Of Parents and Children, by Francis Bacon

'Children sweeten labors, but they make misfortunes more bitter'

Francis Bacon (1561-1626). (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

The first major English essayist, Francis Bacon published three versions of his Essayes or Counsels (1597, 1612, and 1625), and the third edition has endured as the most popular of his many writings. In an unpublished dedication, Bacon compared his aphoristic "notes" to "grains of salt that will rather give you an appetite than offend you with satiety."

As Harry Blamires has observed, Bacon's "magisterial air . . . can overpower" readers, and his "weighted prepositional certainties" are best taken in "limited doses." Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the essay "Of Parents and Children," the products of Bacon's "perceptive reflections are often memorably capsulated" (A Short History of English Literature, 1984).

Of Parents and Children

by Francis Bacon

The joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one, nor they will not utter the other. Children sweeten labors, but they make misfortunes more bitter. They increase the cares of life, but they mitigate the remembrance of death. The perpetuity by generation is common to beasts; but memory, merit, and noble works are proper to men. And surely a man shall see the noblest works and foundations have proceeded from childless men, which have sought to express the images of their minds, where those of their bodies have failed. So the care of posterity is most in them that have no posterity. They that are the first raisers of their houses are most indulgent towards their children, beholding them as the continuance not only of their kind but of their work; and so both children and creatures.

The difference in affection of parents towards their several children is many times unequal, and sometimes unworthy, especially in the mother.

As Solomon saith, "A wise son rejoiceth the father, but an ungracious son shames the mother." A man shall see, where there is a house full of children, one or two of the eldest respected, and the youngest made wantons; but in the midst some that are as it were forgotten, who many times nevertheless prove the best.

The illiberality of parents in allowance towards their children is an harmful error, makes them base, acquaints them with shifts, makes them sort with mean company, and makes them surfeit more when they come to plenty. And therefore the proof is best when men keep their authority towards their children, but not their purse. Men have a foolish manner (both parents and schoolmasters and servants) in creating and breeding an emulation between brothers during childhood, which many times sorteth to discord when they are men, and disturbeth families. The Italians make little difference between children and nephews or near kinsfolks; but so they be of the lump, they care not though they pass not through their own body. And, to say truth, in nature it is much a like matter, insomuch that we see a nephew sometimes resembleth an uncle or a kinsman more than his own parent, as the blood happens.

Let parents choose betimes the vocations and courses they mean their children should take, for then they are most flexible; and let them not too much apply themselves to the disposition of their children, as thinking they will take best to that which they have most mind to. It is true that if the affection or aptness of the children be extraordinary, then it is good not to cross it; but generally the precept is good, Optimum elige, suave et facile illud faciet consuetudo*.

Younger brothers are commonly fortunate, but seldom or never where the elder are disinherited.

* Choose what is best; custom will make it pleasant and easy.


More Essays by Francis Bacon

  • Of Discourse
    "The honourablest part of talk is to give the occasion; and again to moderate and pass to somewhat else, for then a man leads the dance."
  • Of Marriage and Single Life
    "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune."
  • Of Revenge
    "A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well."
  • Of Studies
    "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man."
  • Of Travel
    "When a traveller returneth home, let him not leave the countries where he hath travelled altogether behind him."
  • Of Truth
    "A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure."
  • Of Youth and Age
    "The errors of young men are the ruin of business; but the errors of aged men amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner."