Coffee with St. John Chrysostom: An Interview on the Raising of Children

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

Don’t you just love it when somebody asks you that question, “If you could go back in time and have a conversation with any famous person from history, who would it be?”.  I never know what to say!  Well, now I do.  I have to share this with you.   I recently read (and re-read, and re-re-read) the most interesting sermon, written by St. John Chrysostom, regarding the bringing up of children. you can see the sermon in its entirety here: 

http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/books/Chrysostom--Vainglory_and_Children.pdf



As a mother, it fascinated me that this fourth century celibate man had such a firm grip on the timeless, daily, struggles of parenthood and that his advice was overwhelmingly spot on, in most cases…in my humble opinion.  :)

After having digested all the advice given, I began to daydream a bit about what it would be like if I were to to have had a real conversation with him on such a topic.  Just for fun, I’ve jotted down my impression of what this interview might look like.  I’ve quoted all his answers directly from his sermon, and it seems as if he’s anticipated all my questions! 

I think it would go something like this:


ByziMom:  Oh, St. John Chrysostom, please give me advice about my son.  He’s getting s bit older now and he’s begun to talk back to me whenever I give him instruction!  He doesn’t even speak kindly to his brothers and sisters anymore.  I’m at my wits end trying to get him to stop and be kind and respectful. I think he learned such behavior from his friends at school.  


St. JC:  What reason for insolence or evil-speaking should he have? He contends only with companions of his own age. Make a law straightway that he use no one in despite, that he speak ill of no man, that he swear not, that he be not contentious. If thou shouldst see him transgressing this law, punish him, now with a stern look, now with incisive, now with reproachful, words; at other times win him with gentleness and promises. 


ByziMom:  So, you do not advocate the use of corporal punishment, then?


St. JC: Have not recourse to blows constantly and accustom him not to be trained by the rod; for if he feel it constantly as he is being trained, he will learn to despise it. And when he has learnt to despise it, he has reduced thy system to nought.


ByziMom:  So you are saying that I am to speak authoritatively, but not act aggressively?  


St. JC:  Let him rather at all times fear blows but not receive them.   Threaten him with the tawse, but do not lay it on and do not let thy threats proceed to action. 


ByziMom:  He’s a smart boy and he’ll know that they’re only empty threats.  What then?


St. JC:  Do not let it appear that thy words do not pass the stage of threats; for a threat is only of use when attended by the belief that it will be put into effect. If the offender learn your intention, he will despise it. So let him expect chastisement but not receive it, so that his fear may not be quenched but may endure, like a raging fire drawing thorny brushwood from every side or like a sharp and searching pick digging to the very depths. Yet when thou dost see that he has profited by fear, forbear, seeing that our human nature has need of some forbearance.  Teach him to be fair and courteous. 


ByziMom:  I see.  So I’m to act tough, but not be tough.  I’ll not let him know that I won’t spank him, I just won’t.  I suppose that’ll be our secret, then.  How long do you think it’ll take for things to turn around? 


St. JC:  And do not, I pray, think that this takes a long time. If from the first thou dost firmly lay on thy behests and threats and dost appoint so many guardians, two months suffice, and all is in good order and the habit is firmly established as his second nature.


ByziMom:  Two months!  Oh that would be great.  Maybe then I can let him have his phone back by then.  Then again, maybe not.  His friends are such gossips!  All they talk about is who’s going out with whom?  He hears such crazy stories at school, and at his friend’s house, but this friend’s parents think such an attitude indicates their “independence and charisma”.  It’s tough enough navigating the conversations he’s having in his real life; having a phone to text his friends may be more trouble than it’s worth.  


St. JC:  Therefore let them not hear frivolous and old wives’ tales: “This youth kissed that maiden. The king’s son and the younger daughter have done this.”  Do not let them hear these stories, but let them hear others simply told with no elaboration. They can hear such from slaves but not from all. They must not be allowed to consort with all the servants, but rather let those who are participating with us in training stand out clearly, as though they were approaching a holy statue. 


ByziMom:  So you’re saying that I might not want to let others, like his teachers and babysitters, direct him?


St. JC:      If we were builders and were erecting a house for the ruler, we should not permit one and all of the servants to approach the building. Would it not then be absurd, when we are establishing a city and citizens for the heavenly King, to entrust the task indiscriminately to all? Let those of the servants who are well fitted take part. If there be none, then hire someone who is free, a virtuous man, and entrust the task especially to him, so that he may have a full share in the undertaking. Let them not hear such tales...thou art raising a philosopher and athlete and citizen of Heaven. 


ByziMom:  And what of the books he wants to read?  Such stories that are popular now glorify such crazy things like witchcraft and wizardry, zombies and vampires.  I’m not sure how I feel about reading such stories.


St. JC:  Speak to him and tell him this story; “Once upon a time there were two sons of one father, even two brothers.”...The elder was  tiller of the ground, the younger a shepherd;... And it came to pass that both wished to do honor to God. And the shepherd took the firstlings of his flocks and offered them to God.” Is it not a far better thing to relate this than fairy tales about sheep with golden fleeces? 


