St John Chrysostom.
It ought to be noted from the start that St John Chrysostom is a great Father of the Church. He does not act or speak simply as an independent teacher or express views on bringing up children gained from his studies. He speaks from his own wide experience as a Father in the Church, but also with God’s illumination, because the experience of the saints is both human and divine. The saints purify themselves through divine grace and thus become useful vessels of the Word. We do not need, therefore, to search out corresponding ideas in the ancient philosophers or examine which of them influenced St John Chrysostom and to what extent. He may have possessed knowledge from such sources, but because he has a different anthropology and studies the issues from another perspective, he puts the subject on a different footing. In addition, the viewpoint that the ideas expressed by the holy Father date from the fourth century and cannot therefore apply to modern times is invalid for many reasons.
The first reason is that various recent studies have proved that St John Chrysostom’s views on bringing up children are relevant to the present day and correspond closely with the views of contemporary experts on child rearing. I think this will become clear as we examine this issue.
Secondly, human beings are essentially the same in every era, in spite of some apparent differences, so the way they are dealt with, especially by the saints, has contemporary relevance and significance.
Thirdly, the fact that a certain opinion is current does not necessarily mean that it is good, or that a traditional viewpoint formulated the past is obsolete and inappropriate. Scientific progress does not ignore earlier scientific knowledge, but builds on it.
After this introduction, I shall move on to the subject in hand. The passages by St John Chrysostom that I shall quote come either from the Saint’s two treatises on bringing up children, one entitled Concerning Vainglory and How Parents should Bring Up Children, the other Concerning the Enrolment of Widows and the Upbringing of Children, or from other homilies in which he analyses various scriptural passages and takes the opportunity to emphasise points relevant to the nurture of children.
1. The Purpose of Marriage
Most of a child’s upbringing takes place in the family environment, as the family is the natural place for rearing children and has a profound impact on their development. We should therefore begin by considering the purpose of marriage. St John Chrysostom teaches that marriage is not solely for the purpose of bearing children. That is one of its aims, because God said to Adam and Eve from the beginning, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it”, but it is not its exclusive or main objective.
St John Chrysostom writes, “Marriage was given for the procreation of children, but much more in order to quench the burning of nature.” As the Saint states concisely, “Marriage was introduced for two reasons: that we might be chaste and that we might become fathers. Of these two reasons, chastity takes precedence, because, once desire was created, marriage was also created to rule out intemperance.”
Here it seems that St John Chrysostom does not make the begetting of children an absolute necessity. The aim of marriage is first and foremost chastity, love and union between the partners. The birth of children is the fruit of this love and union. He does not condemn having children, but neither does he make it absolutely essential. Marriage is not solely for the purpose of having children, but mainly to nurture love and chastity between husband and wife.
This has to be stressed, because unfortunately the basic aim of many parents is solely focused on children and all their attention is directed towards them. Thus children are regarded as an end in themselves. Parents do not see them as a gift from God, but as the principal or exclusive purpose of their existence. As a result, when a family loses children or when children move away, all sorts of psychological disorders develop. Worst of all, as we shall see below, the birth of children can cause disruption to the mutual union and love between husband and wife.
2. The Presence of Children in the Family
As children are the fruit of their parents’ love and union, their presence within the family brings joy. It is significant that there is no desire for children in couples who are dominated by passions, afflicted with self-love, only interested in themselves and want to avoid the labour and hardship of nurturing and educating children. “We all know”, says St John Chrysostom, “that those in the grip of passions regard their father’s old age and having children – something everyone delights in and desires – as a heavy burden hard to bear. For that reason many have preferred not to have children and to go against their nature, not by killing children after birth, but by not even allowing them to enter life.” The existence of children is a joy to their parents. It is possible to identify three great benefits that they bring.
The first is that children, as the fruit of their parents’ love, bring husband and wife even closer together. “The child who is born is like a bridge linking the parents. Thus the three become one flesh, because the child unites the two parents.” St John Chrysostom then gives three examples to make this clear: the example of a bridge linking two cities separated by a river; the example of the neck that joins the head to the rest of the body; and the example of a dance in which the dancers join hands to form a circle. Children unite husband and wife, and their presence brings joy. They are a connecting link that manifests the unity of their parents and makes it stronger.
