Early Childhood Education in Early Christianity

And we’re back with more from The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being!

Arranged chronologically, the book is a source of what true education has been known to be – and ideas for how to impart it – since Ancient Greeks started philosophizing about it.

True education, noble and worthy training of the heart and mind, has been known by various names throughout the ages: liberal, humanist, classical. However, the aim has always been the same, even while the methods developed more slowly and with less attention (premodern philosophers were not as anxious about practical application as we are).

The aim is virtue.

So now as I read the selections from the early church period, when men were wrestling with the place of Greek learning in Christian thought (it’s always been a question, but one settled early on), that aim has not changed. We want to raise up children into virtue. Only now, after Christ, the lightbulb has been turned on, we no longer need to fumble in the dark for definitions for and examples of virtue. Christ is virtue, and our sanctification is to become more Christlike. If anything, this broadens education both in scope but also in base – it should not be for the elite only, but for every Christian, for every human.

Today I’m sharing quotes from Chrystostom, a church father and archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century.

He seems primarily concerned with early childhood education, with how small children are raised to understand not only fine literature and art (an assumption in decadent Rome), but also in virtue (a lost art).

Education begins at home, and it begins early – not with reading lessons and not with counting, but by example and through lifestyle and habits (i.e. atmosphere & discipline).

Virtue takes exercise.

Today many parents realize virtue – or character – is lacking, but they don’t know how to instill it. So, they fall back on what they know: programs, sticker charts, and maybe even flash cards.

That’s not how we raise our children in virtue.

It’s much more holistic and gritty than that.

In our own day every man takes the greatest pains to train his boy in the arts and in literature and speech. But to exercise this child’s soul in virtue, to that no man any longer pays heed.

Yes, it takes pains and it takes practice. It takes attention from us and it’s much more caught than taught – which means we need to be character-building ourselves as much as or more than our children.

Chrystostom then does explain how children are raised in virtue.

  • Virtue is learned by lifestyle & habits

  • Virtue is led by affections.

What does he love? What is he trained to enjoy? Will those things lead him down good paths or bad?

Not only can we educate to train tastes and affections, we can look at our children’s loves as a diagnostic. It might be painful, but it’s telling – much more so than any ability to spout a memorized definition or do a small deed for a sticker like a mercenary.

No, Chrystostom wants more for us and more for the children.

Raise up an athlete for Christ!

Virtue takes training & endurance. It’s hard, but meaningful and worthwhile.

It’s not something you can list in the objectives and mark off because you got it done today.

It’s athletic training, and it occurs in the midst of and even through the other work of the day: chores, reading, figuring, playing – nothing is exempt from the need to practice virtue.

All of life, every inch, is training ground.

If good precepts are impressed on the soul while it is yet tender, no man will be able to destroy them when they have set firm, even as does a waxen seal.

This is both our hope and our goal. We want to set our children in the way they should go.

Education takes attention.

Clearly, that’s no cake walk.

As you remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking, inspect them day by day, to see what good qualities nature has supplied to that you will increase them, and what faults so that you will eradicate them.

Education takes attention from the parent-teacher, as well as deliberation and considered action. There is no cookie-cutter formula to find and apply. There are principles to learn, that yet take wisdom to apply in the midst of the day-to-day.

Let us train boys from earliest childhood to be patient when they suffer wrongs themselves, but, if they see another being wronged, to sally forth courageously and aid the sufferer in fitting measure.

So, see, sibling squabbles and neighborhood friend drama is all part of their necessary training, not an inconvenient interruption.

Nothing, yea nothing, is so effective as emulation.

Yes, the best way to teach is to be and become.

Nothing, yea nothing, is so effective as emulation.

If we don’t want to be hypocrites and yet we want to bring up our children to virtue, what we must focus on most of all is growing in virtue ourselves.

Thankfully, this active homeschool life affords us plenty of opportunities to act according to virtue instead of our own selfish inclinations, as we also show our children the paths of virtue – we can and should walk them together.


Get more great quotes & recommendations at ladydusk’s Wednesday with Words!

My Book Bag

Current stack



Slow prereading:
Slow reading book club books:
(Mostly) Daily devotional reading (and listening)

2 Responses

  1. Michelle Franklin
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    Mystie?!
    How do you have so many books in your book bag?! I’ve recently been desiring a little self-education out of my normal comfort zone. I’m thinking Augustine or Chesterton?How do you decide what to read…and how do you read so much? I have four or five books going right now. I’ll slowly get through those; Ourselves by Charlotte Mason being one I’m trying to start.

    I’m just in awe of your current reads. I wonder how much you attribute this to being homeschooled or an English teacher?

    • Mystie Winckler
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      Ha! They’re all in my book bag, but I don’t read all of them even every week. The “slow reading” is serious. :)