Who Is My Child?
A mother leans over her baby’s bassinet. “There’s my little man whom I will love, take care of, and educate for the next 20 years. Who are you, little Peter, you whom God has confided to me?” In effect, this is a fundamental question. Who is this, this little man? From the response to this question depends the choice of education he will receive. If one responds, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that a child is good by nature, one will educate him according to the standards of our current society. The result is, alas, not very compelling.
From the Senses to the Intelligence
St. Thomas Aquinas borrowed from the Greek philosopher Aristotle when said that man is a “reasonable animal.” His mother protests “Little Peter is not an animal!” No, of course not! There is an abyss between a kitten and a man, the abyss of the intelligence. But little Peter still has a body and senses, and it is this that first solicits the attention of the parents; one must give him physical care, but since the very beginning, there are good habits which must be communicated to him. These are the first foundations of education: to have a regular routine for meal times and bed time, to learn to obey without crying, not to touch electrical outlets—and if he does, there will be a little smack on his hand—to sit up straight in a chair without squirming, etc.
It is of course understood that we won’t hold his development there because his intelligence and will must be formed. But it is only little by little that the intelligence will blossom. It is only little by little that Peter will acquire language, which is the tool of thought, a tool which will be perfected from infancy all the way to the philosophical dissertations of his senior year. It is only little by little that he will acquire the habit of judgment and reflection. He will have many sessions of trial and error before arriving at thoughts which are all his own. This is why it is necessary to adapt the education to the capacity of the child’s comprehension. In the beginning, it is the parents who will think for the child, because he is still incapable. It is useless to tell little Peter at three years old that he must eat his green beans because they contain the vitamins which are indispensable for his growth. It is much simpler: “Peter, eat your green beans. If not, you won’t have any dessert.” Period. The rest is superfluous conversation. That which Peter is capable of understanding at this age and that which he has need of learning are not the principles of nutrition, but that it is the parents who command and the child who obeys. Later, he will understand that it is all for his good.
Obviously, the more that Peter grows, the necessary explanations will need to be given to him. An adolescent does not obey simply because his father said so. But what he needs are explanations, not justifications. Authority does not have to “justify” in detail how well-founded are its orders. The father and the mother give their orders because they are the parents, because they are responsible before God for the children entrusted to them. But in order for these orders to be obeyed by the children, it is necessary to give them certain reasons, certain circumstances which surround them, in order that the child, who will become an adult in his turn, has learned to guide himself. “No, Peter, you are not permitted to spend the weekend with Kevin. There is a whole collection of video games that you would surely play. And you know very well what worth is found in those games. But you can invite him over to our house. He would be able to benefit well from a true family ambiance. A friendship’s worth is measured by the good that one exchanges.” This example would be the occasion for a serious discussion from the father with his growing son about true friendship.
Be careful! Even if he doesn’t yet know how to express himself well, the intelligence is still there and the small child understands what one says much more than one might believe. No commentaries should be made between friends about the children in front of the children, because they will surely be listening without appearing to do so. “Oh, dear friend, your little Agatha is so cute with her little curls and blue eyes! And you even made her dress! She is just so adorable!” Behold! Those comments have not fallen on deaf ears…alas!
From Sin to Grace
But we have not yet exhausted the entire description of the little man in saying that he is a reasonable animal. Peter is a son of Adam, marked by the consequences of original sin. It is also since his baptism that he has been elevated to being a child of God, elevated to the supernatural state by sanctifying grace and destined for eternal life.
Since little Peter has been marked by original sin and the tendency to evil that is to follow, this is seen, alas, rather early in his life; it is a truth of experience. The first tantrums manifest themselves quickly. From as young as six months old, the child is perfectly capable of making difficulties which are completely unreasonable: Emily cries the moment her mother puts her into her crib; one absolutely has to pick her up and she only sleeps when she is overcome by tiredness. John is very hungry for dessert, but not at all for spinach; he is extremely tired when it is time to clean his room, learn his lessons, or help his mother, but he finds all of his vitality again to play football or tease his little sister; there is an incredible capacity to invent lies to make himself sound important, etc. No, it doesn’t matter what Rousseau said, man is not born naturally good. It would be an absolute crime to let a child do exactly what he wants when he wants. Poor little modern children who have never had anything refused to them and who are nothing more than the object of their impulsions, of their untamed passions! Having become adults, they will clearly see that their passions destroy them (passion of laziness, impurity, ambition, alcohol, pleasure…), but enchained by 20 years of bad habits, they do not have the strength to resist themselves.
Luckily, the grace of God is strongly present in the little soul of the baptized, in order to heal, little by little, all of these bad tendencies and to elevate to the highest heights his destiny of a future inhabitant of paradise. A baptized child opens himself very quickly and spontaneously to the entire supernatural universe. Readily, he will blow a kiss to Jesus before bedtime, a sign of his future night prayers. There is, within himself, an entire supernatural universe where he dives head first. The stories of Jesus and Mary capture the soul opened by grace to the divine mysteries. The ardent practice of “the good” makes for a complete other motive, and how much more enthusiastically will the young soul respond to such a request as: “What are you going to do this year during Lent to console Jesus who is so sad because of our sins? Will you make an effort to clean your room every evening without me having to ask you? This will make Jesus happy.” To aid the missionaries, children can deprive themselves of treats and send the corresponding money, with the aid of their parents, for this or that mission in a poor country. To convert sinners or deliver the souls in Purgatory, children are capable of very great generosity. It is up to the adults to spark, encourage, and channel them. At baptism, this life of faith plants the seed in the soul and it needs abundant education to fully develop: good examples, family prayers, religious instruction, the reception of the sacraments…
Torn between so many contrary tendencies (animal…but intelligent; sinner…but supported by grace), how are we surprised that the soul of a child sometimes resembles that of a battlefield, where so many opposing tendencies clash? Here is where the entire balance of education is found. One realizes, after having become an adult, that a little man must fully comprehend that he is a general charged with combat. He must take to himself the proper account of his struggles during life in order to let grace triumph so that he becomes a saint.