In a past issue of A Better Way I wrote an article on the Course's view of children. Though I hoped that article would be interesting and thought-provoking in itself, its ultimate purpose was to lay the groundwork for this article on parenting. I have been preparing to write about Course-based parenting for some years now. I have two children myself (a son, 9, and a daughter, 6) and, despite all my ideals and aspirations, my parenting is often anything but Course-based. My hope was that writing this article might help me get a better handle on how to carry out perhaps the most important job of my life.
But the childhood article had to come first, for I believe that the Course's picture of childhood is the foundation for its view of parenting. Once you understand that foundation, what is built on it can be seen as completely natural. Let us, then, review the conclusions I came to about childhood. I characterized the state of childhood as two things. It is a state of illusion, in which children are more in touch with their imaginary constructions than with reality. And it is a state of fear, because children are afraid of a big world they cannot yet handle, and are also plagued by their scary imaginations and their vicious thoughts.
In essence, the Course's view of childhood turned out to be unromantic in the extreme. It was poles apart from the common image of childhood innocence, and even further apart from the New Age view of children as magical beings who embody various spiritual qualities, qualities which have atrophied in adults. In contrast to these brighter pictures of childhood, one might easily see the Course's view as a real downer.
Yet here is my contention, shocking as it may seem: The Course's "downer" view of childhood is no news at all, not really; especially not to any parent. True, we may carry opinions about how pure, spontaneous, wise, angelic, and in-the-present children supposedly are. But do these opinions actually capture the emotional tone of our interactions with children? Are these opinions what we are really expressing in the day-to-day grind with our kids? Those of us who have small children often find our nerves jangled, our patience stretched and our temper slipping from our grip. We may even have fantasies of placing that grip around the necks of our angelic little cherubs. Is this our response to their innocence, or to something else?
My belief is that beneath any romantic opinions we may have about childhood innocence, we parents already get the picture. On the level of our day-to-day emotions, we already see childhood in much the same way that the Course does. And that is why we are angry. Whatever we say about childhood in our mushier moments after the kids are in bed and safely unconscious, what actually plays out daily inside our kitchens and living rooms and mini-vans is a mountain of intolerance for the state of childhood. We are pissed off because we see that children are pretty much as the Course describes them. They are often little despots who don't look out for the interests of others, but rather "scream in rage" (T-4.II.5:2) when they don't get their way.
In my eyes, then, the question is not the state of childhood. That is more or less a given. We are already responding to the state of childhood that the Course describes. The question is how we respond to that state. Right now, to one degree or another, we are inappropriately responding to it. Course-based parenting, as I understand it, is simply responding appropriately to the state of childhood. The rest of this article, including Part II in our next issue, will be devoted to explaining this concept.
Answering the need of childhood
I think we can boil down the state of childhood one step further and say that it is a state of need. If children are in a state of illusion, then they lack a sense of being in touch with reality. Thus, they need reality—to understand what is real. If children are in a state of fear, they are lacking a sense of safety. They need protection. Kids are veritable balls of need. They need to be provided with food, clothing, shelter, stimulation, affection. They also need all the things associated with growing up. They need to learn how to be coordinated, responsible, independent, fair, and considerate of the needs of others; in short, mature.
I particularly like the word "need" in characterizing children because it says two things at the same time. It says that children have all kinds of lacks, deficiencies, gaps to be filled. And it says that they need something from others. They need someone to help them supply their lacks, fill their gaps. Thus, characterizing childhood as a state of need points both to the child, as the one who needs, and to the parent, as the one designated to fill those needs. The parent's job, quite simply, is to answer the state of need that characterizes childhood. But how?
The passages in the Course that speak of parents and children are full of images of parents lovingly supplying their children's need. A few years ago I collected these together and started thinking, talking and writing about them as part of my own exploration of Course-based parenting. The more I sat with them, the more one thing stood out with increasing clarity. The parent depicted in these passages was different from me in one crucial, global respect. We both saw that children were in a state of need. From this common starting point, however, we went in dramatically different directions. More often than I cared to admit, I was angry at this need. The parent depicted in the Course simply met the need. He did not judge it, punish it, scold it, retaliate against it or in any way concern himself with whether or not it ought to be there. He simply took for granted that it was there. And he met it. For example, let's look at this passage from the Manual:
"This terrible mistake about yourself [the ego] the miracle corrects as gently as a loving mother sings her child to rest" (C-2.8:2).
I want to focus on the latter part of the sentence, the image of the loving mother singing her child to rest. The need here, of course, is a child's need to not fall asleep on her own. In my household, this particular need gives rise to the nightly "lay-lay" wars. As soon as my daughter hits her bed, she reaches out her arms and says, in a fairly authoritative voice, "Lay-lay!" Roughly translated, this means that my wife, Susan, and I should each, in turn, lie with her and sing to her for an indefinite period of time until she falls asleep (which sometimes takes more than half an hour). I will spare you a blow-by-blow account of the ensuing tug-of-war, but suffice it to say that both Susan and I have experienced a fair amount of irritation over this particular need, even though we generally love being with her.
Notice the contrast with the mother in the above passage. She has no resentment over the need. She has no frustration with the need's existence. She simply meets it. She gently and lovingly sings her child to rest.
This probably sounds like I am advocating a certain behavioral approach: "When your child has a need, meet that need." Your response might be, "Great! If I did that, there would soon be nothing left of me, except maybe a heap of dead skin and bones on the floor with little muddy footprints all over it!"
