Whither Childhood? Conversations on Moral Accountability with St. Augustine

[1] In his Confessions, St. Augustine tried in vain to understand where his infancy went. Did boyhood overtake it? Or did infancy leave of its own accord, and if so, “where did it go?”1 Were Augustine to write today, he would have only been more confused. Children like Jon Benet Ramsey sport grown-up costumes and flash “come hither” glances, while adults rifle the self-help sections of bookstores in search of their inner child. A father and husband wanders out of a marriage and family to find someone he should have located decades earlier: himself. He leaves behind children who have spent their childhoods parenting a parent. The Jonesboro shootings in 1998 prompted a Texas legislator to propose extending the death penalty to eleven-year-olds. Parents of two Columbine High School killers had no idea what their children were plotting. Too busy with their own lives and careers, they hadn’t been inside the adolescents’ bedrooms. Whither childhood?

[2] Sociologist John Demos argues that childhood can be studied as a mirror which focuses and reflects back the central issues of a culture.2 If he is right, what should we see in the mirror? We see a culture that deliberately blurs the distinction between childhood and adulthood. Ironically, the same culture obsesses over boundaries: boundaries between men and women in the workplace, boundaries between church and state, boundaries governing professional ethical conduct. Why then is this one boundary violated again and again, by children and the people who tend them?

[3] Augustine helps us understand what we see in the mirror. He repudiated romantic notions about the innocence of children, finding even in infants seeds of jealousy and selfishness that he saw in adults on a larger, more sinister scale. But children plainly fascinated him, and he observed them with a care and attention unusual for a man of late antiquity. More importantly, Augustine understood the seasons of human life, and he adopted a kind of graduated moral accountability appropriate to each stage of the life-cycle.

[4] Augustine spent much time in the Confessions probing the innocence of childhood, and his conclusion was resolute: “…where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent?”(1.7) He dismissed any claims for the innate innocence of infants and children. Nor did he come to the opposite conclusion, arguing for innate depravity. Between innocence and depravity, Augustine posed a third possibility: non-innocence. Any innocence in a squalling infant resided in physical weakness, i.e., in being unable to harm anyone else, literally, non – nocens, literally, “not harming.”3

[5] Following a common classical trope, Augustine proposed six stages of the human life-cycle, the first three of which are crucial to this discussion of juvenile justice: infancy, childhood, and youth.4 Infancy, the first stage, extended from birth to the acquisition of language. For Augustine, it was simultaneously the most treacherous and the most transparent stage in the whole of the life-cycle. He attempted to put this world without language into words, describing tenderly the smiles of sleep and the comfort of nursing. But the paradigmatic incident of this first stage of the life-cycle was a newborn’s jealous rage when, even after it had been fed, it saw another infant at the nurse’s breast.(1.7) Augustine judged the tantrum that followed unworthy of punishment: without language the infant could not understand the rebuke. But the incident embodied the non-innocence of infancy: a baby already fed and in no hunger still grasping for the breast.

[6] The acquisition of speech inaugurated the second stage of the life-cycle: childhood. The child could understand rules and verbal commands, and with this came greater moral accountability. Yet, despite this increased accountability Augustine could not condone the many beatings he had received as a child. He archly observed that both adults and children played games; yet children were the ones who got punished for playing them. “Was the master who beat me himself very different from me? If he were worsted by a colleague in some petty argument, he would be convulsed with anger and envy, much more so than I was when a playmate beat me at a game of ball.” (1.9) Though childhood was full of reprehensible actions, Augustine did not favor punishing children as adults. As children matured, the rationale behind the rules became clearer, making willing obedience a possibility.

