Much of the writing left to us is unashamedly concerned with the good, the true and the beautiful. These are themes which naturally touch on parents and parenting.

Greek philosophers taught much about virtues, how to foster them, and how to find happiness. Greek drama is virtually preoccupied with the parent-child relationship. Heroic parents and children stride through Homer's timeless poetry.

Nor are the Romans to be outdone. Cato, Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus, Seneca, and emperors Augustus and Marcus Aurelius are among the ancients who leave us in no doubt what makes a good father or a good son or daughter.

The great Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, wrote of the link between a virtuous life and happiness which has, until recently, underpinned the last two thousand years of education and parenting in the West. Now, most parenting authors are strong on "micro-parenting" – how to change a nappy, five ways to make eye contact with your child, how to know if your child is using drugs – but they seem to have forgotten the purpose of it all.

Aristotle told us, Happiness is the reward of virtue, but we now look for happiness in the things we do rather than in who we are.

Happiness and success have become synonyms. Does this have something to do with the dramatic rise in youth suicide? Few of today's parenting books write of virtues, or even strengths of character. Those that do paint virtues as rosy ideals or principles, not the feet-on-the-ground, well-grooved habits of action motivated by love for others that Aristotle wrote about.

Aristotle's warning, Good habits formed in childhood make all the difference, sounds authoritative. But do we, who live in the most affluent countries, at the most affluent tip of mankind's history, understand this? Spoiled children will not easily seek happiness in virtue, but rather in Nintendo and at McDonalds.

The child is father of the man, said Aristotle, reminding us that parenthood is a path of personal growth, and that the good or bad habits we acquire in childhood will stay with us. A child who has not learned to work hard or to respect others by the time he is 10 or 12 will have a rocky path through adolescence and is seriously at risk of falling well below his potential in life. Whose fault is that?

In the same vein, Plato praised spiritual paternity, saying that to raise children in wisdom and virtue is a far greater achievement than to bring them into the world. He wrote this thinking of his own teacher, Socrates, who was executed out of jealousy for his supposed corruption of youth.

Homer's Iliad, arguably the greatest poem ever written, tells of the Trojan war. But all the intrigues and bloodshed are eclipsed in the final scenes where King Priam implores the vicious Achilles to return the body of his son, Hector, whom Achilles had slain in battle. Achilles' thoughts go to his own father whom he will never see again, the opposing kings weep in each others' arms, and the body of Hector is returned for burial. A father's enduring love for his son overcomes the sword.

There are some wonderful writings on fatherhood from Roman authors. Cato the Elder was a Roman statesman whose reputation was founded on his concern for morality in Republican Rome, before the Caesars. He died in 149BC. Of his writings, perhaps the most famous is a collection of sayings he left for his son, the effort of a conscientious parent to pass on to his children clear guidelines for a moral life.

Many parents today will recognise, in Cato's advice, their own words to their children: Pray to God; Love your parents; Keep the company of good people; and, Don't drink too much.

Two of his maxims are remarkably applicable to today's school students: Keep what is given to you, and Read books. But others are perhaps less spoken of today, and therefore all the more missed: Preserve modesty, is advice better imparted before teenage egos are involved. Don't sneer at the poor, remains relevant in a world where the poor are getting poorer and we are told that the riches of the world's wealthiest 20 families would be sufficient to remove all poverty. Greet freely, refers to the forgotten art of making others feel welcome. Don't laugh at anybody, is good advice for our own dinner tables. And Study literature, is a timeless antidote to the Simpsons.

Of the 57 sayings, two stand out. Parentem parientem vince – Overcome your parent with patience – is a wonderful recipe to avoid arguments. And Convivare raro – Don't party too much – is good advice to kids in any civilization.

When the Emperor Augustus announced incentives that would encourage Roman couples to have more children, he said to the nobles: How can it be anything but a pleasure to raise up from the ground a child that has been born of the two of you, and to feed and educate it?

Augustus is said to have personally instructed his grandchildren in swimming and handwriting, and to have had them sit with him when he was travelling. He described children as a physical and mental mirror of their parents. Not only do parents live on in their children, but they read their own strengths and weaknesses of character in them as in a mirror.