But a behavioral approach is precisely what I am not advocating. Almost everything I have read about parenting is about what behaviors to perform in relation to your children. Do you discipline them or let them have their way? Should you be strict or permissive? What kinds of things do you say to them and in what tone of voice? How do you deal with issues surrounding toys or food or siblings? While, of course, we do have to decide on the behaviors we will perform, behavioral approaches to parenting do not address the root of the problem. Instead, they leave the root of the problem in place, to be expressed through whichever behaviors we choose.
What is the root of the problem? In the Course, there is only one candidate for this: our perception. In this case, it is our perception of our children based on the state of need they are in. Let's look, then, first at how we generally perceive our children, and then we will look at a healed perception of children.
1. Seeing the state of childhood as a sin
We parents readily see that our children are in a state in which they need food, clothing, protection, education, maturity, rationality, responsibility, etc. One of our most basic responses to this state is to judge them for it. We judge their imperfect behavior. Due to their immature state, children are making mistakes all day long. They spill their milk, get their clothes dirty, leave their toys lying around. As they get older, these mistakes turn into staying out too late, not taking their schoolwork seriously, and denting the fender of the car. The fact that we judge these mistakes is revealed by our irritation and finally by our rage. These emotions betray the fact that we have interpreted their mistakes as, in some sense, sins.
We also judge their personality. We see them being selfish, irresponsible, whiny, and inconsiderate. And this causes us to frown on them. We urge them to be better and give them wise, patient lectures about this. But within minutes they are displaying the same flawed personality traits. Together, our judgment of their behavior and their personality amount to the fact that we judge their basic identity. We see that, as children, they are in a state of need, a state of deficiency, and we conclude that they are deficient; not just their personality, but their very being. We believe that something is wrong with them, and our responses to them show it. To say we see their being as stained with sin may sound harsh, but that is certainly what our emotional reactions reveal.
Yet there is another common parental response to our children's state of need. This is to delight in being able to take care of their needs. Now we have someone to take care of. We have a function, a role in life. Now we can feel valuable, needed. Being delighted that we can take care of their needs sounds completely opposite to judging them for having needs. However, if we look at it more closely, I think we will find that it ends up being the exact same thing.
If our meaning in life comes from fulfilling the role of caretaker, we will automatically assign a role to the one we are caretaking. Our child must let herself be taken care of, so that we can feel helpful. She must display a certain amount of gratitude, so that we can feel appreciated. She must be obedient, so that we can feel in control. She must become the person we have raised her to be, so we can feel successful in our parenting. She must be well thought of by the world, so that we, her parents, can feel that her standing has improved our standing. And she must have a good and happy life, for we could not bear it otherwise.
Yet our child will inevitably fail the role we have assigned to her, at least in many respects. Because she is a child. We are trying to have her meet our needs, yet she herself is in a state of need. That's what being a child is all about. And when she fails to meet our needs, when she fails to fulfill the role we assigned her, what is our typical response? We judge her behavior, her personality and her basic identity. Seeing that she is in a state of deficiency, we decide that she is deficient, that something is wrong with her, that she is stained with sin. As a result, to some extent, our love dries up.
2. Seeing the state of childhood as a call for help
I believe that Course-based parenting is based on one simple, crucial idea. Instead of seeing the needy state of childhood as a sin, we can choose to see it as a call for help, a call for love, for that is exactly what it is. You call for help when you need something that you cannot supply for yourself. Doesn't that idea capture childhood precisely? Childhood is a bundle of needs that children cannot supply for themselves. They therefore call to their parents to supply their need. It is not difficult, therefore, to see the entire state of childhood as one big call for help.
Childhood is also a call for love. Isn't the core need, the need behind every childhood need, the need for love? Isn't that the lack that children most deeply want filled? Isn't that what they primarily look to their parents for? Childhood, then, is both a call for help and a call for love.
That an attack is really a call for love is a familiar idea to Course students; so familiar that its impact may have worn smooth by now. Yet I believe that this single idea has power to transform our entire emotional orientation towards our children. Let me explain why. According to the Course, perception produces emotion. How we see something determines how we feel about it. Therefore, perceiving childhood as a state of sin will produce an unloving emotional response to our children. In contrast, perceiving childhood as a call for help means that it is not a sin. We will thus see our children as completely innocent. And innocence naturally evokes love; unfettered, untainted, worry-free, whole-hearted love. To put it another way, to perceive childhood as a call for love means to see that a loving response is what is truly called for. And if that is how we genuinely see things, then love is the response that will automatically and effortlessly come forth from us.
The practice of seeing childhood need as a call for love
It is one thing to say that we know that our children are really calling for love, but it is quite another thing to truly see them this way. For if we did, our only response to them, ever, would be complete love. And they would know it. Really seeing them this way, then, means reaching a whole different state of mind about them. It means a different state of consciousness, from which flow dramatically different emotions and different behaviors. It does not simply mean reading a concept in a book and vaguely, abstractly, "knowing" it to be true.
How, then, do we reach this state of mind in which we genuinely see childhood as a call for love? In my mind, the only way is frequent, regular spiritual practice of this idea, both when we are by ourselves and when we are in the thick of it with our children. To practice an idea, however, we have to have some rudimentary understanding of it. That is why the Text comes before the Workbook. So before talking about the practice of this idea, I want to explain it as a concept.
