What can we learn about child-rearing from the ancient Greeks and Spartans? I teach seventh grade ancient civilizations and one of our most popular topics is ancient Greece. The students love mythology and we spend a lot of time comparing Sparta and Athens. The Spartans, a fanatically militant society known for their brutal physical training, which started at age seven for boys, differed sharply from the Athenians, intellectual powerhouses, known for their advances in the arts and sciences. While Athenian boys would have been leisurely strolling through the marketplace, led by Socrates or Plato in a discourse about the virtue of discovering the truth, Spartan boys would have been training to battle to the death—at least according to the adrenaline-fuelled blood-and-guts Hollywood hype that surrounds movies like 300. Since the Spartans themselves are depicted as unstoppable superwarriors, my students are mesmerized by their glamorized violent exploits. Consequently, they often dismiss the artistic and academic achievements of the Athenians.
However, the glamour fades when we discuss the Spartan practice of killing weak or sickly babies by throwing them off cliffs or leaving them to die of exposure. Unless a baby could grow up to be a strong healthy warrior or mother of a warrior, he or she held no value in Spartan society and was disposed of. As I tell my students, if my youngest daughter, Janel, had been born in Sparta, they would have left her to die.
When she was only three weeks old, we rushed Janel to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with potentially life-threatening meningitis. She had to endure an excruciatingly painful spinal tap to rule out bacterial meningitis, which can be lethal within twenty-hour hours.
So, what does this say about our society and how we raise our children? Perhaps a closer look at the Spartans and Athenians can shed some light on this.
While the Spartan treatment of sickly children can never be justified, their intentions weren’t inherently evil. The Spartans sought to strengthen and protect their society. Starting at a young age, upper-class Spartan boys began training for a lifelong career as professional soldiers. Hard physical conditioning honed their physiques, while they sharpened their minds through the study of literature and writing. They were taught obedience and service to their community. Above all they learned assertiveness, bravery, commitment to their fellow Spartans and to always put forth their best effort.
It was this do or die attitude that made them famous at the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans held off a vastly larger number of Persians, sacrificing their lives to allow the citizens of Athens to safely evacuate their doomed city.
And, while Athens is lauded as the birthplace of democracy, the privileges that entailed only applied to adult, native men. Women couldn’t leave home without a male escort. They weren’t even allowed to own property. Spartan women, on the other hand were allowed to freely mix with men in public. They were expected to stay physically fit, in order to produce healthy warrior babies. A Spartan woman who died in childbirth was granted the highest honors.
However, Athens shone in the arts and sciences. Athenians have been credited with the creation of theater and with significant advances in education, mathematics, science, medicine, philosophy, literature and sculpture.
Are the values of the ancient Greeks still relevant to our society today and should they inform how we raise our children?
Patriotism is instilled in our children. We celebrate national holidays with parades and fireworks. Most kids here in the United States start their school day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and learn about our government and history. But, for us, democracy includes everyone—regardless of gender, race, religion or socioeconomic status.
Service to the community is encouraged and organized by church youth groups, 4H clubs, scouting organizations, school sports teams and other programs. At some schools, community service is even a graduation requirement.
Physical fitness is promoted. Students take physical education classes at school and there are many different youth sports.
Bravery is fostered. We teach our kids to stand up for themselves, their beliefs and their friends.
Our children are expected to do their best. Parents and teachers are constantly pushing children to reach their fullest potential. We encourage young people to strive to develop their minds and bodies to the maximum extent possible. These abilities are often utilized in activities that were inspired by the ancient Greeks.
One of the greatest sporting spectacles of both the ancient and modern world, the Olympics started as a religious festival honoring Zeus. Held every four years at Olympia, the athletes expended their energy as a sacrifice to the god. Today, it brings together the youth of the world in a quest for gold and glory.
Greek theater originated as ceremonies conducted at religious festivals dedicated to Dionysus, but has now evolved into television, movies and YouTube videos. The rhythmic dance that accompanied early theater has grown into numerous modern dance forms. Even the simple flute, once used to set the pace for the rowers on Greek triremes (warships) has morphed into various instruments, used to perform a variety of musical styles.
Advances in science, maths, technology and medicine continue to proliferate exponentially. We build on the foundations laid down by Aristotle and Thales in the scientific method, those of Hippocrates in scientific medicine and those of Pythagoras and Euclid in mathematics. These foundations are expanded upon through STEM and STEAM curricula in our schools and summer camps.
Had we lived in ancient Sparta, Janel would have been thrown off a cliff. Instead she has grown into a vibrant, witty young lady who excels academically and enjoys reading, writing and music. She is a manager of the track team, plays the drums and has earned her black belt in Tang Soo Do. She is a loyal and supportive friend and is deeply concerned about social injustices. She has turned out to be an Athenian, who is as strong as any Spartan.