Raising Children According to Saint John Chrysostom

By Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis

1. A Classic Pedagogical Work.

The Holy Chrysostom, the fruit of Antioch who once glorified the Patriarchical throne of the capital of Byzantium, is rightfully included amongst the greatest pedagogues of all time.[1] 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.[2]

Chrysostom is the most prolific writer amongst the Church Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers. In the French monk Migne’s well-known series, the Patrologia Graeca [3]— a series composed of 161 massive volumes—Chrysostom’s writings occupy eighteen of them. Pedagogical counsels are scattered throughout this rich material. If these counsels were gathered together, they would compose an unparalleled handbook of Christian pedagogy. Such a work would be worth the effort, providing us with a presentation of sound pedagogical principles to guide the education of our youth.

Beyond these counsels scattered throughout the whole of his work, fortunately one excellent pedagogical treatise has been preserved which, from beginning to end, has as its aim to set forth principles concerning the proper upbringing of youth. Although the work in question has two titles, it is indeed only one text. In the manuscript tradition, it is called On Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring up their Children. Generally, however, it is known by the more concise title, On Vainglory and the Raising of Children. Just how vainglory is related to the raising of children we will see further on in our analysis of this excellent work. Well-researched studies suggest that this work presents the ancient, full and perfect Christian teaching with regard to education. It is a systematic exposition of Christian education; one of the most enlightening fruits of the Greek Christian soul, based not only in the Holy Scriptures, but also in the psychological and pedagogical teachings of the ancient Greeks, as well as experience.

It was a great misfortune for the study of the teachings of Chrysostom, as well as for the Church’s contribution to the formation of educational ideals and principles, that this book was not included in Migne’s great work, and thus it remained unused and unexploited. Although it had been published in 1656 in Paris by Combefis, who in the title of his edition described it as a “golden book” (De educandis liberis, liber aureus), questions surrounding the book’s authenticity raised by other researchers caused Mountfaucon not to include it in his edition and so, later, neither did Migne. At the beginning of this century, however, the authenticity of the work was firmly re-established. Amongst the supporters of the work’s authenticity we find the Greek academic, and professor of the University of Thessaloniki, Basilios Exarchos—one of the most dynamic and respected representatives of theological studies of our era. Exarchos supported his claim of the work’s authenticity in an expert study, [4] and he prepared a critical edition of the text which a German publishing house released in 1955.[5] Earlier, in 1947, the Greek publisher “Αστήρƒ published a translation of the work in Modern Greek, also composed by Basilios Exarchos. In the prologue to this edition he writes the following:

As the attentive reader will notice at once, this book’s contents have great worth pertaining to the raising of Greek Christian children. It was decided that in the Modern Greek Translation, it would be good and useful to extract all the critical apparatuses, so that the text might be published independently, allowing Greek parents who want to raise their children as proper Greeks and proper Christians to be fed and taught from this book by the Great Teacher John Chrysostom. The whole book has its basis in a hidden experience, that is to say whatever Chrysostom experienced as an orphan in his upbringing by his mother Anthousa. Therefore the book reflects a lived reality, a successful trial, and proof of the power of a Christian upbringing. If it is taken into account that our era is an era of reconstruction for our Greek homeland, then the importance of the present book is even clearer. Whatever attempt is made at social and economic reconstruction is condemned to failure if it does not originate in ethical, spiritual restoration and reformation of the soul of the new generation. Parents and teachers ought to undertake this work with faith, and ask for advice and direction concerning its execution. The contents of the present book are just this advice and direction. And so, that this advice might be used by every genuine Greek Christian parent and educator of children, it is here in simple Modern Greek, so as to be more widely read.

The work has also circulated with a parallel French translation, extensive introduction and rich annotation in a critical edition of the highest level as part of the series Sources Chretiennes, [6] and with a parallel Modern Greek translation published in the well-known series ‘Ελληνές Πατερές της Εκκλησίας.[7]

We will identify transcendent precepts within this exceptional pedagogical treatise, written by a great Orthodox Father, which apply in our own era as foundational educational principles. It is on account of this that we characterize the work as “classical”: because it is equally addressed to, and able to guide, today’s man. Moreover, in the conscience of the Church the Fathers are generally the classical teachers—the classical pedagogues—because with their rich educational armament, their outstanding spiritual gifts, and above all their expert vision (which comes from divine illumination—communion with God) they are able to penetrate the depths of human existence, pierce the mysterious and unknown realm of the human soul, and to find man’s dark and light side. Thus, the Fathers aid the dispersal of the evil elements, in the wiping out of darkness and in the strengthening and encouragement of the bright ones.

2. Raising Children: “Then” and “Now”.

To persuasively argue that the pedagogical ideas within 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 Chrysostom’s Antioch from the work which we consider here, as well as from other works of the same author.