The second benefit is that children are a consolation in the face of death. We are all familiar with the disturbing awareness of death. As soon as we think about death we become anxious and troubled, afraid and miserable. We feel that the hour is approaching for us to depart this life. The presence of children, however, gives a sense that life goes on. To be sure, we see this mainly in the Old Testament, before Christ brought the hope of resurrection into the world. “There was no hope yet of resurrection, death predominated, and those who died thought they were lost when they left this present life. For that reason God gave children as a consolation, so that they would remain as living images of those who had departed, our nation would be preserved, and they would be a consolation for those about to die and their relatives.” Today, in the Christian era, things have changed because we have hope of personal existence after death and of resurrection. However, the perception that children are a consolation and in some way overcome death by continuing our life persists in many people.
The third benefit is that parents are praised on account of their children, especially if they grow up harmoniously and live good social and family lives because of their good upbringing. The holy Father comments,
“If people who make statues of kings and paint their portraits enjoy such great honour, should not we who adorn the image of the King for man is God’s image) enjoy countless blessings, if we effect a true likeness? For this is what likeness means: the virtue of the soul, when we train our children to be good, not to lose their temper, to be forgiving (all these are the attributes of God), to be generous, to be humane; when we train them to regard the present world as nothing.”
This passage shows that, according to St John Chrysostom and the whole tradition of the Church, bringing up children means enabling them to develop according to God’s will, so that they may resemble Him and be in His likeness. When this aim is successfully accomplished, their parents too are praised. Of course, this praise does not just come from other people but principally from God. It is no trivial honour for parents to be found worthy of leading their children to the Kingdom of Heaven and making them saints. We know that the saints are the most valuable members of society. They form the basis of every nation and of humankind as a whole. The life of a nation depends on the existence and presence of saints, deified people who have acquired experience of God. Such people determine the history of nations.
Of course St John Chrysostom is well aware that educating and bringing up children is difficult; it is hard work. He does not have his head in the clouds. He is not a Utopian, a moralist or a visionary. As a spiritual father he knows how arduous having children can be. “It is a grievous thing to have children, but still more grievous not to have any; for in the latter case marriage has been to no purpose, in the former a bitter bondage has to be undergone. If a child is sick, it causes considerable fear; if he dies an untimely death, there is inconsolable grief; and at every stage of growth there are various anxieties on their account, and many fears and toils.” This difficult task, however, is lightened by the many advantages of having children and bringing them up.
3. Those Responsible for Bringing Up Children
The main responsibility for bringing up children lies with their parents. As mentioned earlier, the family is the natural place for children to grow up. Experience teaches that children derive many imperfections but also virtues from their families.
St John Chrysostom makes a comment that is also heard today, that both parents ought to take an interest in bringing up children. Of course priority is given to the mother, because she spends more time with the child, but the father ought not to be left out. “It is the duty of both parents to care for the children, but particularly of mothers, as they spend more time at home. Men are often busy travelling or worrying about business matters and civic affairs.” Nevertheless, bringing up children should be a shared activity. Fathers, too, ought to show particular interest, as this prevents the development of children becoming one-sided and makes it more balanced. It gives the child the opportunity to grow up not only with the maternal concern of the female soul, but also with the manliness of the male element. Thus the child matures more effectively.
In order for parents to improve the way they bring up children and offer them more effective and substantial help, they themselves must be as complete as possible. The reality is that when someone trains a child, he does not just pass on the knowledge that he may happen to have, but what he himself is. Through his upbringing, the child receives an ontological and spiritual “transfusion”. There are cases where parents and knowledgeable experts on child rearing were unable to achieve anything in the end, because their lives discredited what they taught. There was a discrepancy between what they said and what they did.
St John Chrysostom comments, “When a husband and wife comply with the law given to them [by St Paul, regulating their relationship] little labour is required to make their children obey. When something has a good, strong and orderly beginning, it easily makes progress in the right direction.” When a child grows up within a harmonious family community that is emotionally and spiritually mature, the necessary conditions are created for him to enter as a mature person into the wider family of society. There must be unity between husband and wife. “If the couple are in harmony, the children will be well brought up.” Educating the parents, particularly in the Christian faith, is essential. “The fruit a plant bears depends on the soil in which it is planted. If it is put in sandy, salty soil, it will yield fruit of that sort. If it is placed in fine, fertile soil, it will bear fruit accordingly.” He goes on to exhort, “How will you be able to correct your son, to punish your servant when he does something wrong, or give appropriate advice to someone else who is careless, if you yourself behave so badly at an advanced age? … How can a father teach other people to restrain their passions (i.e. insolence and anger), if he himself has not learnt self control?”
