Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Plutarch -- raising children

Plutarch wrote on the education of children, excerpts here. Sensible stuff -- I can almost picture a parenting book written using classical sources, and thinking it would probably be much more effective than 95% of the books written nowadays. Here's a bit that I'm clipping out because of my Big Question on compulsion, how much is too much, and how to "make honorable things pleasant to children":

I say now, that children are to be won to follow liberal studies by exhortations and rational motives, and on no account to be forced thereto by whipping or any other contumelious punishments. I will not argue that such usage seems to be more agreeable to slaves than to ingenuous children; and even slaves, when thus handled, are dulled and discouraged from the performance of their tasks, partly by reason of the smart of their stripes, and partly because of the disgrace thereby inflicted.

But praise and reproof are more effectual upon free-born children than any such disgraceful handling; the former to incite them to what is good, and the latter to restrain them from that which is evil. But we must use reprehensions and commendations alternately, and of various kinds according to the occasion; so that when they grow petulant, they may be shamed by reprehension, and again, when they better deserve it, they may be encouraged by commendations....

Again, therefore, I would not have fathers of an over-rigid and harsh temper, but so mild as to forgive some slips of youth, remembering that they themselves were once young. But as physicians are wont to mix their bitter medicines with sweet syrups, to make what is pleasant a vehicle for what is wholesome, so should fathers temper the keenness of their reproofs with lenity. They may occasionally loosen the reins, and allow their children to take some liberties they are inclined to, and again, when it is fit, manage them with a straighter bridle. But chiefly should they bear their errors without passion, if it may be; and if they chance to be heated more than ordinary, they ought not to suffer the flame to burn long. For it is better that a father's anger be hasty than severe; because the heaviness of his wrath, joined with implacableness, is no small argument of hatred towards the child.

.....The chief thing that fathers are to look to is that they themselves become effectual examples to their children, by doing all those things which belong to them and avoiding all vicious practices, that in their lives, as in a glass, their children may see enough to give them an aversion to all ill words and actions. For those that chide children for such faults as they themselves fall into unconsciously accuse themselves, under their children's names. And if they are altogether vicious in their own lives, they lose the right of reproaching their very servants, and much more do they forfeit it towards their sons. Yes, what is more than that, they make themselves even counselors and instructors to them in wickedness. For where old men are impudent, there of necessity must the young men be so too.


  1. Willa, this is soooo interesting! I think you should write a book about this! I find it fascinating to read what these Ancient sages had to say about education and youth.

  2. I agree with Faith. I think that these passages have really made these ancients seems so "real" to me because I can relate so closely to what they are saying.

    I must say, I never ceased to be amazed at how many people who should know what these great thinkers had to say about child-rearing better than myself actually have such different opinions.

    It is almost a lack of faith, isn't it? Just one more area where control seems like it would be best, but in reality, people are more prone to virtue by means of gentle persuasion.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!