To do so, let me use an example. My daughter appeared at my office door shortly after breakfast today, said she was starving and wanted me to get something for her. I suggested some things she could get for herself. She turned up her nose. I suggested a couple of things she couldn't get for herself, but I could get for her. Neither of them she wanted. Seeing that this was getting nowhere and suspecting that she mainly wanted food because her brother was getting some for himself, I asked her to leave and go deal with it herself. Signalling her resistance to this idea, she grabbed ahold of my arm and wouldn't let go. I threatened her with a time-out, which finally expelled her from my office. I soon saw her playing happily outside and found out later that before going outside, she had gotten a little milk for herself.
My daughter was clearly displaying the needs that characterize childhood: the need for food and for someone to supply the food, the need to learn self-reliance, the need to be reasonable when someone is trying to help you, the need to leave people's offices when they ask you to, and the need to accurately discern if you are all that hungry in the first place. It was a veritable "needfest." That part is a given. That's what childhood is about. What was at issue is how I would choose to perceive her needs. I regret to say that I perceived them as a sin. How do I know this? I was irritated with her. It wasn't strong irritation, but the Course says that "a slight twinge of annoyance is nothing but a veil drawn over intense fury" (W-pI.21.2:5). My irritation implied that she deserved my negative emotions; she deserved some form of punishment. And only if she had sinned could she be deserving of punishment.
Oddly (or not so oddly) enough, even though I was at that very moment writing about perceiving childhood as a call for love, I forgot to practice that idea in this situation (perhaps you now can appreciate my need to write this article). However, had I practiced that idea, what exactly would have passed through my mind? I would have reminded myself that she was really calling for love. Whatever she said she needed (in this case, for me to get her the food), whatever she seemed to me to really need (for instance, to learn self-reliance), her real need was for love. Only love would satisfy her. Only love would make her truly happy. And so only love was her true need. This does not mean special love. It does not mean love that is based on her being my daughter, looking pretty and doing what I say. It means the Love of God. Only that Love would put to rest all of her myriad needs that cry out for fulfillment. Only in that Love would she be completely at peace. And if that is all she is calling for, that is all that is called for in response to her.
What one needs is what is in accord with one's nature. If God's Love is my daughter's only true need, then love must be her nature. Or else, how could love make her happy? And if love truly is her nature, then love is the only valid response to her, the only emotion that appropriately mirrors who she is. If I genuinely perceived that this is so, then love would be the only thing I was capable of feeling in relation to her. I would not even be capable of irritation. I wouldn't have to resist it; it simply would not arise in me.
Yet she doesn't know her nature. She is alienated from the love that she truly is. That is why she is in a state of need, a state of lack. She also doesn't know that her happiness will only come from the love that is her true nature. And so she constantly reaches out for things that are not this love, and reaches out for them in unloving ways. The result is that she does not find the love that she really wants. Thus, even though she is generally rather sunny and buoyant, she cries often, frequently gets angry, and is often in a state of actively wanting something that is not available. And even when she gets what she wants, it does not satisfy her—which is the proof that she is searching for something far deeper. But she can't find it on her own. Her state of unhappiness is thus a mute call for help. It says, "Dad, help me find my true happiness. I don't know how. I need your help."
Thus, if I had remembered to practice this idea, when she arrived at my door and stated her need, I would have reminded myself silently, "She is really at my door calling for the Love of God, the love that is her only need, the love that is her ancient, forgotten nature, the love she needs my help to remember." Or, to put it more briefly, "Her need is really a call for love." And if I truly let this idea sink in, I would not have seen her need as a sin which called for irritation, but as an innocent call for love and for help. And even if I had said the exact same things (which I probably wouldn't have), my real response, underneath the words, in between the words, would have been pure love. And she would have known it. Even if she went away with an empty stomach, her heart would have been filled.
Let me summarize, then, how I understand the idea of the call for love/help in the context of children:
- Children are in a state of manifold need.
- The true need standing behind all of their separate needs is the need for God's Love. That is the only thing that will satisfy them.
- All of their needs, then, are an implicit call for God's Love.
- If the only thing they are calling for is love, then love is the only thing called for in response to them.
- Put differently, if their only need is for love, then love must be their nature.
- If love is their nature, then love is the only response that fits them, that mirrors their nature.
- Children have forgotten the love that they really are and do not know how to remember it. That is why they are in a state of need.
- All of their needs, then, are an implicit call for help, a call to you to help supply what they lack, which is love.
This is the understanding that I am suggesting we practice. I realize it is a somewhat sophisticated understanding. This is true of all of the Course's ideas, which is why they take so much study. But when the understanding is clear, and when we then take that understanding and practice it in specific situations, over and over, the results can be life-changing. To experience some of the power of this combination of understanding and practice, you might want to apply the above points to a particular child. Pick a child you have a relationship with (as a parent or otherwise) and repeat the above points to yourself, silently or aloud, while holding this child in mind. Wherever the points say "children" or "they," say the name of this child. When the last point says "you," say "me."
If you tried that, I hope you felt your mind shift in the same way that I felt mine. If so, what do you think would happen if you practiced those thoughts all the time, if you practiced them whenever you felt anything but pure love for that child? Do you think it would make a difference in your relationship with him or her?
How, then, do we practice this idea? In my mind, this simply means consciously focusing on the idea and applying it on a regular basis to specific situations I encounter. To be more specific, however, I am seeing it in the following way:
1. Notice their state of need.
First, consciously watch your children for the needs you see in them. These might be concrete needs that they themselves could identify: the need for food, toys, entertainment, clothing, bathing, sleep, etc. Or the needs might be of the more abstract kind which only an adult would identify as a need: the need to be more responsible, more observant, more considerate, more articulate, etc. Simply look at the child and notice what needs he or she is displaying right now.
2. Watch your mind for your judgments about their state of need.
The second step is to notice any judgments you have about their state of need. If, for instance, you see your child displaying a need to not interrupt others when they are talking, what does that need evoke from you on an emotional level? Does it evoke a feeling of exasperation, impatience, irritation or anger? Does it evoke anything less than pure love? If so, you have judged that need as a sin. I suggest watching out for these judgments in two different ways. One is to do these two steps together. Notice your child's state of need and then search for any judgments you have about that state. The other is to place your mind on permanent alert for more noticeable judgments. This means being on a constant watch for feelings of anger, impatience and frustration in regard to the child.
3. Reinterpret their state of need as a call for love.
Finally, whenever you notice a need, and especially when you have judgments about that need, consciously reinterpret that need as a call for love. There are any number of ways that you can do this. You can use the lines I mentioned above, speaking them silently to the child:
Your need is really a call for love.
You are really calling for the Love of God,
the love that is your only need,
the love that is your ancient, forgotten nature,
the love you need my help to remember.
Or you could use the following thoughts which I have adapted from particular passages in the Course:
I will not hear your call for disaster and pain, [name].
Rather I will listen to the deeper call beyond it that appeals for peace and joy (T-31.I.11:3,5).
How wrong am I, [name], when I fail to hear your deeper call,
that echoes past each seeming call to death,
that sings behind each attack,
and pleads that love restore the dying world (T-31.I.10:3).
You are calling for the Help of God (T-12.I.6:11).
You are calling for the peace of God (W-pI.185.14:1).
You are calling for mercy and for release from all your fearful images of yourself (T-31.II.9:2).
You are calling my ancient name (T-26.VII.16:1-2).
You call to me in soft appeal to be your friend, and let you join with me (T-31.I.8:2).
You are calling to me to join with you in innocence and peace (T-25.V.3:4).
You always wanted to be part of me (T-31.I.8:7).
Your call is the ancient call to life (T-31.I.9:2).
Who calls on me is far beyond my understanding (P-3.I.4:8).
In your call I hear God's call to me (T-25.V.3:5).
"This calls for salvation, not attack" (W-pI.rII.86.4:4).
Longer morning or evening practice
To really anchor this practice in your mind, so that you can use it throughout the day, I suggest that you do some version of it when you are by yourself, especially in the morning and/or evening. My suggestion is to sit down for five to fifteen minutes and do one or more of the following longer versions.
The first version is to go through a list of needs you see your child displaying, inviting a changed perception of each need. First, call to mind a need you have seen your child display, either recently or frequently, a need that has evoked something less than pure love from you. A particular scene that exemplifies this need will probably come to mind. Hold this scene in mind and, while doing so, repeat silently:
1. "I have seen you display the need for___________."
2. "I have judged that need to be a sin."
3. "That need was really a call for love, for God's Love. I will be the one through whom He answers you."
Then call to mind another need you have responded to with less than perfect love, and repeat the process again. Keep repeating it for as long as you like.
A second longer version is to picture a particular scene in which you were angry with your child. While holding this scene in mind, go through the entire list of lines to repeat that I included above (beginning with, "Your need is really a call for love"). Say each line slowly to your child in your mind, letting the meaning of that line sink in.
A third version is to say the following prayer. I have adapted this from Lesson 231 to apply to your child rather than you. Again, say it slowly, focusing on your child, letting its meaning sink deeply into your mind:
How often should you do the kind of practices I am describing here? My suggestion is: The more often the better. A hundred times a day is not too much. Once a day is too little. How long should you continue doing it? My suggestion: until you have fully realized it; until the only response that ever arises in your mind toward your children is love.
This practice has only one immediate aim: to allow you to feel more true, unadulterated love for your child. Its aim is to help you become a more loving parent. That is all. It says nothing about how to behave, what to say or how to handle particular issues. It tells you nothing about what to do when your kid won't eat peas; nothing except the most important thing: how to transform your exasperation into love. Another way to say this is that it tells you how to forgive your child. And when all is said and done, when the kids are grown up and have left home, what stands in the way of parents and their children, like mountains of granite, are forgiveness issues. Long after the peas have disintegrated into dust, parents don't lie awake wishing they had found better strategies for dealing with their children's resistance to vegetables. They wish they had been more truly loving. They wish they had loved better.
When love is truly there—not the worried, judgmental parental concern that masquerades as love, but real love—then the child's core need is met. However, this one need does take many different forms in children, some of them quite concrete and physical. And so the form in which the love is expressed must match the form that the need takes. Thus, when your child says, "I am starving." You can't just say, "I love you," or the child will hear something quite different, namely: "I don't care about you." Part II of this article, therefore, will talk about some of the forms this love should take in response to the forms the child's need takes. It will address the question, "Once you have attained a truer, purer love (through the practice described in this article), what might your parenting look like from the outside?"
In that second part we will take a closer look at the Course's images of loving parenting in action. This will give us a sense of the various forms through which loving parenting will express itself. And it will also give us a better feel for the inner state that this article has aimed at facilitating.
