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Raising children according to Saint John Chrysostom


The Holy Chrysostom, the fruit of Antioch who once glorified the Patriarchal throne of the capital of Byzantium, is rightfully included amongst the greatest pedagogues of all time.


By Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis,

Professor Emeritus of the School of Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

A Classic Pedagogical Work

The Holy Chrysostom, the fruit of Antioch who once glorified the Patriarchal throne of the capital of Byzantium, is rightfully included amongst the greatest pedagogues of all time. Witnessing to this claim is not only his recognition as such in studies of his life and works, but also his association with education within Orthodox Tradition. He is one of the three hierarchs whom we celebrate in our schools on the 30th of January as patrons of learning, as models for pedagogues and teachers, and as conveyors and proponents of Helleno-Christian educational ideals…

Raising Children: “Then” and “Now”

To persuasively argue that the pedagogical ideas within St. Chrysostom’s work are timeless, it is necessary to briefly observe the spiritual atmosphere with which he is occupied–the spiritual atmosphere of Antioch in his era. In other words, we must note what educational ideals he set out for the youth of Antioch. If these provisions are similar to those which we give to our youth today, then also the critiques which this Holy Father presents are critiques of our own era and of our own pedagogical work as teachers and as parents. We will glean our knowledge of the atmosphere of St. John Chrysostom’s Antioch from the work which we consider here, as well as from other works of the same author.

Parents’ attitude toward the spiritual formation of the youth, of their ethical refinement, were marked by indifference. Their plans for their children’s futures were confined to professional success and prosperity. These goals are practical, materially-minded, and individualistic. Within this framework, parents were concerned to secure all material conveniences for their children. They paid no attention to the expenses, the toil and the sacrifices to find the right schools and the best teachers so that their children could acquire those provisions which would help them in their worldly life and career. The obsession with acquiring and enjoying material goods was the strongest motivating factor in the care for children. The youth were unilaterally treated as if they were bodily beings only, as if they had no soul in need of care. Children breathed of, and grew up in, this atmosphere of obsession with riches and worldly glory…Parents set forth the successful in life as examples, “the blessed of the earth.” In this manner these parents introduced into the malleable and receptive souls of the youth two great vices, two tyrannical loves: the love of money and the love of worldly glory or social status as we would say today. By this the youth were perverted and became materially-minded and vain. The perversion of youth is owed exclusively to the obsession for earthly goods, the great pedagogue observes. “The loss of children comes about through no other way than the obsession their parents have with earthly things.”

Parents, he says, cared only to secure riches, and clothing, and servants and property. The only thing they cared nothing about was spiritual cultivation, the cultivation of virtue and devotion. They thought virtues to be flaws and weakness. A complete inversion of values reigned. Vices took the names of virtues and virtues, vices. They called the love of glory, magnanimity, of gain, freedom; insolence was called frankness; injustice, manliness. Conversely, prudence was considered rudeness; tolerance, fear; justice, cowardice; forgiveness, weakness and humility, subservience.

Within this spiritual confusion nothing was clear and firm…According to Saint John Chrysostom, ethical wantonness and social unrest are owed to improper care for children, to neglect for their spiritual cultivation: “The downfall of society stems from this disregard for children. Many seek the preservation of their estates, but not the preservation of the souls of those in their care.” He does not hesitate to call this indifference toward the cultivation of virtue in the souls of children “criminal”. By their indifference, as many as infuse their children with tyrannizing passions, with vices which daily kill and their souls, commit infanticide–the murder of their own children.

Society does not suffer from a lack of shrewd businessmen or from a lack of the literate and educated. It suffers from a lack of virtuous men. It suffers because it has been flooded by the shrewd, who want nothing other than to increase in riches and to live the comfortable life. It suffers because the power-hungry, in their attempt to ascend, overturn order. It suffers because the acquisition of extravagant homes and comforts has become the sole aim of men. To this the illness of society is owed, these things destroys the harmonic social life, not those who live in virtue and holiness. “Those things which are considered superfluous and unimportant are the very things required for the course of our life.” This necessary and cohesive “thing” is virtue, spiritual cultivation.

Saint John Chrysostom places great responsibility for Antioch’s ethical wantonness in the hands of the theatre, whose programs and topics principally cover the matters of harlotry and adultery, pornographic themes. “For indeed both adulteries and stolen marriages are there, and there are women playing the harlot, men prostituting, youths corrupting themselves: all this is iniquity to the full, all sorcery, all shame,” he observes…

Saint John Chrysostom is angered by this situation, “All those things”, he says, “are external and of no benefit to the soul. These things do not define a person. The ideal man is measured by his virtue. Virtue is the source of human dignity, honor and glory.” He adds the need to “disregard of human values, embracing poverty and overcoming our nature by the virtue of our lives. It is these that constitute good status and reputation and honor…

From the moment of his birth, parents are willing to do everything for their child. Sadly, this “everything” often only includes adorning him, dressing him up, and buying him trinkets; however, it does not include seeking out the proper way in which to raise him. Rather than extracting vices from the child’s soul, they introduce the love of money and the care for things that are completely unprofitable. The great shame in this is that it is the childhood years, the early years of development, which are the most suitable time to implant either virtue or vice. It should be concluded then that parents bear great responsibility when they neglect to form their children properly.

