For those of us who homeschool our children, it is imperative to remember the goals toward which we are striving. What is it we are endeavoring to achieve as we educate and train our children?
As we answer this question, it is helpful to consider the answers of others who have gone before us, Christian and non-Christian. Among the latter group was the ancient Roman senator and statesman Cato the Elder, who lived during and after Hannibal’s attacks on Italy.
Cato is perhaps best known for his unflinching commitment to economy and industry both in private and in public life. He was a great politician – serving in various public offices throughout his life. But Plutarch tells us that Cato himself reckoned a man’s handling of his family more important than his management of public affairs. After all, a man’s treatment of his family was reflective of the way he would treat the state. And so he considered a good husband worthy of more praise than a great senator and maintained that he who laid violent hands on his wife or child, violated that which was most sacred.
In keeping with these sentiments, Cato took his responsibility toward his son very seriously, considering it his highest calling to train his son personally. Unlike many Roman fathers who preferred to observe their sons from a distance, Cato often joined his wife as she bathed and changed him as an infant. When his son was old enough to learn, Plutarch tells us that “Cato himself would teach him to read, although he had a servant, a very good grammarian, called Chilo, who taught many others . . .; [Cato] himself . . . taught him his grammar, law, and his gymnastic exercises.” And when Cato found himself in need of curriculum to teach his son the history of Rome, he himself wrote it out: “he wrote histories, in large characters, with his own hand, so that his son, without stirring out of the house, might know about his countrymen and forefathers."
Not only did Cato train his son intellectually, he also mentored him physically. As it came time for his son to train for war, Cato took the task upon himself. “Not only did he show him how to throw a dart, to fight in armor, and to ride, but to box also and to endure both heat and cold, and to swim over the most rapid and rough rivers.”
Nor did Cato overlook the importance of moral education and example. He was extremely careful “to abstain from speaking anything obscene before his son, even as if he had been in the presence of the sacred virgins, called vestals.” And he took the time to write a series of precepts for his son to guide him on the path of life.
As we examine the training that Cato offered his son, we see that it was full orbed – hitting all aspects of his son’s life – mentally, physically, morally. But the training was simply that – training. It was not the end, but a means to the end. Cato hoped to see cultivated within his son a desire for virtue that would establish him as a man worthy of praise in his own right. And indeed, “though delicate in health, his son proved a stout man in the field, and behaved himself valiantly . . . when his sword was struck from him by a blow, he so keenly resented it, that he turned to some of his friends about him, and taking them along with him again fell upon the enemy; and having by long fight and much force cleared the place, at length found it among great heaps of arms, and the dead bodies of friends as well as enemies piled one upon another.” Thus, Cato had the satisfaction of seeing his labors come to fruition when his son became an admirable soldier and later a fine jurist.
The Apostle John sets before us the same basic expectation for the training we offer to our children. “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.”