Classic Parenting: A Latin Home

The First Installment of our “Classic Parenting” Column, about Classics in the Home

Our twins communing with a mosaic of another set of twins, in Milan.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, is of a decidedly generous, philanthropic cast, seeing the good in almost every person who surfaces in its pages: except, of course, for his father. The father relationship for most people seems to be uniquely troubled. Goethe’s father appears in Goethe’s pages as remote, gloomy, opinionated, pedantic, and limited. But there is one bright spot:

In the interior of the house … [were] a series of views of Rome, which my father had placed in an anteroom. They were engravings bv some of the accomplished predecessors of Piranesi, who well understood perspective and architecture, and whose touches were clear and excellent. Here I saw every day, the Piazza del Popolo, the Colosseum, the Piazza San Pietro, the interior of St. Peter’s, the castle of Sant’ Angelo, and many other places. These images impressed themselves deeply upon me, and my otherwise very laconic father was often so kind as to furnish descriptions of the objects. His partiality for the Italian language, and for everything pertaining to Italy, was very decided. He often showed us a small collection of marbles and natural curiosities, which he had brought back from Italy. (Book 1)

I take several lessons from this passage (and from a larger reading of Goethe’s life). First of all, I think most children get a sense pretty clearly of what their parents hate. Most people are pretty hateful, and pretty public about it — a trip through Facebook on almost any day generally will give you a pretty clear idea of what your friends disdain— and children in particular are exposed to parents’ hatred all the time. People dread family gatherings at holidays not because someone in the family is going to rhapsodize about their Italian marble collection. It’s the hatred that is so toxic, and which people feel so entitled to impose on everyone else. And so I have a kind of philosophy of parenting: I want to share with my children what I love. I want to model for them how an adult loves: loves his spouse, loves his family, loves his work, loves his home, loves the world, loves people, loves things, loves life, loves God. And I know I can’t love everything equally. Some things I’ll love more than others. But I’d like my kids to know what I love and why, just because they’ve been part of our lives, and we’ve talked about them.

My mother tells me a story about her own father, that he would take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art frequently, and yet she never knew why he decided to do so. His own wife, my mother’s mother, had no interest and never came. He had only an elementary school education (he was an immigrant from Ireland), and hadn’t even gone to high school, much less college. What did he get out of seeing Canovas and Van Eycks with his daughter on his day off from work? “I never really knew why he wanted to take me there,” my mother confesses. “All I know is that it changed my life.” My mother ended up going to college, and majoring in art history. A father probably doesn’t have to talk about the things he loves, to make a difference in his child’s life: he just has to expose his children to them. But talking about them is useful too.

My wife and I have a peculiarly Latinish household: we met at Rusticatio Virginiana, a Latin-language immersion event run by SALVI. We both love Latin. And my career, both with SALVI and Paideia and several other teaching gigs in various places, allows me to inhabit that love of Classics pretty fully. We have been sharing our love of the Classical world with our children. They hear Latin in the house almost every day. There’s a Piranesi of the Temple of Neptune at Paestum in our cabin. We have First Thousand Words in Latin (recently edited by Patrick Owens) on their bookshelf. But out of all the niche parenting blogs that are out there, I don’t know of any Classical Parenting blogs. So I decided to start one myself (this is its inaugural post). There are a few topics I can imagine covering here: Mediterranean travel with children (our two-year-old twins have been to Italy twice already, and people are always asking us how we do it); speaking Latin at home; dealing with lots of children (we have three kids under three right now), which was the basic pattern in the ancient world; Classical themed toys; activities that work well with children; having a home that is cultured but joyous, and where children learn and get discipline but are also free and happy. Whether there’s anything to learn from the ancients about parenting is another interest as well. If anyone has experience with any of these things, please do consider writing for us: there’s space for guest columnists. Like all niche parents with blogs, we’re interested in comparing notes with other parents.

After many years of teaching, I have to confess that I believe all the more in parenting. For all the very best students I’ve ever had, I’ve been able to say: “I think these children learn things at home.” Their parents may not be teaching them Latin, but they’re teaching them something: their children are learning to cook, they’re learning life wisdom, they’re learning to fix things, they’re learning about books and ideas. In short, almost all of my best students have been people whose first classroom was their home. And one never knows what kind of effect this will have decades later. At age thirty-seven, when Goethe made his first trip to Italy, he wrote of his arrival as a realization of “all the dreams of my youth,” and he specifically recalls those prints he had seen in his childhood home. Goethe would remain in Italy for nearly two years, and would consider it one of the high points of his life — and a kind of fulfillment of his relationship with his father. I find this one of the most moving images of the tension between the generations resolved by shared love of enduring intellectual beauty. This is one of my great hopes as a parent: that my children one day will see past my faults, and find me redeemed somehow by the love I had in my heart, a love they have found a way to share somehow. This would be, I think, one of the things that would make me most happy, as a Classicist and as a parent. We’ll see how it all turns out.

Stay tuned for the next installment: we’re in Italy currently, on the road, and will be writing about Roma con bambini soon.

[For the second installment, see here.]


John Byron Kuhner is president of SALVI and editor of In Medias Res.