This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The difference between childhood and adulthood

Something that is bound to come up in this discussion is the distinction between adulthood and childhood.

It is obvious that both coercion and compulsion are necessary to the education of children, but are they still necessary to the adult? Those find these things distasteful will inevitably object that once we reach adulthood, such pressures and interventions are an offense to the dignity of the ‘free will’ and ‘self-government’ of the mature being possessed of reason.

First, we respond that the distinction between child and adult is qualitatively real but, in daily life, it never altogether clear. We ignore this by choosing arbitrary timelines. This was helped in traditional societies by details rites of passage that reached beyond the merely legal and into the psyche of those who were ‘crossing over’, but today there is nothing of the sort. One day your are a ‘minor’ and the next you are sent off to war. Thus, we seem to pretend that beings populate different moral worlds based on an arbitrarily chosen date and time. However, if we set aside these confusions and admit that there is a very important distinction between the compulsion of children and of adults, we can say that it is more a question of degree and form than it is a question of presence or absence of external compulsion. There is a progression in things, and while it is not difficult (and in fact it is undeniable) to see that children are not adults, and that adults should not be treated as children, it is less clear exactly when this transition occurs internally and it seems to us that in many people it never does occur, at least not completely.

We are far from arguing that adults have no justification for demanding greater freedom, and we agree completely that a ‘paternal’ style of government is degrading. Nonetheless, we should not hastily assume that the fundamental means of spiritual education are discarded at some arbitrarily chosen age, for example after eighteen years. It would be more coherent to say that man remains perpetually in need of both internal and external forms of compulsion, but these must be adapted to his state and make allowance for his personal dignity, which in adulthood involves the use of reason, the taking on of series obligations, and, presumably, a more developed capacity for self-restraint and self-discipline.

Graduation into adulthood does not involve the abolition of all external forms of inducement. Compulsion that was valid in principle for the child does not suddenly become unjust in principle simply due to age. Rather the form of delivery and the origin of the will are changed so that great scope is given to adults and no single individual holds arbitrary sway over their actions.

The goal of childrearing is to spiritually educate the child to the point that they can spiritually educate themselves, and this implies the construction of a strong will proficient in all healthy forms of self-inducement. But when a parent succeeds, and the child becomes an adult, they do not suddenly become independent of all external educating forces.

As the individual transitions from the original society of the family to join the greater society of which the family is a part and begins to participate in its projects and activity and direction, parental compulsion transforms into broader social forms of compulsion. Law and custom are—if they are just—expressions of Divine Law and descend upon us via the authorities placed on earth for just that purpose. That is the objective aspect of social moral education. But we can also conceive of them in another aspect, as ‘externalized’ means of ‘self-compulsion’ utilized by a self-conscious collectivity to pursue the good. It is therefore short-sighted to act as if government cannot be an indirect expression of self-government, and to construe all its prohibitions and obligations as abusive and totalitarian, even if it is certainly possible for it to be that as well.

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