In an earlier article entitled "The Course on Childhood", I characterized childhood as a state of manifold need. Then, in Part I of this article (A Better Way, issue #23), I said that in response, we could choose to see this state as a sin, or see it as a call for love and help. The first choice results in anger, disapproval, and frustration in relation to our children. The second choice results in love. Therefore, I laid out a spiritual practice designed to help one see childhood needs as calls for love. The goal of this practice was not to promote particular behaviors, but simply to awaken a state of love and forgiveness toward children. I then promised that in Part II, I would address the question, "Once you have attained this inner state, what might your parenting look like from the outside?"
To that end, I would like to present the Course's images of the loving parent. These images will give us a sense for how Course-based parenting would look from the outside. My purpose, however, in presenting these images is not so that we can simply mimic these behaviors. It is so that we can get a better feel for the state of mind behind them. That is what I would urge you to pay attention to. What is so touching about these behaviors is the love they express. The same behaviors performed without love would lack the most important ingredient, and would simply be an empty shell. For all intents and purposes, they wouldn't be the same behaviors at all.
The Course passages that contain these parental images are not meant as direct teachings about how to parent. Rather, they draw upon the image of the loving parent as a metaphor for something else, usually for how God treats us. As with all metaphors, they are calling upon something familiar (an image of loving parenthood) and using it to tell us about the unfamiliar (how God regards us). This implies that the author of the Course regards this idea of loving parenthood as the familiar. He assumes that when he paints a picture of a loving parent in action, we all respond with, "Of course that's what love would do toward this child!" I think he is right in this assumption. I believe that, despite our different opinions about child-rearing, we all recognize loving parenting when we see it.
And with this recognition, perhaps we all dimly understand that right parenthood is not really about particular behavioral techniques, about whether we are permissive or strict, whether we say the right words or use the right canned phrases. It is simply about being loving. That is the highest and purest legacy we can leave our children.
Guiding them safely along
The main theme of the first part of this article was seeing childhood lacks as calls for love instead of sins. That idea was directly inspired by the Course's images of loving parents. For that idea is precisely what we see in these images. The child is always in some kind of state of deficiency and need, yet the parent is never angered by this. He is never enraged over the way children are, never even a tad impatient. He takes it all in stride, as a matter of course. He simply recognizes the need and responds to it with love and help. To respond this way, however, he must be seeing the need in this way—as a call for love and a call for help. This pattern is clearly visible in the following passage:
"Lead our practicing as does a father lead a little child along a way he does not understand. Yet does he follow, sure that he is safe because his father leads the way for him."
"So do we bring our practicing to You. And if we stumble, You will raise us up. If we forget the way, we count upon Your sure remembering. We wander off, but You will not forget to call us back." (W-pI.rV.IN.2:5-3:4).
Have you ever tried to get a little child to walk with you somewhere? Children simply do not have that "point A to point B" mentality. They stumble. They chase after butterflies. They lag behind. They come to a dead standstill. They completely forget that they are going to a destination. It can be extremely exasperating. You may find yourself actively wondering why they can't just walk in a straight line. Your only choice can seem to be either angrily herding them along or letting them be children and wander all over creation.
The above passage expresses a third option. The father in this passage does not judge the child's inability to keep on the path. He accepts it as part of the territory. Neither does he glorify this inability, for it ultimately makes the child feel insecure. The child knows that on his own he would be lost. He is therefore counting upon his father to lead him. And this is exactly what the father does. He does not scold the child for his lack, nor does he celebrate this lack. He simply sees it as a call for help and responds with help.
With his father's loving guidance, the child feels secure. He knows that he is safe from being attacked or getting lost. He knows that if he falls, his father will be there to lift him up and comfort him. He knows that it's all right if he forgets how to get there, for his father remembers. He knows that if he wanders off the path his father will surely call him back. And when the father calls, the child does respond. He does come back. Why? Because his security lies in his father. Our passage says as much. It says, "Yet does he follow," and then gives the reason he follows so willingly: "sure that he is safe because his father leads the way for him."
Here, then, is the germ of an entire model for parenting. We see our child in need, in lack, but we neither condemn nor celebrate that lack. We simply respond with loving help and guidance, which over time instills in our child a deep sense of security. Our child will then willingly follow our guidance because he has learned that his security lies in us.
Protecting them from injury
As I observed in "The Course on Childhood," childhood is a state of fear. Of course children are afraid. Both physically and mentally they are not yet equal to dealing with a complex and dangerous world. Because of their immaturity, they not only cannot protect themselves, they will often inadvertently hurt themselves. One of the main themes in the Course's references to children is the parent's need to protect the child, to alleviate his fears and give him a sense of safety. We see this in the following two passages:
"Babies scream in rage if you take away a knife or scissors, although they may well harm themselves if you do not." (T-4.II.5:2)
"A loving father does not let his child harm himself, or choose his own destruction. He may ask for injury, but his father will protect him still" (M-29.6:9-10)
We will see other passages which imply that your job is to help your child feel emotionally safe. Here, the focus is clearly on physical safety. If your child is choosing injury, your job is to stop him. Even if he is angry with you once you have done so, that does not matter. Your job is still to stop him. Stopping your child against his will may feel difficult, but that is what "a loving father" does. In saying this, the above passage carries the implication that the overly permissive parent is not the loving parent. This raises a theme that we will see again and again: Don't be ashamed to be the parent. You are there to protect your child and thus alleviate his fear. If you abdicate your role, the outcome is obvious. Your child will feel deprived of a safety net and will live in constant fear.