Parents’ attitudes 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 will 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 worldly glory.

When, Saint John Chrysostom says, one hears parents advise their children to pursue education, their argumentation is as follows: Such-and-such with the education he received, while he came from poor and ill-reputed family, managed to become great and powerful, to attain lofty positions, to become rich, to marry a rich woman, to build a beautiful house and the like. Another, with the languages that he learned, took the best position in the palace and he administers all affairs. Parents set forth the successful in life as examples, “the blessed of the earth”.[8] 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.”[9]

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; forgivingness, weakness and humility, subservience.

Within this spiritual confusion nothing was clear and firm. The courts, the laws, nor even the schools were able to help. The rich bribed judges with money and teachers were only interested in their salaries. “There is no escape from this, neither with the judges, nor in the laws, not in teachers, or parents, nor in servants. Some can be bought off with money, while others care only for their salaries.”[10] As many as were concerned about this state were, either subdued by reassuring speeches, or they did not speak for fear of the power of the immoral.

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.”[11] 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.[12]

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 destroy 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.”[13] This necessary and cohesive “thing” is virtue, spiritual cultivation.

In addition to these two passions, another, equally or rather more dangerous for the easily-enflamed youth, dominated the educational climate. This is “sexual liberation” as we call it today, or in other words the excitement and gratification of the fleshly desires, the love of the flesh. The Holy Father hesitates to expound on this issue, on such a sacred element of human relations, which has been perverted, so perverted that fleshly relations between persons of the same sex were of fashion and yet did not provoke a reaction. Saint John, however, overcomes his wavering and his modesty to check and castigate the indifference of all responsible for education in the face of this reversal not only of ethical but also natural laws. Chrysostom wonders, together with many others, how God tolerates so much. He abides this degradation of man without having sent fire to burn the city of Antioch as once occurred in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Chrysotom places great responsibility for Antioch’s ethical wantonness in the hands of the theatre, whose programme principally covers 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 there is iniquity to the full, all sorcery, all shame,” he observes.[14]

These three loves—of money, of glory and of the flesh—dominated the spiritual plane of Chrysostom’s era, and they shaped the principles by which the education of youth was approached. These elements are considered in the treatise On Vainglory and the Raising of Children, which gives direction for the correct way of education.

3. The Social Environment: Vainglory.

In the first part of the work, concerning vainglory, shows that the education of youth is influenced decisively from the prevailing manner of life, from the way of life and of thought of the members of the group, within which the youth developed. In the climate of life of this group the youth breathed and developed, and unavoidably their ethical quality, their spiritual existence, they are determined by this climate. Chrysostom localizes the sickness to vainglory, in vanity that is to say, in erroneous perceptions concerning self-worth and in close with this inclination for exhibitions of wealth, of dress, of homes and of furniture.

It is reported in principle in continuation which had prevailed amongst the wealthy to do displays of their economic power, financing theatrical performances or organizing games at the hippodrome. The motivation for these was applause, the acclaim of the people, of glory. This antagonism in displays of economic power had extended to such a degree so that many purely for to not be defamed, went as far as bankruptcy and to poverty, scattering their money incalculably on these displays, the sign which existed the mob of men which died from hunger.

This inclination toward displays was not a feature of the few wealthy only. It had penetrated all levels of society. Even the poor cared to buy the best apparel, the best furniture and utensils, for to be exhibited. Yet they employed even a servant in the house, because they thought that serving themselves detracted from their social status.

Many, while they hungered, did not care for their nourishment above their social dignity, to show that that are “something”, that they are well-to-do. The ideal social type, the successful, the admirable, was not the virtuous man, the prudent, the spiritually cultivated, but the rich, the economically settled.

Saint Chrysostom is angered by this situation. All these 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. “...disregard of human values, embracing poverty and overcoming our nature by the virtue of our lives. It is these that constitute good place, and reputation and honor.” [15] It is the infusion of such vanity that affects the children and is the cause of the continuation of vice. It is at this point that Chrysostom, connecting vainglory with the raising of children, observes that the root of all vices lie in the fact that children have grown up in an unhealthy environment and are influenced by it.

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, and 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 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.

4. Timeliness and Education.

Saint John says that the souls of children are soft and delicate like wax.[16] 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. Malleable things take the form of whatever they are impressed with because they have not yet taken a stable shape. They resemble boards prepared to receive paint, or material ready to be sculpted. Much attention is required on the part of the painter if he is to produce a beautiful painting. With great patience sculptors must pull away all that is superfluous and add what is needed in order to achieve the result they desire. There is no more wonderful material with which to work than the souls of children. Parents create ensouled icons of God, living statues.

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 polity so that it is not destroyed by malevolent or anarchical factions.[17] Many factions, both good and bad, struggle to gain foothold, securing their dominion over the child’s soul. The parental task is that of putting 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 much more easily. With age, however, the task of ordering, of forming his spiritual world, become much more difficult.

