Eastern church father John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) is best known for his eloquent sermons (more than 700 are extant), wherein he worked verse-by-verse through books of the Bible. In fact, “Chrysostom” is neither a patronymic nor a demonym but rather an appellation (meaning “golden-mouthed”) given to him sometime after his death. Today, among the church fathers, his sermons remain some of the most practically helpful and widely available.
In addition to his sermons, Chrysostom also wrote treatises on a variety of topics. For example, he wrote a short piece giving instructions to candidates for baptism and a bit longer and better-known work on the priesthood. A lengthy letter by Chrysostom to a young widow has survived. And although he never married, Chrysostom often addressed the topic of marriage and family life in both his treatises and his sermons.
One of Chrysostom’s most interesting works is a short treatise titled An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring up Their Children. (To the best of my knowledge, this is the earliest extant book on parenting written by a Christian.) While parenting is a theme that appears in a number of Chrysostom’s exegetical homilies, this treatise brings together ideas on parenting that are spread throughout the sermons he delivered over the course of many years. In fact, some scholars have suggested that this treatise itself may have been written as a topical sermon to be read aloud to a group of parents (e.g., Max Laistner).
Below are a few quotes from Chrysostom’s book on parenting. Twenty-first-century readers are unlikely to agree with every opinion in his book (or any other book on parenting for that matter!). But given that it was written more than 1,600 years ago, it is surprising how many of the issues and principles Chrysostom addressed are still relevant today.
The man-child has recently been born. His father thinks of every means, not whereby he may direct the child’s life wisely, but whereby he may adorn it and clothe it in fine raiment and golden ornaments. Why do you do this, O man? Granted that you yourself wear these, why do you rear in luxury your son who is as yet still ignorant of this folly? For what purpose do you put a necklace about his throat? There is need for a strict tutor to direct the boy, there is no need for gold. And you let his hair hang down behind, thereby at once making him look effeminate and like a girl and softening the ruggedness of his sex. Implanting in him from the first an excessive love of wealth and teaching him to be excited by things of no profit, why do you plot even greater treachery against him? Why do you excite him with the pleasures of the body? “If a man have long hair,” Paul says (1 Cor 11:14), “it is a shame to him.” Nature disallows it. God has not sanctioned it; the thing is forbidden. It is an act of pagan superstition. Many also hang golden earrings on their children. Would that not even girls took pleasure in these; but you inflict this outrage on boys.(Address on Vainglory 16)
The girl who has been reared in her mother’s quarters to be excited by female ornaments, when she leaves her father’s house will be a sore vexation to her bridegroom and a greater burden to him than the tax collectors.(Address on Vainglory 17)
Raise up an athlete for Christ and teach him though he is living in the world to be reverent from his earliest youth.(Address on Vainglory 19)
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.(Address on Vainglory 22)
It is useless to draw up laws, if their enforcement does not follow.(Address on Vainglory 26)
Never send your son to the theater that he may not suffer utter corruption through his ears and eyes.… Show the boy other fair sights, and you will steer his eyes away from the others. Show him the sky, the sun, the flowers of the earth, meadows, and fair books.(Address on Vainglory 56, 59)
…do not let him expect another to serve him in the bath, but let him do all these things for himself. This will make him strong and simple and courteous.(Address on Vainglory 70)
Someone has said that “parenting is a timed event with eternal consequences.” Chrysostom reminds us of the need to make the most of the time we have.