ByziMom:  So scripture stories are by far the best?


St. JC:    This is not all. Go, leading him by the hand in church and pay heed particularly when this tale is read aloud. Thou wilt see him rejoice and leap with pleasure because he knows what the other children do not know, as he anticipates the story, recognizes it, and derives great gain from it. And hereafter the episode is fixed in his memory. 


ByziMom:  Some of my children are growing up and may be tired of hearing those stories again and again.  I can hear them now, “I’ve already heard that one, Mom!  I’ve got the message!"


St. JC:  Then, when the boy has grasped this fully, thou wilt say to him again on another evening: “Tell me the story of those two brothers.” And if he begins to relate the story of Cain and Abel, stop him and say: “It is not that one that I want, ... “Hear what occurred afterwards. Once again the elder brother, like the brother in the former story, was minded to slay his brother, and he was awaiting his father’s death. But their mother, hearing him and being fearful, sent the younger into exile.”...And in a dream he saw a ladder reaching from the Earth to Heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending on it and God Himself standing above at the head of the ladder; and he said, ‘Give me Thy blessing.’ And He blessed him and named him Israel.”


ByziMom:  Yes.  I suppose there’s always a deeper message to grasp, isn’t there?  It amazes me how many levels there are to the meaning of these scripture stories!


 St. JC:   I have remembered opportunely, and the name suggests another notion to my mind. What is this? Let us afford our children from the first an incentive to goodness from the name that we give them. 


ByziMom:  Oh yes!  So many of my friends are expecting and ask for help deciding on a name for their child!


St. JC:  Let none of us hasten to call his child after his forebears, his father and mother and grandsire and great-grandsire, but rather after the righteous — martyrs, bishops, apostles. Let this be an incentive to the children. Let one be called Peter, another John, another bear the name of one of the saints!


ByziMom:  So, tell me, why is this important?


St. JC:  ...let the name of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children, to train not only the child but the father, when he reflects that he is the father of John or Elijah or James; for, if the name be given with forethought to pay honor to those that have departed, and we grasp at our kinship with the righteous rather than with our forebears, this too will greatly help us and our children.


ByziMom:  I know of many superstitions in some cultures about the naming of children, among other things.  What do you think of these superstitious practices?


St. JC:  It is a great disgrace and laughable when in a Christian household some Greek pagan customs are observed; and they kindle lamps and sit watching to see which is the first to be extinguished and consumed, and other such customs which bring certain destruction to those who practice them. 


ByziMom:  But what if you just practice them for fun, and don’t really “believe” in them?


St. JC:  Do not regard such doings as paltry and trivial!


ByziMom:  Some of these customs have been presented to my children in their favorite TV shows.  What do you think about television shows and films that are out for entertainment today? 


St. JC:  Here strict laws are needed, the first being: Never send thy son to the theater that he may not suffer utter corruption through his ears and eyes. And when he is abroad in the open squares, his attendant must be especially watchful as he passes through the alleys and must warn the boy of this, so that he may never suffer this corruption.  That he may not suffer it by his own appearance must have our careful thought. 


ByziMom:  My children might suffer corruption by their own appearance?  What do you mean?


St. JC:  We must remove the chief part of his physical charm by clipping the locks on his head all round to attain severe simplicity. If the boy complain because he is being deprived of this charm, let him learn first of all that the greatest charm is simplicity. That he may avoid seeing what he should not, those tales are sufficient protection which tell of “the sons of God that lapsed by coming in unto the daughters of men” (Genesis 6:4), and the people of Sodom, of Gehenna, and the rest. In this matter the tutor and attendant must exercise the greatest care. 


ByziMom:  I suppose those stories would tend to scare them straight, so to speak. The older they get, the more I worry about them understanding the need for purity.  I know their minds naturally begin to turn to things of this nature.  What can I do to keep them occupied and with a healthy mind set?


St. JC:  Show the boy other fair sights, and thou wilt steer his eyes away from those others. Show him the sky, the sun, the flowers of the Earth, meadows, and fair books. Let these give pleasure to his eyes; and there are many others that are harmless. This gate is difficult to guard, since there burns a fire within and, so to speak, a natural compulsion. Let him learn hymns. If he is not inwardly aroused, he will not wish to see outwardly.

Next, let us devise for him other harmless pleasures. Let us lead him to saintly men, let us give him recreation, let us show our regard for him by many gifts, so that his soul may patiently bear our rejection of the theater. In place of those spectacles introduce pleasing stories, flowery meadows, and fair buildings. And thereafter let us overthrow those spectacles by our argument, as we say to him: “My child, spectacles such as those, the sight of naked women uttering shameful words, are for slaves. Promise me not to listen to or speak any unseemly word and go thy way. There it is impossible not to hear what is base; what goes on is unworthy of thy eyes.” As we speak to him, let us kiss him and put our arms about him, and press him to us to show our affection. By all these means let us mold him.


ByziMom:  Ah yes!  the art of skillful distraction.  Is there anything else a mother can do to build in them a strong character?