5. 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. Chrysostom graphically represents this control as follows: In the spiritual polity of the child’s soul, the walls are the body and the gates are the five senses. All impressions and stimulants enter in from the outside world through the senses. If these 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 paper. 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 not the 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.” [18]

Particular care must be taken concerning what a child sees and hears. What 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 [19] - 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 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 shaper 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”.[20] There exist within the Holy Scriptures 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.[21]

6. Sexual Education.

What Saint John 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 interests 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, 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 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 allowing this, the most important, sacred and personal area 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 this holy, unique and personal bond between two heterosexual people has been reduced to one of many unions which they have had before, comparatively of course to the worst position, after it is joined with the problems of obligatory co-habitation and various engagements.

Children do not need to be taught about marriage. Nature is a self-sufficient teacher. We do not need to learn how to eat, how to drink and how to sleep.[22] 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 from the more suitable medium not only for confronting the problems of sexual desire but also for success in marriage.

7. Conclusion.

Gleaning only a few of the elements from 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 the 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 useful for all of us.


T.N. means Translator Note.

1. [T.N.] For accounts of the life of Saint John Chrysostom see Palladius. The Dialogue of Palladius concerning the Life of Saint John Chrysostom. trans. Herbert Moore (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge: New York, 1921) and Sozomen. ‘The Ecclesiastical History’ trans. Chester D. Hartranft in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume II (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1997) 197–427.

2. [T.N.] In using the work ελληνοχριστιανικού, Fr. Theodoros is not trying to paint Christian Orthodoxy as something exclusively Greek, he is, rather, highlighting that ‘Greek’ principles ought to be ‘Christian’.

3. [T.N.] ‘Patrologia Graeca’ is, translated from Latin, ‘Greek Patrology’. It is the standard and most comprehensive collection of the writings of the Greek-writing Fathers of the Church.

4. Β. Εξάρχου. ‘Η γνησιότης της πραγματείας Ιωάννου του Χρυσοστόμου περί κενοδοξίας καί ανατροφής των τέκνων.’ Θεολογία 19 (1941-1948) 153-170, 340-355, 559-571.

5. B. Exarchos. Joh. Chrysostomus. Uber Hoffart und Kindererziehung. Munchen, 1914.

6. A – M Malingrey. ‘Jean Chrysostom: Sur le vaine gloire et l’education des enfants.’ Sources Chretiennes 188., Paris 1972.

7. Έλληνες Πατέρες της Εκκλησίας. Τομ. 30.

8. Scriptures ??? (TBD)

9. Chrysostom. Προς τούς πολεμουντας 3. [4] PG 47

10. Chrysostom. Προς τούς πολεμουντας 3. [8]. PG 47

11. Chrysostom. ???? (TBD)

12. In Chrysostom. Προς τούς πολεμουντας 3. [4], he writes, ‘It is no less cruel if a father takes his hand, reaches back, and then plunges it into the chest of his child, than if he takes his soul from him. Nothing can be compared to the loss of the soul.’

13. Chrysostom. Προς τούς πολεμουντας 3. [9].

14. Chrysostom. Homilies on Matthew. 37. [8].

15. Chrysostom. On Vainglory. [15].

16. [T.N.] This analogy is presented in On Vainglory. [20] – [22].

17. [T.N.] This analogy is found beginning at On Vainglory. [23] and continues through the remainder of the treatise.

18. Chrysostom. On Vainglory. [30].

19. [T.N.] One might easily add computers and the internet to this list.

20. Chrysostom. On Vainglory. [38].

21. [T.N.] See Chrysostom. On Vainglory. [39] – [41]. In these sections, Saint John presents methods whereby interest might be generated in the great narratives of the Scripture, while at the same time educating the child in Christian virtue. Not limiting his advice to early childhood, he presents different methods of relating the same stories which he suggest will help maintain this interest as the child grows, and even help foster careful attention to the readings while in attendance at the services of the Church.

22. Gregory of Nyssa. Oration Two: On Virginity. [8] “...the common instincts of mankind can plead sufficiently on its behalf, instincts which prompt by a spontaneous bias to take the high road of marriage for the procreation of children, whereas virginity in a way thwarts this natural impulse, it is a superfluous task to compose formally and exhortation to marriage.”

From a forthcoming book of articles by Fr. Theodore Zisis, who has kindly granted the OCIC permission to post this pre-publication text. The final version will likely contain minor changes. Translated by John Palmer. Originally from Ζήσης, Θεόδορος. <<Η ανατροφή των παιδιών κατά τον Αγίο Ιωάννη Χρυσόστομο>> Ηθικά Κεφάλαια. (Θεσσαλονίκη: Εκδόσεις Βρυέννιος, 2002). 185-199. Posted March 24, 2009.