Your responsibility towards your child's physical safety is echoed in personal guidance that Helen Schucman received. Helen was often concerned for Ken Wapnick's safety, as she felt that he was her spiritual son. According to Ken, Helen once said "that Jesus told her that she was not my mother in that sense, and so did not have to feel responsible for my physical well-being" (Absence from Felicity, p. 413). So Helen was not Ken's physical mother and was therefore not responsible for his physical well-being. This implies that if she had been his physical mother, she would have been responsible.
This may strike a Course student as odd. How can a parent be divinely appointed, as it were, to keep a child's body from being bruised, as well as the corollary, to keep a child's ego from being scared? The body and the ego are illusions. Wouldn't protecting them make them real? Actually, the case is the opposite. Jesus, in a passage in which he likens himself to an older brother who has been temporarily appointed as baby-sitter, says this: "I can be entrusted with your body and your ego only because this enables you not to be concerned with them, and lets me teach you their unimportance" (T-4.I.13:4).
Let's apply this idea to parenting. If we can keep our children's bodies and egos safe, that allows our children to not be consumed with trying to protect those things themselves. As a result, on some deep emotional level, they learn that the body and the ego are not the sum total of life. There are more important matters. And this prepares the soil of the minds for eventually realizing that bodies and egos are not real. Oddly enough, therefore, taking care of our children's bodies and egos is how we teach them the unreality of those things.
Working within their framework to guide them beyond that framework
"How can you wake children in a more kindly way than by a gentle Voice That will not frighten them, but will merely remind them that the night is over and the light has come? You do not inform them that the nightmares that frightened them badly are not real, because children believe in magic. You merely reassure them that they are safe now. Then you train them to recognize the difference between sleeping and waking, so they will understand they need not be afraid of dreams. And when bad dreams come, they will themselves call on the light to dispel them." (T-6.V.2)
In this situation, a very small child is caught in a terrifying nightmare, perhaps tossing in her bed. What do you, as a loving parent, do? You go to her and gently wake her. Yet even once awake she is still locked in her fear, for one so young does not really understand that dreams are not real. You need something that will break the grip of her fear, something that she can immediately relate to. Telling her that it was only a dream is not this something, because that is not a truth she understands as yet. So you tell her something she can understand. You tell her she is safe now, that the night has gone and the day has come. Only then, once her fears are calmed, do you explain to her that sleeping and waking are very different, that her experiences while asleep are not real and need not be feared. You then teach her to recognize when she is dreaming and even call on the light when she has nightmares, so that she herself can dispel them. Now she no longer needs to rely on you to chase her bad dreams away.
Notice the pattern here of a need that is not judged but simply met in love. Your child had a need: the need to not be afraid of her nightmares. In response, you did not condemn that need. You were not angry at her for thinking her nightmare was real. You were not impatient when her fears did not vanish immediately. You simply saw her need as a call for love, and moved to meet it with love. This released you from trying to impatiently chase the need away. You did not say, "You silly child. Dreams aren't real!" Instead, you worked to meet the need from within its framework. What love is expressed by being willing to work within your child's simple-minded beliefs! But your efforts did not stop there. Once your child's fears were calmed, you then explained to her that dreams are not real, and even trained her to dispel them herself.
Here, in your loving response, we see the whole journey of parenthood. You went from comforting your child by working within her naive beliefs, to finally training her to stand on her own two feet. You went from working within the state of childhood to guiding her beyond that state.
Let's look at a similar paragraph from the same section of the Text:
"A wise teacher teaches through approach, not avoidance. He does not emphasize what you must avoid to escape from harm, but what you need to learn to have joy. Consider the fear and confusion a child would experience if he were told, "Do not do this because it will hurt you and make you unsafe; but if you do that instead, you will escape from harm and be safe, and then you will not be afraid." It is surely better to use only three words: "Do only that!" This simple statement is perfectly clear, easily understood and very easily remembered." (T-6.V.3).
Here are some of the same themes we just saw. Parents have a teaching function. We must teach our children how to take care of themselves, how to avoid harm and find safety. However much popular wisdom may say that our children are our teachers—and even though they do present us with many learning opportunities—they are actually our pupils. They need our teaching and we must not be ashamed of giving it to them. Yet if our teaching is to be effective, it must work within our children's capacities. It is our job to allay their fears, yet if our teaching goes over their heads, we will instead increase their fears: "Consider the fear and confusion a child would experience…."
According to this passage, working within their framework means two things. It means teaching "through approach, not avoidance." And it means using very simple language. Yet we often do just the opposite. We emphasize what they better stop doing, and we speak in terms that are too adult for them: "You know if you keep doing that your eyes will stay crossed permanently and then you will wish you had never done that and you might even need surgery, so you really ought to cut it out." This kind of communication implies that the main priority here is the child's conformity to adult standards, not the child's own happiness. The Course, on the other hand, always depicts the loving parent acting with only one purpose in mind: the child's happiness and freedom from fear.
Helping them understand
In the earlier article on childhood, I said that childhood is a state of fear and a state of illusion. It should come as no surprise, then, that a parent's job is both to protect the child from fear and to help the child understand the difference between reality and fantasy. The following passage contains both elements:
"Children perceive frightening ghosts and monsters and dragons, and they are terrified. Yet if they ask someone they trust for the meaning of what they perceive, and are willing to let their own interpretations go in favor of reality, their fear goes with them. When a child is helped to translate his "ghost" into a curtain, his "monster" into a shadow, and his "dragon" into a dream he is no longer afraid, and laughs happily at his own fear." (T-11.VIII.13:).
