Are the child’s spontaneous willing and acting morally significant? They certainly are not morally significant as actions done by free choice are. Children acting spontaneously do not determine themselves in respect to goods. For three-year-old Stephen to swipe baby sister’s bottle is naughty, not immoral. But there are two ways in which a child’s spontaneous willing and acting are morally significant.
In the first place, the child’s spontaneous willing and acting are specifically human. The action is voluntary. The child has a certain responsibility for it, diverse both from the “responsibility” of a pet and from the moral responsibility of a person who makes and acts on free choices. Small children are praised and blamed for what they do on purpose; these responses would make no sense were there no responsibility. Yet this responsibility is not moral responsibility in a full and proper sense. The child’s human acts are premoral, not so much in the sense that they are prior in time to moral acts, but rather in the sense that they are incipient realizations of the human person’s capabilities.
In the second place, the child’s life of human action cannot be understood in its full significance if it is viewed in an individualistic framework. The child acts within an acting community: its family. Its own spontaneous willing and acting are shaped to a great extent by the moral life of its family. The child, as it were, lives the life of a human moral person embryonically, exercising some functions for itself, depending for some essential functions—the free choices—upon those who are bringing it up. The life of the child is a participation in the life of its family. By way of this participation, the child’s life really has moral significance, although the child bears no moral responsibility for this significance until he or she begins to make free choices.
The Christian child, who has received the gift of God’s love, surely makes an act of living faith by spontaneous willing prior to its choice to affirm this faith—a choice which might not be necessary until adolescence. The child’s act of faith participates in the freedom of its parents’ and ultimately of the Church’s act of faith. With faith and love, the child can act for many human goods for Jesus. Children of three, four, and five live a Christian life which needs to be fostered.
Whatever spontaneous willing and acting make up the life of the child, whatever adult choices it participates in, and whatever Christian development it enjoys—these all provide the context for its subsequent full and independent life of Christian moral action. The self of the child is not determined by spontaneous willing as it will be by free choices, but such willing provides some experience of human fulfillment, and thus shapes the child’s later appreciation of goods and grasp of possibilities.
The adult choices in which the child participates constitute its existence in a moral community; the child must later either reaffirm or rebel against this existence. Such affirmation or rebellion will not be a choice without antecedents; in some way, it will be like an adult’s choice confirming or repenting of a previous choice of his or her own. The Christian development the child enjoys can unfold into a mature life of holiness.