It is very important for parents to live as perfectly as they can. Parents ought to be a living example for their children. St John Chrysostom stresses, “It is we who ought to have instructors, not the children, because the faults of children cannot be serious, whereas our own are very serious.” Parents need educating as well. Only someone who is trained can train others. Bad behaviour by parents has consequences for their children. “All the badness in children comes from our own carelessness, and from our failure to guide them from the start, from a very early age, in the path of faith.”
The existence of immature parents does not, of course, excuse the misbehaviour of children. No one can justify his inconsiderate and inappropriate behaviour on the grounds that he comes from a bad family. St John Chrysostom comments on this point, “Let us not use our country, our upbringing or the evil of our forebears as an excuse. If we are careful, none of these things will hinder us. Abraham’s father was an idolater, but Abraham did not carry on his transgression. Hezekiah’s father was Ahaz, but Hezekiah became a friend of God. Joseph too, in the middle of Egypt, adorned himself with the crown of chastity; and the Three Children in the heart of Babylon, at the centre of the palace, showed the highest peak of spirituality when a table full of luxuries was set before them. Moses in Egypt and Paul in front of the whole world, did the same. None of these things were a hindrance to any of them on the path to virtue. With all these things in mind, we should get rid of our superfluous pleas and excuses, and start making an effort to acquire virtue. In this way we shall attract God to show us greater love and persuade Him to assist us in our struggles, and we shall enjoy eternal blessings.”
4. Youth is a Difficult Age
St John Chrysostom is not unrealistic. He knows how difficult it is to attempt to bring up young people.
It has already been stressed that having children is hard work. Bringing them up is even harder. Youth, especially adolescence, is a rebellious period in human life. We have all lived through that age and know the great difficulties it entails. St John Chrysostom observes, “Youth is a difficult age. It is unstable, easily misled, prone to fall, and needs strong restraint.” Elsewhere he writes, “Youth is wild, and needs many supervisors, teachers, educators, attendants and tutors. You should be content if by such means you manage to keep it under control, because youth is like an unbroken horse or an untamed beast.” It is worth noting that collaboration is needed between those responsible for training children. There should, as far as possible, be a united approach to the issues involved. Otherwise many questions arise in the child’s mind. Parents, teachers, the community, those in positions of authority, specialists in the philosophy of education, the Church and those involved in pastoral work should all share a common interest and collaborate in the correct and well-rounded upbringing of children.
St John Chrysostom uses two images to illustrate how wild young people can be when all their mental and bodily powers are developing.
The first is the image of a horse that capers off to the right and left. Adolescents “have wild desires. They leap about like wild asses and kick. They wander about unbridled in all directions and are not interested in anything beneficial.”
The second image is of the rough sea. “After childhood comes the sea of adolescence, where strong winds blow as on the Aegean Sea, because desires increase within us. This is the most difficult age…” Therefore experienced instructors are needed who know how to steer young people through this period of their life.
5. Bringing Up Children Well
Children must be brought up well in order to confront all these problems and become complete.
It is important to note St John Chrysostom’s view that the term “father” should not be used simply for those who have begotten children, but for those who take care of them. He writes, “The fact that someone has helped to bring a child into the world does not make him a father. He must bring the child up properly. ” He bases this statement on the fact that there are many parents who disinherit their children and adopt others. “I do not say this without reason, but so that you may learn that disposition is stronger than nature.” Nothing is more important than bringing up children well. Thus the Saint emphasises, “I shall not stop beseeching you and stressing this point: Bringing up your children well must be your priority. If you love your child, this is how you should prove it.