Here we have a child in a state of illusion. He is seeing ghosts and monsters and dragons that are not there. His state of illusion is consequently inducing a state of fear. In this scenario, then, we have the essence of how the Course sees childhood.
What is your job as the parent here? It is to help the child retranslate; to help him differentiate between fantasy and reality, and so be released from his fear. But can you do this if you are annoyed with your child's misperception? You may be irritated because your child is too old to make such silly mistakes. You may be peeved because your child's nighttime fears are proof that you were right and he really has been reading too many Goosebumps books. These reactions will lead to some form of scolding your child for his misperception. You will not see the very simple truth: that his fears are a case of "distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help" (T-30.VI.2:7).
So here again we have an image of a parent seeing a child's need, and rather than judging the need, moving to meet it in love. He provides loving guidance in order to dispel his child's fear.
Refraining from punishing them
Every "do" implies a "don't." If Course-based parenting means seeing every deficiency as a call for help and responding with help, it also means not seeing it as a sin and responding with punishment.
In one passage, the Course mentions an encounter in which there is "a child who is not looking where he is going running into an adult 'by chance'" (M-3.2:2). This situation can become what the Text calls a holy encounter if a particular condition is met: "Perhaps the adult will not scold the child for bumping into him" (M-3.2:5). It then goes on to say, "Even at the level of the most casual encounter, it is possible for two people to lose sight of separate interests, if only for a moment. That moment will be enough. Salvation has come" (M-3.2:6-8).
The implication here is obvious. By the adult not scolding the child, the two of them can lose sight of separate interests and experience salvation. Clearly, scolding a child is not something that this passage is advocating.
"The Holy Spirit never itemizes errors because He does not frighten children, and those who lack wisdom are children. Yet He always answers their call, and His dependability makes them more certain. Children do confuse fantasy and reality, and they are frightened because they do not recognize the difference. The Holy Spirit makes no distinction among dreams. He merely shines them away." (T-6.V.4:1-5)
Have you ever found yourself rattling off a list of your child's mistakes? According to this passage, this frightens the child. Why? It makes her errors real and therefore makes them sins. It makes her a sinner. What does this passage advocate instead? It implies that you should make no distinctions among your child's errors. They should all be the same in your mind, all equally unreal. This does not mean that you don't deal with them in some way. It just means that even while your words are dealing with the errors, the love in your face is shining them away. I like the idea from "The Correction of Error" in Chapter 9: Even while your words may be telling someone he has done something wrong, your mind is saying, "You are right, because you are a Son of God."
Taken alone, the first two sentences of the above passage contain an interesting perspective on parenting. Boiled down, their message might be put this way: "Don't frighten your children by itemizing their errors. Instead, increase their sense of security by always answering their call." What would our parenting look like if this was our motto? We might even see this idea as the outer reflection of the inner perception I am talking about: seeing their needs and mistakes not as sins demanding punishment, but as calls for your help.
In Chapter 3 of the Text, Jesus has been speaking about the traditional Christian belief that God punished His Son for the sake of salvation. He then says that this idea has been used to justify our own cruelties toward each other, including toward our children:
"In milder forms a parent says, "This hurts me more than it hurts you," and feels exonerated in beating a child. Can you believe our Father really thinks this way? It is so essential that all such thinking be dispelled that we must be sure that nothing of this kind remains in your mind." (T-3.I.2:7-9)
If Jesus didn't support scolding, he is certainly not going to support beating. Obviously, he doesn't like any sort of harsh, punitive behavior toward children. He says this about the idea of fathers subjecting their children to cruelty, "Love does not kill to save" (T-13.In.3:2-3). What other stance would we expect Jesus to take on punishment? The entire Course rests on the idea that punishment is never justified. That is the basis for forgiveness.
Yet how does the message, "Don't punish," fit in with my earlier message, "Don't be overly permissive"? Parenthood itself seems to be a choice between these two poles, between stern punishment or loving permissiveness. Yet the Course does not seem to accept either choice. What is its way?
I have two insights to offer on this level. First, as a loving parent you do exercise your parental authority. You do take the scissors out of the infant's hand. You do stop your son from inflicting injury on himself. And, I believe, you do set clear limits, and you do let your child experience the consequences of going outside these limits. Not doing so would be like not taking the scissors away from the infant, or like leaving the front door open so that the toddler can walk out into the street. Remember how afraid children are. If you are not in charge, how safe will your children feel? The Course says that even God sets limits: "You cannot depart entirely from your Creator, Who set the limits on your ability to miscreate" (T-2.III.3:3).
Yet the spirit in which you exercise your parental authority makes all the difference. That spirit is what distinguishes punishment from loving correction. Punishment is administered in anger, even if the anger is covert. Punishment stems from the belief that a sin was committed and payback is needed, both to balance the scales of the past and to stamp out the behavior in the future. Even if you give your child enlightened, logical consequences, if you do so in anger, it is punishment. Yet the same behavior would not be punishment if it carried the message, "It was just an innocent mistake. I love you and I trust you to learn a better way."
My second insight is more important: You don't rely on consequences as the main way in which you teach your child. You instead rely on overt acts of love. Think about the images from the Course we have seen:
- Guiding a child along a way he does not understand.
- Protecting a child from harming himself.
- Keeping a child's body and ego safe from threat.
- Comforting a child when she has nightmares, and teaching her how to free herself from their terror.
- Teaching a child in simple language what to do to be safe.