Marcus Aurelius left eloquent instructions for fostering virtue. He too proclaimed, Life is short, but whereas Reebok adds the advice play hard, the emperor wrote, so keep thyself a simple and good man, uncorrupt, dignified, unaffected, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and manful in doing thy duty. I prefer Aurelius.

Cicero too wrote about virtue as a kind of health of the soul. He stressed that reason should govern all our actions, our emotions and our passions. How does this sit with the 1990s slogan, Just do it! Nike is an ancient Greek word, but that's where the likeness to classical thinking ends.

Perhaps the most enduring image of Virgil's epic, Aeneid, is of Aeneas fleeing from Troy with his father on his back:

Then come, dear Father. Arms around my neck:
I'll take you on my shoulders, no great weight.
Whatever happens, both will face one danger,
Find one safety…

Aeneas epitomises the best of Roman attitudes of filial respect. So often in this work he returns to the love of fathers and sons. For example, he describes the pride of fathers who are watching their young sons on horseback:

Then came
The riders, boys in even ranks, all shining
Before their parents' eyes…

He too stresses the need for fathers to be an example for their sons:

Learn fortitude and toil from me, my son…
For models in your family, let your father,
Aeneas, and uncle, Hector, stir your heart…

Finally there is Seneca, one of the most famous – and apparently most unsuccessful – teachers in history. As the wisest and most virtuous man of his day he was appointed tutor of the boy Nero.

We now think of Nero as a pyro/megalomaniac with vain pretensions to a stage career, but, to be fair, Nero did not have the best of starts in life. He lost his father at three. His brother stole his inheritance. And when his mother was exiled he was given to an aunt who put him in the care of a dancer and a hairdresser, two rather dubious professions to the classical mind. It is unlikely they would have passed a Department of Community Services inspection.

This was the raw material that Seneca was to educate, but all too late in the piece. For some years Seneca seemed to make progress, but after Nero came to absolute power at sixteen, his character took a turn for the worse. He finally murdered his dedicated teacher and Rome nose-dived into black years of mayhem and tyranny.

Perhaps from his experience, Seneca has handed down to us one of the most sensible of all writings on parenthood in classical times: Do not allow a child to throw tantrums. Freedom that is unrestrained, results in a character that is unbearable; but total restriction leads to a servile character.

 

He wrote about how important it is not to spoil children: If a child has always been given everything he asked for, if his anxious mother always comforted him when he cried, if his child minder always let him do what he wanted, then he will never be able to cope with anything unpleasant in life. Did he see these features in Nero, and fear where they were heading?

This is timeless advice. Yet how often do we find ourselves virtually bribing children to get them to do what we want? It is as if we want them to think that only material things will make them happy in life.

How much good it does a child to have to wait. If young children are taught to wait they will end up less prone to impulsive decisions, less likely to be ruled by their passions, and more likely to discover the happiness in life that comes from delaying gratification.

From these few examples it is clear that the classical world was in intimate possession of parenting know-how that is now largely lost.

Parenting today is at a crossroads. Much is at stake. Unless, like Augustus, we acknowledge the privilege of fatherhood, we will end up following not reason, but shallow feelings and emotions. The father-hunger we read about will work its mischief and more children will be denied what is their right – the dedicated love of a father who knows he has no greater work than this.

In his book, The Gift of Fatherhood, Aaron Haas points out that few fathers look back when they are 80 and wish they had spent more time working. But many look back with regret at their parenting. In the scheme of things, fatherhood should bring great personal enrichment. Parenting is not a chore to be minimised. A father who seeks to be the best example he can be for his child in everything will end up a better, happier man. This is the 2400 year tradition from Socrates.

At one point in the Iliad, before his last battle, Hector takes leave of his wife and son. He blesses his son saying: May people say… 'Here is a better man than his father'. Is there any wish deeper in the heart of a dedicated father? Homer knew it all in 800 BC. May we each be prepared to make it happen today.

Andrew Mullins is the Headmaster of Redfield College, a Years 2 to 12 boys' college in Sydney, Australia.

Dr Andy Mullins now works with parents and university students in Melbourne and teaches the Formation of Character course at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. Formerly he was headmaster of Redfield...