Timeliness and Education

Saint John Chrysostom says that the souls of children are soft and delicate like wax. If right teachings are impressed upon them from the beginning then, with time, these impressions harden as in the case of a waxen seal. None will be able to undo this good impression…

Further on in the treatise, Saint John likens the soul of the child to a newly-founded city and parents are likened to the ruler of this city. It is their task to put in place laws and to organize its citizens so that it is not destroyed by malevolent or anarchical factions. Many factions, both good and bad, struggle to gain foothold, securing their domination over the child’s soul. The parental task is that of putting childhood laws in place for the new city–an easy task in the childhood years because children are both inexperienced and submissive and therefore are made to conform more easily. With age, however, the task of ordering, of forming his spiritual world, becomes much more difficult.

The Selection of Educational Influences

For the ordering of a child’s soul to be successful, it is important that particular care be taken to control what enters into it, what influences it is presented with. The selection of influences is vital. Saint John Chrysostom graphically represents this control as follows: In the spiritual constitution of the child’s soul, the walls are the body and the gates are the five senses. All impressions and stimulants enter inform the outside world through the senses. If the gates are left unchecked, and all manner of impressions are allowed to pass through, havoc will be wrought because the child’s ability to resist is limited.

One might ask, then, how is it that each sense is to be guarded particularly? What should the child see, hear, say, taste and touch? This will be the topic of the remainder of this article. The presentation of all the possible recommendations would be an enormous task, so only a few will be presented here.

Strictness is an essential element of success in pedagogical work. It must, however, be measured and consistent so as not to end in sheer roughness but neither should it leave the impression that it is only an idle threat. Continual beating, then, is notthe right way to impose punishment. The child gets used to being beaten, but is no wiser for it. The more appropriate method of imposing punishment is to make use of the threat of punishment, occasionally putting it into practice, so that the child fears the punishment and does not think that the threat is empty words. Continual strictness cannot be permitted because man, by nature, needs forbearance and tolerance: “Yet when thou dost see that he has profited by fear, forbear, seeing that our human nature has need of some forbearance.”

Particular care must be taken concerning what a child sees and hears. What Saint John Chrysostom says on this point is infinitely relevant in the raising of today’s children. All the mediums of communication and information–books, radio, and television–besiege the hearing and vision of children which are gates into the inner world of the child. These gates, left completely unchecked, will allow the entry of things of low quality or even ethically dangerous material.

As plants need more care when they are soft and delicate, says Saint John Chrysostom, so it is with children. We must be attentive to who they keep company with in order that we might control what is said in their presence and what they learn. We must not abandon them to just “anyone”, allowing that person to become the sharper of our children’s souls. They need not hear babbling and useless stories, for example. “This youth kissed that maiden. The king’s son and the younger daughter have done this.” There exist within the Holy Scripture engaging narratives which, if offered in the correct way, will captivate a child’s interest and will teach him virtue. Saint Chrysostom himself offers examples of how one might properly offer these stories.

Sexual Education

What Saint John Chrysostom teaches about the youth’s “sexual education” is also interesting, and is entirely at odds with today’s liberal and unbridled philosophies regarding the matter. Fleshly desire begins to appear around the fifteenth year of age and it attacks forcefully. It is only restrained with great difficulty. Children must, therefore, be kept away from obscene sights and sounds, which serve to excite this desire. As a counterbalance, to replace the above types of entertainments, we must shift children’s interest in other directions, toward trips and excursions, visits to cities and museums, and spending time with spiritual and saintly people.

In our era, the state of this problem is well out of control. If the shower of impressions and aggravations which our children are exposed to in the form of the prevailing shameless manner of dress, the provocative nudity of men and women which has developed into an institution, as well as the pornographic craze particularly of television channels and internet, are not enough, the wise pedagogues of our times–the destroyers of youth, actually–introduced “sexual education” classes into schools. The wise pedagogical tradition of our Holy Fathers advocates the control of irritants and impressions so that the youth, as calm and as undistracted as possible, can productively pursue their studies. This control also encourages that the enjoyment of the pleasures of this plane be left within the context of the blessed institution of marriage, which thus even on the natural plane remains a source of joy and delight.

Today’s uneducated educators forsake their responsibility to instill stillness in children even in school, where temptations and provocations ought to be kept away so that education might function as a good outlet and a place of study and learning.How many amongst these educators are spiritually cultivated persons, so that they might undertake this work soberly and responsibly? And how many parents are willing to allow this, the most important, sacred and personal aspect of their children, to be abused and perverted by the lips and teaching of just any teacher, who approaches this theme with his own bad experiences and perversions? What will remain for young people to learn and to taste within marriage, when they learn and taste it outside? For this reason marriage and family have lost all allure and attraction in our days, after all, this holy, unique and personal bond between two heterosexual people has been reduced to one of many unions which they have already experienced. This new union may be comparatively considered as even worse than the others, once the married couple starts to experience the problems of “obligatory co-habitation” and the various worldly obligations and family stresses.

Children do not need to be taught about marriage by teachers or experience it ahead of time. Nature is a self-sufficient teacher. We do not need to learn how to eat, how to drink and how to sleep. All others are from the evil one. Generations upon generations of men have married and made families successful and stable ones at that, without “sexual education,” which composes yet another torpedo to the foundation of education and the family. Finally, Saint John Chrysostom believes that marriage at a younger age is a very suitable medium not only for confronting the problem of sexual desire but also for success in marriage.


Gleaning only a few of the elements from Saint John Chrysostom’s pedagogical treatise, which has no equal in its wonderfulness and usefulness, displays the great sensitivity of the Holy Father towards the theme of the education of youth and his deep knowledge of these problems. The influence of environment, the timeliness with which education is approached, the way punishment is laid down, the selection of what youth see and hear, and caution in his sexual education are themes which today’s parents and teachers must also consider. The counsels of the illumined pedagogue are indeed useful for all of us.

[Source: Orthodox Heritage. Brotherhood of Saint Poimen]