Ischomachus’ wife: “My mother told me that my job was to be responsible.”
Ischomachus: “Yes, my dear, of course, my father gave me the same advice.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager, VII
Her parents told her to be responsible. And his told him. We can presume the parents did more to teach responsibility than just give advice. Forming children to be responsible is a, if not the, central task in parenting. ‘Being responsible’ here means taking ownership and being careful to do one’s part, for the sake of the common good. To learn to be responsible one must be given responsibility. In pre-industrial-revolution households many things needed for human life were produced. There was thus much significant work—work that had an obvious and urgent connection with life—to entrust to the younger generation. Seeing with their own eyes the care-ful work of others, especially their parents, young people also had a pattern to follow. Finding a fitting context for teaching responsibility through work is more difficult in contemporary households.
But being responsible implies more than having a good work ethic. It requires having a heart for the common good—and its claim upon me. In other words, the truly responsible person is careful in his work precisely because he sees his work as contributing to something greater than his own needs and wants. What then forms children to revere and want the common good? William Cobbett wrote: ‘To have a dutiful family, the father’s principle of rule must be love, not fear. His sway must be gentle, or he will have only an unwilling and short lived obedience.’ Parents lead by the example of their love—a love the children should experience, should feel in the parents’ exercise of authority, and in the parents’ work. Christopher Lasch asserted that it is the task of the family to make a person ‘want to do what he has to do.’ It is easier to mold exterior actions than to mold the heart. It is the role of parents to do both at the same time.
Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we gain insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household.