In our time, as in the time of the holy Fathers, many parents are more concerned with supporting their children financially than with forming their character or reforming their personality. Their concern goes no further than acquiring material goods, or making sure they learn the best skills and the best professions. Parents are more interested in setting them up economically, professionally and socially. St John Chrysostom, however, condemns this view and teaches:
“We take care of the property that has been given to the children, but not of the children themselves. How senseless! Train the child’s soul first; everything else will come later. When the child’s soul is without virtue, no money will do him any good and poverty will do him no harm. Do you want to leave him rich when you die? Teach him to be a good person. Then he will preserve any property you happen leave him, and if he has nothing, he will be in no worse a state that those with possessions… For children who have not been brought up with sound principles, poverty is preferable to riches…If their owner is not prudent, possessions, however many and valuable they may be, will all be lost and disappear with him, and do him great harm. If, however, he has a courageous and devout mentality, even if he has no material possessions, he will easily acquire everything good. We ought not to consider how we can make our children rich with gold, silver and the like, but how they can be better off than others in faith, philosophy and virtue.”
St John Chrysostom also emphasises an interesting aspect of nurturing children. The concern of the husband and father for the child ought not to diminish in any way his good relationship with his wife. The husband should love his wife very much, and not weaken his love for her on account of his love for the children. The Saint says, “You must prefer your wife to any of your friends and even to your children, to whom she gave birth. You should love them for her sake.”
This remark is important because it reveals a problem that often arises in couples, and which St John Chrysostom, with great discretion, attempts to set right. Our contemporaries observe,
“Married couples, disappointed by their marriage and aware, consciously or unconsciously, that they are incapable of meeting the demands of married life, essentially withdraw from their marital role and devout themselves entirely to their role as parents. They decide to live only for the child, but indirectly they ask the child to live only for them, and the child becomes the most important person in the family.,.Both parents attempt to secure the child’s favour, mainly because they do not feel that they have secured one another’s favour…As the parent of the opposite sex tries to use the child as a substitute spouse, the child becomes a pawn in the battle between the sexes, and the parent of the same sex begins to regard the child as a possible rival” (Fr. Philotheos Pharos, Fr. Stavros Kophinas).
Here we see clearly what happens when a parent becomes attached to the child and deserts the other partner. St John Chrysostom’s remark referred to above, that a father should love his children for the sake of his love for his wife, has great contemporary relevance. Love for the husband or wife must come first, followed by love for the child.
6. How Children Should be Brought Up
It is clear that a good upbringing is essential for a child’s development. Nourishment is not enough, nurture is also required. Now we must investigate the manner in which St John Chrysostom wants children to be brought up. In various homilies he specifies both the manner and method. This is very important. Being concerned is not enough, appropriate ways and means are also essential. We shall see here many methods that are used in modern child rearing and education as well. Only a few essential points will be emphasised.
Firstly, training must start early. Modern experts on child rearing also stress this. We make sure that we start teaching children from an early age. St John Chrysostom states, “If we imbue them with sound principles from the beginning, from an early age, no great effort is required later, because habit will become the rule for the children in the future.” He uses the image of pearl-fishing. “It is said that when pearls are fished out of the sea they are like drops of water. If the pearl-fisher is experienced, as soon as he takes the pearls he puts them in the palm of his hand and rolls them around until they are perfectly spherical. Once they harden, however, he cannot change their shape.” The same applies to training children. It must start at an early age, when the child is malleable. In a similar way, artists can paint with their colours while they are wet, but once they dry, depicting people and objects becomes difficult.
This does not mean that as children grow older we should give up educating them. It is never too late for this task. There is no need for despair. St John Chrysostom writes, “It is never too early or too late for someone to take an interest in the salvation of his soul. Anyone who says that he has no time for this philosophical quest, or that the right time has passed, is like someone who says that the time has not yet come, or else it is too late, for him to be happy. A person can start searching when he is young or when he is old.”
Bringing up children calls for discretion and prudence. It must be done slowly and gradually, based on the principle that knowledge has to be assimilated. St John Chrysostom says wisely, “Birds do not teach their fledglings to fly perfectly in one day. Sometimes they push them just far enough to be outside the nest. At other times, once the young ones have rested, they teach them to fly higher; then the next day they fly higher still. Thus quietly and slowly they guide them up to the right altitude.” This shows that education and upbringing is not just a matter of imparting a few facts, nor of attaching children to their family environment, but of discreetly and carefully detaching them from dependence on their parents. It is a parent’s duty to teach children to face society with all its problems and turmoil.
