“Man lives by reason, which can attain to prudence only after long experience, so that children need to be instructed by their parents who are experienced.”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles
There are various ways to understand the ‘goal’ in raising children. In examining the realm of human parenting in comparison with how other animals raise their young, Thomas Aquinas especially focuses on the human difference and the difference it makes.
The young of other animals need to be able to get by amid the dangers and other challenges of the environment in which they live. For human persons it is fundamentally different: it’s about human life in its incomparable richness. The flourishing and fulfillment of human life is in virtuous living, a masterpiece of rationality that can be achieved only when serious and orchestrated factors are brought to bear.
It is very instructive that Aquinas focuses on prudence as goal in raising children. Queen of natural virtues, prudence is the habitual capacity to deliberate and judge well about living a good life. Plato and Aristotle saw it as in a sense encompassing all the other virtues of good action. Josef Pieper writes, “Thus prudence is cause, root, mother, measure, precept, guide, and prototype of all ethical [moral] virtues; it acts in all of them, perfecting them to their true nature; all participate in it, and by virtue of this participation they are virtues.”
Aquinas’s point then gives concrete, practical direction to the whole project of household. Life in the home should be ordered especially in view of cultivating prudence in the children—not to mention the adults. This is a principle as challenging as it is instructive. There are at least two general things we might take with us from this.
First, there is an ‘education’ far more profound than ‘academics.’ Given the time and energy we put into getting children’s academics right, we can ask ourselves what we steps we are taking to cultivate prudence, also called practical wisdom, every day.
Second, if, as Aquinas suggests, the need for children to learn from parents extends well beyond their youth and throughout the whole of life, then spouses have a project that demands stage-specific attention that commences on their wedding day and endures and is adjusted through every day they spend together.
In this they are blessed to be united in an effort of incomparable profundity and consequence.
Image: Albert Anker (1831-1910), Switzerland
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