Whitefield Academy Blog
Saving Our Children from Narcissism
As a father of young children with an interest in history, I have often wondered how Christians in the past raised their children and what great church leaders taught about parenting. One Christian teacher who wrote extensively on the subject was Saint John Chrysostom, an Archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth century. “Chrysostom” was a nickname meaning “golden-mouthed,” a reference to the bishop’s skill in the art of rhetoric. He was a favorite of the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, who admired his faithful interpretation of Scripture in his many sermons.
Vainglory and narcissism
The best place to read Saint Chrysostom’s teaching on parenting is his “Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children.” It is likely that he delivered it to a group of parents among his congregation. “Vainglory” is not a very commonly used word today, and it may seem like a strange subject to connect to parenting. Chris Armstrong discusses the idea of vainglory in the book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, which Whitefield parents are reading and discussing with upper school teacher James Laney. Vainglory is connected to the vice of pride, but in particular it is unqualified pride. Vainglorious people seek to be seen as worthy of honor without actually attaining anything honorable. Today, we might liken it to narcissism. Chrysostom apparently had many congregants aspiring to wealth and status who were prone to selfish, narcissistic vainglory. Chrysostom implored his people to seek after the things of God which give eternal happiness.
Training children to avoid vainglory
What does this have to do with parenting? Chrysostom saw the way some parents raise their children as the primary cause of narcissism when the children grow up. He lamented the way rich fathers consider their sons’ clothes before their education.
The infant boy has lately 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? … There is need for a strict tutor to direct the boy, no need for gold.
Chrysostom uses a number of metaphors to describe the work of parenting. He tells fathers to train “athletes for Christ,” teaching children the discipline of following Jesus. He compares the parent to a painter who tirelessly returns to his painting day after day. Parents can to relate as they repeat the same instructions over and over to their children. A sculptor inspects his statue for areas which are naturally beautiful and accents them, while also searching for faults to correct. Similarly, parents should always be looking for their children’s gifts and helping their children use them well, while also watching for areas where their children can improve.
Two gates to our children’s souls
Chrysostom develops an extended metaphor of the parent as king of a city. A king guards his city, making laws, punishing evildoers, and developing his soldiers in discipline. Parents may consider their children’s souls to be newly founded cities whose citizens must be directed by good laws strongly enforced. He likens a child’s tongue to a gate, the busiest part of an ancient city. The gate must be strong, reinforced with “bolts of gold, that is, the words of God,” since according to the Psalmist “the words of God are…more precious than gold and a stone of great price.” As parents teach their children to memorize and recite scripture, they can think of themselves as building strong, golden gates to their children’s souls. Chrysostom quotes Ephesians 4:29, where Paul exhorts Christians to have “speech that is good for edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” The habit of reading and memorizing Scripture redirects our attention from ourselves and to God. Encouraging this habit at a young age will pay off later as our children grow into men and women whose thoughts are always returning to God’s word and his commands to love our neighbor.
The next “gate” Chrysostom discusses is the child’s hearing. Parents should guard carefully the things their children hear from themselves and from others they come in contact with, especially stories, which are so effective in captivating the imagination. In our day this would extend to television, movies, games and the Internet. Of course, the Bible will always be a ready source of stories for children, and Chrysostom recommended repeating Bible stories to children until they had been memorized, so that when they heard these stories expounded in church they could gain from them. But stories from outside the Bible should also be selected with care to be sure they communicate truth in accordance with Scripture. Many stories are harmful because they promote sinful behavior or expose children to subjects for which they are not prepared. Simply by choosing stories based on what will be most immediately appealing to children can encourage narcisistic attitudes as children detect that what is most important is that they are entertained.
Gentle but firm parenting
Chrysostom has several pieces of practical advice on the training of children. He advises against too harshly punishing children when they disobey. Children should be treated kindly so that they will accept training willingly and joyfully rather than with spitefulness or hatred toward their parents. At the same time, parents must enforce the rules they make for their children. If parents continually threaten their children without actually punishing them when they disobey, they will ignore the rules rather than develop the virtues they are being trained toward. Chrysostom passionately reminded parents that our children are our greatest responsibility, and raising them to be humble and Christ-like should be our greatest priority.
If you have a child who is preparing to enter Middle School and you’re wanting to protect them from the narcissim of today, listen to our webcast for how Middle School can be a place for your child to grow and thrive.