It is important for children to be brought up with love, kindness and cheerfulness. This demonstrates the other educational principle identified by modern experts on child rearing: the principle of love. Such a noble task must unfold in an environment of love and affection, even if a child needs to be told off. “The misdeeds of young people should be corrected with paternal compassion and skilful discussion.” St John Chrysostom emphasises both these points: compassion and skilful discussion. He goes on to say, “It is possible to reprimand without causing offence…Here too rebuke must be tempered with leniency.” This love is not expressed only in words but through actions. The child needs to understand that his father loves him. The Saint states characteristically, “When we say all these things to him, we should give him many kisses and hug him tightly, to show how much we love him.” Man does not consist only of a soul but of a body as well, so love needs to be expressed through both. Children, especially when very young, need this affection, without, of course, such displays of love losing their manly character.
Upbringing and education ought to be positive as well as negative. Prohibitions are not enough on their own; we need to stress positive elements. St John Chrysostom says, “In order to divert the child’s eyes from obscene sights, you should show him beautiful things, like the sky, the sun, the stars, flowers, meadows and well-illustrated books. Let his eyes find pleasure looking at these and many other beautiful and harmless sights.”
Those responsible for bringing up children ought also to have a gift for telling stories. Children are intensely fond of hearing stories from the past and present. If parents and teachers do not have this innate ability, they ought to cultivate it. St John Chrysostom teaches:
“When the child is tired, tell him worthwhile stories (children like listening to tales from the past) and so draw him away from childish behaviour, because you are bringing up a Christian philosopher and athlete, a citizen of heaven. Begin your narration by saying, ‘Once upon a time a father had two children…’ After pausing for a moment, go on…The story should be pleasing in order to delight the child and not tire him…Continue enthusiastically (this is the art of storytelling). Do not add made-up stories but keep to the facts of Holy Scripture. This is enough to satisfy the child. The narration should take place in the evening after supper. The child’s mother ought to repeat the same procedure… And you should not stop there. You ought to take your child by the hand and lead him to Church, especially when the story you told him is going to be read there…”
This passage covers many educational principles, including, among others, storytelling, consolidation of what has been learnt and practical aids to understanding.
In addition, a great effort is needed on our part, as parents and teachers, to train children correctly and realistically. We ought not to invent an artificial society for them that does not correspond to reality. We should show them positive aspects of society, but also its negative aspects. We should teach them that they will encounter difficulties and adversities, which they will have to endure. They will not find a beautiful world made by angels. We need to be realistic.
At the same time, parents and teachers need gradually to prepare children to face society tenaciously and courageously, so that they do not panic when various difficulties confront them. St John Chrysostom advises:
“The child should learn to bear humiliations and unjust aggression, and not to want people to serve him, but to look after himself as far as possible. Others should only do things for him when he cannot do them himself..If he wants to wash his feet, let him do it on his own instead of the servant washing them…He should not expect someone else to hand him his clothes. When he is in the bath he ought not to expect other people to wait on him, but manage everything on his own. This will help him to become physically strong and to be humble and loved by all.”
St John Chrysostom also suggests that if the child loses something that he is very fond of, he must learn not to lose his temper. He orders, “Do not rush immediately to buy what he has lost, in order to pacify him. Instead, when you see that he is not asking for the lost things and their loss has not upset him, go out and buy replacements.” This passage is a reply to those who indulge all the whims and demands of their children.
He continues a little further on, “If you see him hitting a servant (and he is thinking of the slaves that they had in those days) punish him. Do the same if you see him insulting a servant. The child’s character should be neither very soft nor savage; his attitude should be manly but at the same time tolerant.”
St John Chrysostom does not ignore the fact that bringing up children calls for great discretion on the part of parents and teachers. This discretion consists in not making children despair, but also not encouraging them so much that they are left uncorrected. Just as doctors use the appropriate medicines in each case, so parents and teachers ought to use the appropriate therapeutic remedies. St John Chrysostom teaches us what to do about the function of the soul which is called anger (the soul’s incensive faculty). We are well aware that anger is strongly developed in children. The holy Father says,
“We ought not to eradicate anger completely from the child; nor should we allow him to use it indiscriminately whenever he likes. We ought to train young people from an early age to be patient and not become angry when they themselves are wronged; but when they see someone else being treated unjustly, to intervene courageously and defend him with appropriate means.”
