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The innocence of children is a truism. We tend to view children, especially very young ones, as pure, guileless little angels. It is even said that children are our teachers, egoless beings of light who remind us of the innocence we lost when we grew up and entered the self-centered, manipulative adult world. Yet recent research reported in the UK Telegraph has demonstrated what many parents have probably suspected all along: Even very young children are not quite as guileless as they seem. Just as with adults, it appears that behind many of a small child’s “innocent” actions is a manipulative ego using subterfuge to get its way. This finding lends support to the less sentimental view of children presented in A Course in Miracles.
The research focuses on the techniques children as young as six months use to deceive their parents. According to Dr. Vasudevi Reddy of the UK’s University of Portsmouth, the techniques of choice for the youngest children are fake crying and fake laughing. Dr. Reddy says, “Fake crying is one of the earliest forms of deception to emerge, and infants use it to get attention even though nothing is wrong. You can tell, as they will then pause while they wait to hear if their mother is responding, before crying again.”
As children grow older, their deceptions grow more sophisticated. By eight months they will hide forbidden activities and distract the parents from noticing such activities. By age two, they have learned how to bluff when faced with possible punishment, asserting that they don’t care about the punishment when it’s obvious that they really do. Dr. Reddy believes that what’s going on in this process of developing deception techniques is that children are testing the waters, so to speak. They want to see which lies work best in particular situations and learn just how much lying they can get away with.
This picture of young children as little deceivers flies in the face of the usual image of children as wide-eyed innocents, but it dovetails very well with the Course’s picture of children. The Course doesn’t specifically refer to children lying to others, but it does refer frequently to children displaying egoic attributes like rage, confusion, fantasy, and fear (see Robert’s article entitled The Course on Childhood for an excellent overview of this topic). In fact, it portrays the entire ego system—which is, of course, all about deception—as a childish game. A few examples, with the references to children bolded:
The ego’s definitions of anything are childish. (T-8.VIII.1:2)
The dream of judgment is a children’s game. (T-29.IX.6:4)
The wearying, dissatisfying gods you made are blown-up children’s toys. (T-30.IV.2:4)
The world but demonstrates an ancient truth; you will believe that others do to you exactly what you think you did to them. But once deluded into blaming them you will not see the cause of what they do, because you want the guilt to rest on them. How childish is the petulant device to keep your innocence by pushing guilt outside yourself, but never letting go! (T-27.VIII.8:1-3)
Defensiveness is weakness. It proclaims you have denied the Christ and come to fear His Father’s anger. What can save you now from your delusion of an angry god, whose fearful image you believe you see at work in all the evils of the world? What but illusions could defend you now, when it is but illusions that you fight?
We will not play such childish games today. (W-pI.153.7:1-4,8:1)
A madman’s dreams are frightening, and sin appears indeed to terrify. And yet what sin perceives is but a childish game. The Son of God may play he has become a body, prey to evil and to guilt, with but a little life that ends in death. But all the while his Father shines on him, and loves him with an everlasting Love which his pretenses cannot change at all. (W-pII.4.4:1-4)
Look at the list of things that are depicted as childish in these passages: the ego’s definitions, judgment, our idols (the dissatisfying gods we made), blaming others, defensiveness, sin, and guilt. All of these things are bedrock components of the ego’s thought system. You really get a picture of the ego here as a petulant child who is dissatisfied with the way things are, and rebels against her situation by conjuring up a fantasy game in which she gets to have things her way. Indeed, the Course tells us elsewhere that this is what dreams (both sleeping dreams and the dream of this world) are for: “Dreams are perceptual temper tantrums, in which you literally scream, ‘I want it thus!'” (T-18.II.4:1). Sounds a lot like fake crying.
This theme of children setting up a fantasy game to get their way is also evident in the Course’s discussions of toys. Children, of course, are small and relatively powerless. So, they use their toys to create a fantasy in which the tables are turned and they are the all-powerful ones. “They pretend they rule the world, and give their toys the power to move about, and talk and think and feel and speak for them” (T-29.IX.4:6). Each child becomes the emperor of his own little world, with absolute power to determine the fate of everyone in it: “What hurts him is destroyed; what helps him, blessed” (T-29.IX.6:5). This may seem rather innocent and even silly from an adult perspective, but consider the underlying motive: Children, like adults, want to control the world and get their way. Clearly, this is the same motive that drives the deceptions Dr. Reddy describes: to control their parents and get their way.
Notice how all of this shatters our conventional image of egoless children. Nowhere in the Course can I find a passage that supports that image. (There is a reference in W-pI.182.4 to the Christ Child who has “an innocence that will endure forever”; however, this Child isn’t innocent by virtue of being a child, but by virtue of being Christ.) The punch line is this: If the Course depicts the ego and its deceptions as childish, what can that mean except that the Course sees the state of childhood as essentially a state of egoic deception? True, it is mainly a state of self-deception, but self-deception leads inevitably to deceiving others, like the deceptions carried out by the children Dr. Reddy studied.
Now, the Course’s point here isn’t to single out children for special criticism. On the contrary, its whole point is that all of us are spiritual children, doing our own version of fake crying, hiding “forbidden” activities, and trying to rule our own little fantasy world through our “toys.” It doesn’t contrast us with children by depicting childhood as an ideal we lost and should strive to reclaim; rather, it equates us with children by using them as symbols of our egoic state. The goal of returning to childhood makes no sense, because in fact we’ve never really left it. Thus, rather than seeing children as our teachers (though of course we should see them as the Christ), the Course would have us see their childish behaviors as mirrors of our own childishness, symbols of a state of spiritual immaturity that must be outgrown.
The one positive thing the Course says about children is that they recognize they don’t know what things mean, so they are teachable (see T-11.VIII.2). Let us, then, be willing to set aside our romanticized view of children and realize, without condemnation, that they too wrestle with the ego. I think doing so will both help us be more effective mentors to the children in our lives and aid our own journey on the Course’s path. Echoing the words of Paul in the Bible, the Course tells us, “There is a time when childhood should be passed and gone forever” (T-29.IX.6:1). Rather than trying to reclaim a lost childhood, let’s set this as our goal, so we can leave our spiritual childhood behind and grow to spiritual maturity.