How do I apply the Course to parenting teens?

Question: I have been reading and studying the Course for about eight months now. I am receiving a lot of benefit from it in my life. I have one area of my life that I am still struggling with: parenting. How do I apply the teachings of the Course to parenting teens in a loving way?

Answer: I can't believe I am even trying to answer this. As the parent of two teens, I should probably be disqualified as having anything sane to say on the topic.

What comes to my mind is that love has many facets. Parenting is really about loving, in whatever way your child needs at his or her level of development. Doing that, I believe, involves balancing different facets of what love is, and appropriately adjusting that balance as the child grows up.

Love is protection and guidance

An essential part of loving a child is guiding and protecting that child. The Course has many images of children and parents, and in these images you will search in vain for any hint of the popular notion that children are our teachers. The Course never speaks as if children are straight from God and therefore not yet tainted by ego. Quite the opposite—it uses them as transparent examples of how the ego operates. It clearly implies that we need to be their teachers, as well as their protectors. Here are some examples from the Course:

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)

Lead our practicing [Father] 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. (W-pI.rV.In.2:5-6)

The children in these passages are hardly egoless teachers offering us wisdom from a timeless realm that we have forgotten. Rather, they "scream in rage" and if left to their own devices, are likely to injure themselves or lose their way. They need our protection (first two passages) and our guidance (third passage).

Under the influence of passages such as these, and under the weight of experience, I have come to believe in the value of clear rules, boundaries, and routines in parenting children. It's just part of enclosing them within a structure where they feel safe and, as a result, can flourish. I've slowly come to learn that children who rule the roost don't feel safe. They are like the child in "The Forgiving Dream" (T-29.IX) who has in essence become "the father, powerful, but with the little wisdom of a child" (6:4) and who therefore "is afraid of all the chaos in a world" (6:7) that he governs, yet that is simply too big for his "little wisdom" to handle. How many modern households resemble this passage?

Love is freedom and faith

Notice, however, that the images I quoted are primarily images of small children. As children grow up, they are, of course, increasingly unlikely to hurt themselves with scissors or absentmindedly wander off a footpath. In short, they need our protection and guidance less and less.

This is one of the most basic and obvious facts of parenting. As parents, we need to gradually withdraw the guidance and protection which, at first, our children's survival literally depended on. Love, obviously, does not treat a teenager like a baby.

As we incrementally withdraw the protection and guidance, I think they need to be replaced with freedom and faith. Freedom, of course, means letting our children increasingly make their own choices and lead their own lives. There is a powerful passage about this freedom in the Course:

Love is freedom. To look for it by placing yourself in bondage is to separate yourself from it. For the Love of God, no longer seek for union in separation, nor for freedom in bondage! As you release, so will you be released. Forget this not, or love will be unable to find you and comfort you. (T-16.VI.2:1-5)

In context, "placing yourself in bondage" occurs through placing someone else in bondage. We do this by making sacrifices for that person, and then using guilt to pressure that person to pay us back and sacrifice for our sake. By using guilt to keep that person in bondage, we actually place ourselves in bondage. Surely we parents can recognize this pattern!

I think nearly every parent innately understands the need to grant the growing child more freedom, even if we don't always sufficiently reflect that in our actions. Yet I think we often miss a crucial part: For the freedom to be truly loving, it needs to be combined with faith.

Usually, of course, our tendency as parents is to combine freedom with worry. I can certainly vouch for this. My oldest daughter just got her driver's license. She's sixteen and she's out there on the road by herself; or worse yet, with friends. Of course I worry.

Yet I try to replace it with what the Course has taught me: faith. Faith says that I trust you in the long run. Yes, you will make mistakes, and yes, you may appear to be in a real bind right now. But I trust something deeper in you. I trust the strength in you. I trust that it will eventually carry the day (even if that day is a long time from now). I'm not saying I have faith in every little thing you do. I'm saying I have faith in you.

This doesn't mean that I don't try to make my teens aware of the consequences of their actions. It just means that I try to hold them in an ultimately optimistic place in my mind.

The Course has many lovely passages about faith. Here are a few that you may want to apply directly to your relationship with your child:

No one will fail in anything. This seems to ask for faith beyond you, and beyond what you can give. Yet this is so only from the viewpoint of the ego. (T-17.VI.6:7-9)

Have faith in your brother in what but seems to be a trying time. (T-17.V.6:6)

If you lack faith, ask that it be restored where it was lost [in you], and seek not to have it made up to you elsewhere [in a change on the part of the child], as if you had been unjustly deprived of it. (T-17.VII.3:11)

Yet think on this, and learn the cause of faithlessness: You think you hold against your brother what he has done to you. But what you really blame him for is what you did to him….You lack faith in him because of what you were. (T-17.VII.8:1-2, 4)

Love is forgiveness

Teenagers, of course, will frequently fail to make good choices. They're teenagers! We need to decide ahead of time that whatever bad choice they make, no matter what it is, we are going to forgive them. Holding their mistakes against them will not only produce a rift between us and them, it will instill despair in them about their future. Parental blame has tremendous power to instill guilt, and guilt leads directly to hopelessness. The teenager may respond to our blame with pride and defiance, but deep down he is thinking, "Look at what a screw-up I am! How can there be any hope for me? How can my future hold anything but paying for my endless mistakes?"

In forgiving your teen, it helps to sit down with particular practices from the Course and give them your concentrated attention. My favorites are the "response to temptation" practices in Review II in the Workbook (these are the sixty italicized sentences found on each page of the review in two groups of three). They have gotten me through more than one tidal wave of worry (which is really unforgiveness) with my teens.

Love is recognizing your child as God's Son in disguise

Forgiveness in A Course in Miracles is ultimately rooted in the recognition that this person is not really a human being, but is a divine Son of God dreaming that he is a human. He may dream that he is a teenager stumbling and falling on the road to maturity. But he is actually a Son of God dreaming of living in a vastly diminished condition, a condition which is the tiniest of apertures through which to view his real glory and grandeur.

Between these two sides—really a divine adult, but dreaming he's a human child—I think we have the ideal stance toward our children. The divine adult part means that this supposed child is not really a child at all. It means that no matter how he looks or what he does, he possesses eternal, unshakable worth and dignity. It means that he is deserving of measureless love from you—no matter what. Even if he is "making no sense at the time…your task is still to tell him he is right…because he is a Son of God" (T-9.III.2:5, 6, 9). Your words do not state that whatever nonsense he is saying is right. Rather, the look on your face says that he is right.

The divine adult part determines your basic emotional stance toward him, and then the human child part determines how you express that basic stance of love. Is it expressed by taking the scissors away from the baby, even if the baby then screams in rage? Or is it expressed by handing the car keys to the teenager with a look that says, "I have faith in you"? How exactly do you strike the balance between protection/guidance and freedom/faith? That is determined by where in his development the human child is right now.

That's about all I have to say about how to parent a teen at this point. What I have shared is the level I aspire to, not the level I actually live at. When I really figure out how to parent a teen, I'll say more.

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