The young person can use his soul’s capacity for anger to do good and achieve beneficial results. He needs to use anger appropriately, so that it proves useful to society and himself. With his characteristic wisdom, St John Chrysostom suggests, on the subject of anger, “When he loses his temper, remind him of his own shortcomings. When he is angry with a servant, tell him that he too makes mistakes, and he should think how he would like other people to behave towards him if he were in the servant’s place.”
The issue of punishments, reprimands and checks is important when bringing up children. The question posed is this: Ought we to leave the child completely free to do whatever he wants, or is there a need for severity linked with discernment? This question needs an answer, because we hear many opinions. Many parents avoid telling their children off because they fear they could develop complexes.
“An American psychiatrist has written that there are number of reasons why parents avoid imposing discipline on their children. Some cannot say ‘no’ to their child, because they cannot say ‘no’ to themselves. Some actually believe that when their children behave like animals they are ‘cute’ or ‘clever’. Others deal with their children in a completely passive manner, because they want ‘a quiet life at any cost’. When the father comes home from work, he wants…to relax and watch television. He does not want to be bothered with coping with his children’s unacceptable behaviour.
In reality, the undisciplined child will never allow his parent to relax…Parents who put off disciplining their children are storing up difficulties for themselves and their children. A home where nothing is forbidden, where no demands are made, where politeness and compliance are not required, where there are no fixed rules and restrictions, is an unhealthy place that inevitably creates problems” (Fr. Philotheos Pharos, Fr. Stavros Kophinas).
Contemporary views on child rearing suggest that the child needs to grow up with the awareness that he has obligations at home. Restrictions enable him to enter society more mature. “A child who has never been subject to restraints has certainly been misled about the reality of life. The parents are keeping that child in an incubator, in a fantasy world, and when he comes into contact with the real world, where there are restrictions, he will be completely unprepared and incapable of dealing with it” (Fr. Philotheos Pharos, Fr. Stavros Kophinas).
This is why the number of suicides in the army has increased. Young people cannot accept restrictions. Many parents excuse their attitude of excessive freedom on the grounds that they are friends with their children. This is not, however, absolutely correct. “The parent who says to his child, ‘Don’t regard me as a father. I want to be your friend’, is an immature child himself, who abdicates his paternal responsibility and creates a sense of insecurity to the point of panic in his child. Children will find opportunities in their life to make friends. It is doubtful, however, that they will find another father, when even their natural father does not want to be their father and asks them to expect nothing more from him than they would expect from a friend” (Fr. Philotheos Pharos, Fr. Stavros Kophinas).
St John Chrysostom has much to say about restrictions and reprimands. He calls the father who indulges all his child’s whims a traitor. “Poor and wretched traitor! I can call such a man anything but father. It would have been better for you to upset the child briefly in order to make him healthy for ever, rather than to make this short-lived pleasure the foundation for continuous grief.”
Elsewhere he refers to fathers who are not strict with their children as “infanticides”. Among other things he says that, as some fathers “do not want to smack their children or tell them off or upset them with regard to their unruly and lawless lives, they have often seen them being arrested for committing major crimes, taken to court and then beheaded by executioners. If you do not punish your son or correct him, but instead you yourself mix with corrupt and depraved people and share in their wickedness, the law will intervene and impose the punishment publicly. This is not just a calamity, but also a great disgrace for that father, because everyone will point a finger at him after the death of his child and force him not to appear in public…Children who are not punished by their parents are punished by the laws of the land.”
Certainly punishments should not be excessive. St John Chrysostom does not advise parents to put their children under constant surveillance. There are many ways of setting a good example. The Saint comments on this subject as though he were living in our own era.
“Make it a rule from very early on that the child must not insult anyone, or say unkind things about anyone, or swear at anyone, but be submissive. If you see him breaking this rule, punish him, sometimes by looking at him severely, sometimes by speaking harshly and disparagingly to him, sometimes with kind words and promises. Do not always smack him, because he will grow accustomed to that kind of discipline. He will become used to continuous smacking will take no notice of it; then that method will have the opposite effect.
The child should always be afraid of being beaten, so that he will never have to be beaten…The threat alone will be enough, if the child believes that it will be carried out. If a child who misbehaves realises that you only threaten to punish him without actually doing so, he will ignore you. Let him expect to be punished, without actually being punished, lest he lose his fear of being punished. This fear is beneficial for the child, like the fire in the field that burns up thistles with their roots, or like the sharp axe that cuts deep.”
