Aquinas on the Wilderness of Childhood

This article by Michael Chabon in the most recent edition of the New York Review of Books somewhat nostalgically muses on the adventures of childhood and whether the widespread desire to protect our children from the dangerous vicissitudes of modern life is making childhood a relic of a former world:

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors. . . .

This is the kind of door-to-door, all-encompassing escort service that we adults have contrived to provide for our children. We schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another’s houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between. If they are lucky, we send them out to play in the backyard, where they can be safely fenced in and even, in extreme cases, monitored with security cameras. . . .

Chabon wonders about the impact of overprotecting our children from the world’s ills is having on the imagination of our children, but I have a different concern. Chabon’s article got me thinking about how the overprotection, over-scheduling, and rigorous micromanaging of our children’s lives might be impacting their moral development.

For Aquinas, morality is primarily about the development of virtue. Virtues are simply good habits that incline a person to action, and specifically good actions. The English word for habit is misleading because it connotes something automatic, unconscious, and almost Pavlovian. We might say, “I have a bad habit of biting my fingernails when I am nervous.” The implication is, when I experience stimulus X (i.e. nervousness), I automatically respond with reaction Z (i.e. biting fingernails). This meaning of “habit” has a very different meaning than the sense in which Aquinas uses it. For Aquinas, the word habit is a metaphysical category that indicates a durable part of a person’s character, inclining the person to certain kinds of actions and feelings.

For his definition of habits, Aquinas draws heavily on Aristotle, designating habits as qualities with are (1) durable (meaning they don’t change easily), and (2) incline a person toward either good or evil. The moral virtues like justice, temperance, and fortitude are simply good habits.

So how do we get these habits? We develop virtue, says Aquinas, primarily through acting. We become just by doing just things like keeping our promises, returning things we borrowed, and giving our superiors the respect they deserve. We become temperate by not eating too much, not getting drunk, and enjoying sex with the right person at the right time. We become courageous by facing our fears.

But habits, and also virtues, are not just about right actions. When Aquinas refers to habits, he is not primarily referring to acts (like respecting our superiors), but rather the inclination to act in a certain way. That is, the habit of justice inclines a person to give respect to superiors when the situation demands it, or to return a borrowed item when the situation demands it. We develop the habit by acting a certain way, but the habit itself is not an act, but rather an inclination.

A virtue is not only a habit inclining a person to act in a certain way, but a habit inclining them to act in a certain way for the right reason. It is not virtuous for a person to respect their superiors because they feel obligated to or because they are feeling forced to, but rather because they want to. The virtuous person wants to do the right thing.

To understand this, imagine you are sick at home and bored out of your mind and your friend comes to visit. You, delighted to have company, praise your friend for his kind act. Your friend, however, dismisses your praise saying that he came only because he felt obligated. “I didn’t want to, but it was my duty,” he says. Would you think your friend virtuous? Probably not.

We initially learn how to do the acts that are conducive to virtuous living by following rules, by being taught by our elders (and especially our parents), but really structuring our lives. To some extent, kids need this. But the interesting thing about moral virtue, at least the way Aquinas conceives it, is that it ultimately has to be learned for oneself. We don’t develop virtuous habits by simply doing what we are told, by following the examples others, or by obeying rules.

Alasdair MacIntyre has a good way of describing this process in his monumental work After Virtue. He describes a child that is just learning how to play chess. His mentor gives the child a reward for obeying the rules and successfully playing the game. At first, the child plays for the reward, the little piece of candy that comes from doing what he is told. But as he progresses, he starts to play the game according to the rules simply because he likes to play. Virtue is a lot like this. We start off doing what we are told; we should end doing what we want.

So what does this have to do with Chabon’s article? The wilderness of childhood, at least as I see it, is meant to be a training ground for virtue. Children need the freedom to act on their desires, right or wrong, to develop the virtues necessary for moral living. They must be given the freedom, for example, to find what it is that they are afraid of so that they can face that fear, again and again and again, and maybe, if all goes right, become courageous in the process. They must have the opportunity to go to excess in food or drink or love so that they also have the opportunity to willingly and voluntarily moderate their desires for such pleasures. They must have the opportunity to be unjust—to cheat, lie, or steal—if they are ever going to learn to be just.

Every child is different. Every child has different fears, different temptations, different strengths and weaknesses. Children need an opportunity not only to explore the imaginative terrain of childhood, but also the moral terrain. Just like they need a chance to fall off their bike, they need a chance to stumble across a temptation, and resist it. They need to be teased by other children, so that they can learn on their own how wrong teasing can be. They need to be confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges and face such challenges on their own.

And they need to do these things without their parents breathing down their neck, without their parents scheduling every last moment of the day so there is no time for the kid to get into trouble, and without the parents constantly delineating rules to follow in any given situation. Childhood is a moral wilderness, and kids need to be free to explore if they are ever going to develop virtue.

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2 comments so far

  1. Scott on

    Nice post. There’s a counterpart to this whole thing, and that is that many kids, once they get into their teens, have very little meaningful contact with their parents at all. So they end up spending their coming-of-age years trying to invent morality on their own with their friends, instead of also sharing life with adults who can guide them.

    So I’d say a goal for parents might be to spend some good time with their kids every day, and also to let their kids have time of their own apart from grownups every day––and all this from maybe age 7 all the way through the teen years. Because however much we try to control them as kids, they’re going to be able to break free as teenagers.

  2. Scott on

    I wonder if these are mostly just bourgeois issues…


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