- Teaching a child how to reinterpret what he perceives so that he need no longer be afraid of it.
- Answering a child's call.
Now, I have no doubt that allowing your child to experience the negative consequences of his own wrong choices is part of his learning process. After all, that is a great deal of how we learn. But isn't it striking that in the Course's depictions of loving parents there is not one single image of this? Instead, one after another, we are shown pictures of unmistakable acts of love. We see parents guiding, comforting, protecting, teaching, answering. This is clearly how the Course sees the act of parenting. Its emphasis is not at all on parents deconditioning wrong behaviors through wise and compassionate discipline (even though one assumes that this must be part of the picture). The emphasis is entirely on parents releasing their children from fear through the constant and visible demonstration of love.
This emphasis is mirrored in the Course's teaching about how we ourselves learn. It says that we learn through both negative consequences and joyous ones. But its emphasis is clearly on learning through the latter, as we see in this passage:
"There is no need to learn through pain. And gentle lessons are acquired joyously, and are remembered gladly." (T-21.I.3:1-2)
This passage sounds a great deal like one we already explored: "A wise teacher teaches through approach, not avoidance" (T-6.V.3:1). And this calls to mind that famous passage which, as we now can see, applies perfectly to parenting: "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2).
This implies a revolution in how we think about parenting. We normally think that the way to correct a certain behavior is through a particular consequence or lecture (or series of such) aimed at extinguishing that behavior. Yet that is teaching through avoidance. It says loudly, "Avoid this!" Instead, I see the Course saying that the way to correct that behavior is through a life filled with the continual expression of love. Then your child will follow you willingly and gladly, just as the child in the earlier passage followed his father along the path, for he will know his security lies in you and your love. And your goal will not really be to correct a behavior. It will be to release your child from fear through the steady light of your love.
This is the message that I am taking away from the material we have explored. I am realizing that I must assign a new purpose to my interaction with my children. Rather than to control their behavior, my purpose must be to release them from fear through my love. And I must endeavor to demonstrate this love in tangible and obvious ways all through the day. In addition to this message, I am taking away a single persistent question: Could it be that everything I have been trying to accomplish through consequences and discipline I can accomplish through love?
Having said all that, I hasten to add that, until we reach that place of genuine love, we may have to keep administering consequences. The Course contains some similar counsel. It says that until we can accept the healing of our body through miracles, we should go ahead and use conventional medicine. So don't be afraid to give your children some conventional "medicine," but work toward the day when the miracle of your love is all they need.
The images we have seen can be summed up quite simply: Childhood is a state of manifold need. Parents are there to answer that need through tangible acts of love and help. Their job is not to punish the deficiencies nor to itemize the errors that are an inherent part of childhood. They must teach through approach, not through avoidance; through love, not through fear. Quite simply, their job is to teach only love.
On a more specific level, childhood is a state of illusion; children do not understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Parents are there to help them understand. Childhood is also a state of fear. Parents are there to help children feel safe. Parents must first work patiently within the child's simple framework; yet their ultimate task is to guide the child beyond that framework, so that the child no longer needs to rely on an earthly parent.
None of what I have just said is particularly new. Throughout the ages there have been parents doing exactly this. We ourselves may have known some. The images we have examined do not set forth any specific behavioral technique, no special tips for how to dialogue with children, discipline them, or help them problem-solve. They simply depict a loving parent in action, doing the kinds of things loving parents have always done.
It is a simple, even traditional, vision of parenting. Yet if we are not born this way, how do we become a loving parent? Acquiring a constant state of genuine, forgiving, patient love is probably the most challenging thing on earth. No wonder we opt for specific behavioral techniques instead. What do we do to become a loving parent?
My answer was in the first part of this article: We practice seeing our children differently. We practice perceiving their needs, lacks, and mistakes as nothing but calls for love and help. This perception of childhood permeates all of the passages we have examined. As we saw, the parents in these passages never condemn the child for being in a state of need. They are never angry at the child's deficiencies, hoping that this anger will somehow catapult the child into an emotional growth spurt. They don't throw a fit over the child making mistakes or not understanding. They simply take it for granted that the child is a child, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They have obviously reached a place from which they perceive the state of childhood as one big call for parental love and help.
That, I believe, is the perception we must reach. Reaching that place is our calling as parents. The only way I know how to do that is through repeated practice, and through the miraculous healing of our minds that such practice invites. There is no point in merely trying to imitate the kinds of behaviors portrayed in this article. That simply will not do. Our children will sense the hollowness, and the guilt, behind our "loving" behavior. Yet if we can truly perceive childhood as a call for love, we will find ourselves moving into a profoundly different emotional posture towards children, a posture of genuine love. Out of this love, behaviors will naturally arise that convey this love to our children.
Our calling, then, is to reach this place of love toward our children. It is a very high calling. Achieving such a state is both a repeated practice and a lengthy process. We must be patient with ourselves in reaching it, for in the end it means attaining, as the Course says, "a complete reversal of thought" (M-24.4:1). Step-by-step we must leave behind our petty, self-centered, judgmental mind-set. In short, we must ourselves grow up. For we, just like children, are in a state of illusion and a state of fear. We are really just big kids, with our own games, our own toys, and our own nightmares. How can we be there for our children's needs when we are awash in our own? If we want to guide them beyond childhood, we ourselves must be willing to leave childhood behind forever. May we, therefore, dedicate ourselves to doing just that, for our children's sake, and for our own.