[7] Adolescence marked the next stage of the life-cycle. It was the onset of sexual maturity; it was also the stage where reason began to take hold. Augustine recorded the pride his father Patricius registered at the city baths when he observed obvious signs of his son’s emerging virility. Yet, Augustine did not characterize this stage with some salacious sexual sin – but with the gang-theft of pears from a neighbor’s yard. Augustine remembered that “we took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs.”(2.4) The incident recalled the jealousy of an infant, already fed and angry because another nurses at the breast. Like the infant, these adolescents were not even hungry, but they bear increased responsibility for their action. An infant’s non-innocence registered an innate narcissism that wants everything for itself alone. A child erred in disobeying a verbal command. These youths did something they knew was wrong, and thus knowingly violated a basic code of human decency.

[8] The meaning of accountability shifted throughout these three initial stages of the life-cycle. While the infant’s non-innocence may be judged pre-moral due to its lack of physical strength, the child’s developing language skills conferred increasing accountability for behavior, which consisted in obedience to verbal commands. Adolescence heralded the emergence of reason. What had been a verbal command requiring external obedience was now internalized, and the youth faced even greater accountability for his or her behavior. With maturity and the acquisition of speech and reason, the non-innocence of an infant phased into increasing accountability in childhood and adolescence. Augustine lamented the harsh treatment of children. He focused instead on punishment appropriate to the child’s stage in the life-cycle, and he provided a template for understanding the various seasons of moral accountability.

Insights for the present:
[9] The Christian tradition inherits an ambiguous legacy from this long-dead saint, whose ideas continue to have impact today. I would not credit him with notions of innate depravity in children – but his thought certainly fed that fire.5 Let me conclude with three observations.

[10] First, Augustine marked clear boundaries between various stages of the life-cycle, finding in each levels of accountability and punishment that were stage-appropriate. Augustine lamented the sins of his youth – but at least he knew when it was over. I wonder if we today are so clear, and here I cite everything from the plethora of self-help books written to help adults locate the inner child to the ongoing debate, fueled by schoolyard shootings, about whether to punish children as adults.

[11] Second, though his understanding of a human nature saturated with sin may have fueled Calvinist and Puritan notions of innate depravity, Augustine’s own thinking on childhood was more nuanced. He refused the romantic option of seeing children as completely innocent, but he also spurned the cynics’ option of viewing children as miniature demons in need of discipline. Non-innocence fairly characterized his attitude to infants, with a graduated accountability as the infancy gives way to childhood, as childhood matures into adolescence.

[12] Third, Augustine was clear about the impact of sin even on infants. But he spoke entirely of personal sin, transmitted through Adam’s semen. What if he had paid equal attention to two other dimensions of sin, both of which impinge on moral accountability in children? What if he had attended to the sins of the parents and their impact on their children? I speak here of lapses in attention, care, and nurture, as well as the graver sins of physical and sexual abuse. The sins of the parents, great and small, are visited upon their children, from generation to generation. Statements from the Old Testament are less dire prediction than sad description of the way things are. Prisons are full of adults who suffered abuse as children – and then became themselves abusers. Children practice behavior they have learned at the hands of their parents and care-givers. There may well be a component of parent or care-giver complicity involved in assessing the moral accountability of children.

[13] In addition, what if Augustine had paid equal attention to second dimension of sin: structural injustice, i.e., the structures of injustice that mean an infant born into poverty will have a shorter life expectancy, a poorer education, and a greater penchant for petty crime than his sister born in the wealthier communities several miles to the east.

[14] I would wish for a juvenile justice system that could operate with the kind of graduated moral accountability that Augustine displays in his own observations on childhood. In addition, I would hope for a juvenile justice system that could see beyond his blind spots, acknowledging the deficits in upbringing and environment that impair the moral development of children.

End Notes

1 Saint Augustine, Confessions 1.8, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970), 29. All quotes are from this translation unless otherwise noted.

2 John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Puritan America (New York: Oxford University, 1970).

3 Gillian Clark, “The Fathers and the Children,” in The Church and Childhood, ed. Diana Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 23.

4 “Aetas,” in a Latin Dictionary, ed. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). See also John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 30.

5 For a more detailed investigation of Augustine’s thinking on childhood, see M.E. Stortz, “‘Where or When was Your Servant Innocent?’: Augustine on Childhood,” in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).