There are many forms of punishment, but basically the parent or teacher should not rush to punish the child because, as St John Chrysostom says, “Precisely this is the distinguishing characteristic of those bringing up and educating children: they do not resort quickly to punishment, but attempt to correct the child. They are always cautious about imposing punishment.”
All these extracts show how to bring up children. Only someone mature and complete can bring up children correctly.
The religious upbringing and education of children is a wide-ranging and interesting subject, and only a few points need be emphasised here.
When we refer to religious upbringing and education we are not talking about something vague and colourless. Above all we mean upbringing and education in the Church, in accordance with the aim of the Church. Education in the Church is linked with the Church’s sacramental and ascetic life. By “ascetic life” we mean the keeping of Christ’s commandments. Our endeavour to subject our own will to the will of God is referred to as asceticism.
Those responsible for bringing up and educating children ought not to restrict their interest to teaching children skills. They should also be interested in the children’s Christian education. The aim of such education is for a person to take the form of Christ, to become like Christ. St John Chrysostom says,
“Is it not strange that we send our children to learn skills and to school, and make a lot of effort for this purpose, but we do not bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord?
We are actually the first to reap the fruits of this, when we bring up our children to be impertinent, immoral, unruly and unkind. We should stop doing this, and listen to St Paul, who advises us to bring up our children in the training and admonition of the Lord. We ought to set them an example and encourage them from an early age to read the Scriptures…From the start you should bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. Do not imagine that listening carefully to Holy Scripture is unnecessary… Do not say, That is only for monks; I do not want to make him into a monk. There is no need for him to become a monk. Why are you afraid of something that brings so many rewards? Make him into a Christian.”
He goes on to suggest,
“Do not enquire how to help him make progress in secular studies or how he can become eminent. On the contrary, be concerned about how you can teach him to despise earthly glory. In this way he will become more splendid and more eminent…” “Do not struggle to make him an orator, but train him to be a philosopher. If the first does not happen no harm will be done, but when the second is lacking any amount of rhetoric will do no good.”
As well as sending their children to school, parents ought also to send them to Church.
“We send our children to school on the assumption that they will learn their lessons, and it should be the same when we send them to Church, or rather, when we lead them there ourselves. We ought not to give others the task of taking them. We should hold their hand and take them and ask them to remember everything they hear and are taught.”
Children ought to be taught to pray.
“Teach your child to pray with great zeal and contrition. Do not tell me that he cannot do it. He can, as he is intelligent, and physically and spiritually able. We have many examples of children praying in ancient times, such as Daniel and Joseph. Do not raise the objection that Joseph was seventeen years old, but consider the fact that because of his virtue he had already attracted his father’s love more than his elder brothers. And Jacob was younger, and possibly Jeremiah as well. Daniel was twelve years old when he prayed; so was Solomon when he made that magnificent prayer. And when Samuel was young he taught his own teacher. So we ought not to give up hope and imagine that young people cannot pray. What hinders prayer is not being young, but being mentally immature. Let the child learn to pray with great contrition and to keep vigil as much as he can…”
Of course, such things cannot be imposed, but parents and teachers ought to know that this is the direction in which they should be aiming. Particular care is needed not to provoke a reaction, which could have negative consequences for the rest of the child’s life.
We should also give children Christian names as an incentive towards virtue; not just names that are in the family, but Christian names so that they can imitate the life and example of the saints.
This is a wide-ranging, interesting and complex subject. There are other aspects that have been touched upon superficially or completely omitted. All the same, I think it has been demonstrated that the holy Fathers take a realistic view of the issue of bringing up children, and make a reliable and substantial contribution. Their words are beneficial and important, and we ought to take them seriously into account. We all want children to become good citizens in the community, but most of all good citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. The family ought to become an antechamber of the Kingdom of God, a Paradise and a Church within the home.
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, The Science of Spiritual Medicine: Orthodox Psychotherapy in Action
*The quotations from St John Chrysostom are taken from the book Goneis kai paidia [Parents and Children] by Fr. Philotheos Pharos and Fr. Stavros Kophinas, published by Akritas (in Greek)