St. JC:   There is another remedy yet. Which is that? Let him also learn to fast, not indeed all the while, but on two days of the week, on Wednesday and Friday. Let him visit the church. And let the father take the boy in the evening when the theater is ended and point to the spectators coming out and make fun of the older men because they have less sense than the young and the young men because they are inflamed with desire. And let him ask the boy: “What have all these people gained? Nothing but shame,

Furthermore, let him learn to pray with great fervor and contrition; and do not tell me that a lad would never conform to these practices. Certainly the lad would conform to them if he were keen-eyed and wide-awake. We see many examples of it among the men of old, for instance, Daniel or Joseph….Was not Solomon himself but twelve when he prayed that wondrous prayer (I Kings 3:6-9)? Did not Samuel when still young instruct his own teacher (I Samuel 3:17)? So let us not despair; for one who is too immature in soul does not conform even when he is an adult. Let the boy be trained to pray with much contrition and to keep vigils as much as he is able, and let the stamp of a saintly man be impressed on the boy in every way. If he refrains from oaths, and from insults when he is insulted, and from slander and hatred, and if he fasts and prays, all this is a sufficient guide to virtue.


ByziMom:  This is all wonderful advice!  Now, if I should raise him to adulthood, having kept him from these worldly ways, and he is not inclined to the monastery, but rather for marriage, do you have any advice as to his eventual taking of a wife?


St. JC:  If thou dost bring him up to the secular life, introduce his bride to him straightway and do not wait for him to be a soldier or engage in political life before you do so.  First train his soul and then take thought for his reputation in the world. Or dost thou think the fact of a virgin youth and a virgin maid being united is a trifling contribution to their marriage? 


ByziMom:  Of course not!  Being believers, my husband and I value purity very highly, but the rest of the world…not so much, I'm afraid. 


St. JC:  It is no trifle, not only for the virtue of the youth but for the maiden’s also. 


ByziMom:  So when my children, and their friends, ask us why this virtue is important, what do we tell them?


St. JC:  Will not then the charm of their love be wholly pure? Above all, will not God then be the more gracious and fill that marriage with countless blessings, when they come together according to His ordinances? And He makes the youth remember his love always. And if he is held fast in this affection, he will spurn every other woman. If thou dost sing the maiden’s praise for her beauty and her comeliness and all the rest, adding that “she will not endure to be thy mate if she learns that thou art slothful,” he will reflect deeply, seeing that his ultimate happiness is imperiled. If love of the betrothed induced the holy patriarch after he had been deceived to serve for a second term of seven years, to serve for fourteen in all (Genesis 29:20- 30), how much more must we. Say to him: “All that know thy bride — her father and mother, her servants and neighbors and friends — are deeply concerned for thee and thy way of life, and all will report to her.” 


ByziMom:  This makes sense to me. I always remind my own children that God has a spouse intended just for them, and these spouses are out there waiting for them and expecting them to be true to them, even when they don’t as of yet know who they are!  They need to be faithful spouses always!


St. JC:  Bind him then with this fetter, the fetter that makes virtue secure. Then, even if he cannot have a wife from his earliest manhood, let him have a betrothed from the first and let him strive to show himself a good man. This is enough safeguard to ward off every evil.


ByziMom:  So then, when they are older, reaching toward the maturity of married life, what wisdom should they strive to achieve?


St. JC:  The summit of wisdom is refusal to be excited at childish things. So let him be taught to think nothing of wealth or worldly reputation or power or death or the present life on Earth. So will he be sagacious. If we lead him to the bridal chamber with a training such as this, consider how great a gift he will be to the bride. Let us celebrate the marriage without flutes or harp or dancing; for a groom like ours is ashamed of such absurd customs. Nay, let us invite Christ there, for the bridegroom is worthy of Him. Let us invite His disciples; all things shall be of the best for the groom. And he himself will learn to train his own sons in this way, and they theirs in turn, and the result will be a golden cord.  Let us teach him to attend to political affairs, such as are within his capacity and free from sin. If he serve as a soldier, let him learn to shun base gain; and so too, if he defend the cause of those who have suffered wrong, or in any other circumstance. 


ByziMom:  So far we’ve been discussing my sons.  What about my daughters?


St. JC:  Let his mother learn to train her daughter by these precepts, to guide her away from extravagance and personal adornment and all other such vanities that are the mark of harlots.   Let the mother act by this ordinance at all times and guide the youth and the maiden away from luxury and drunkenness. This also contributes greatly to virtue. Young men are troubled by desire, women by love of finery and excitement. Let us therefore repress all these tendencies. 


ByziMom:  So it seems that for either the boys or the girls, a strong and serious nature should be cultivated.


St. JC:     Thus we shall be able to please God by rearing such athletes for Him, that we and our children may light on the blessings that are promised to them that love Him (cf. I Corinthians 2:9), by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be ascribed glory, power, and honor, now and for evermore. Amen.




***NOTE:***

I have been asked to point out that the children mentioned in the above interview are ficticious conglomerate characters who in no way resemble my actual, five, darling, young adult and teenage children, who are all a delight in every way and would never, ever think of speaking back to their mother. Thank you. ;)

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full text:    http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/books/Chrysostom--Vainglory_and_Children.pdf

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