Does the Course's teaching about personal responsibility apply to children?

Question: The Course tells us that we are responsible for all the circumstances of our lives, as well as for how we perceive those circumstances. Does this apply to children who are suffering from painful circumstances like sickness, starvation, and child abuse?

Short answer: Yes, I believe it does. And while this may seem at first glance to be a cruel and heartless teaching, I believe that on closer inspection it is by far the most benevolent, compassionate, and hopeful explanation for what happens to children. If children weren't responsible, they would be helpless victims of a cruel world, absolutely powerless in the face of the pain inflicted upon them. But if they are responsible, then they have the power to heal the pain of their circumstances by changing their minds. We can best help children heal (and help adults who have suffered from childhood trauma heal) by extending love, kindness, and forgiveness to them.


The idea that children, like adults, are responsible for all the events of their lives as well as their perception of those events probably arouses more anger and distress, among Course students and Course detractors alike, than any other idea in the Course material. Parts of my answer here may well arouse anger and distress in you, but I urge you to bear with me because I believe this idea is ultimately very kind and liberating, if we fully understand it. In this answer, I will first present Course evidence for the idea that we choose all of the events our lives as well as how we perceive them. Then, given the strong negative feelings it arouses, I will address the various objections I have heard to applying this idea to children. Finally, I will offer some ideas on how we can be truly helpful to suffering children and adults recovering from childhood trauma.

The Course says that both the events of our lives and our perception of those events come from our choices. This must apply to children as well as to adults.

Here is the Course's most direct statement that we are responsible for all of the events of our lives as well as for our perception of them:

I am responsible for what I see.
I choose the feelings I experience, and I decide upon the goal I would achieve.
And everything that seems to happen to me I ask for, and receive as I have asked.

Deceive yourself no longer that you are helpless in the face of what is done to you. Acknowledge but that you have been mistaken, and all effects of your mistakes will disappear.
It is impossible the Son of God be merely driven by events outside of him. It is impossible that happenings that come to him were not his choice. His power of decision is the determiner of every situation in which he seems to find himself by chance or accident. (T-21.II.2:3-3:3)

To me, the message of this passage is unequivocal: We choose everything—both our perception of the events that happen to us ("the feelings I experience," which are rooted in my perception of events) and the events themselves ("everything that seems to happen to me"). A later passage calls the recognition that we are responsible for all of the suffering that we experience "the secret of salvation":

The secret of salvation is but this: that you are doing this unto yourself. No matter what the form of the attack, this still is true. Whoever takes the role of enemy and of attacker, still is this the truth. Whatever seems to be the cause of any pain and suffering you feel, this is still true. (T-27.VIII.10:1-4)

Again, the message is unequivocal: When we suffer, we are doing it to ourselves, no matter what the appearance. Now, certainly it doesn't appear that way to us. Certainly many of our choices, especially the ones that have dreamed our particular life circumstances and events into place, come from a very deep level of mind, far below our current conscious awareness. But they are choices nonetheless.

Given the above passages and others like them throughout the Course, I see no way to squirm out of this conclusion. However unpalatable the idea may seem at first blush, I think we have to admit that the Course does teach it. Moreover, I see absolutely no evidence in the Course that this idea does not apply to children, and plenty of evidence (which we will examine below) which suggests that it does. If this is the case, the inevitable conclusion is that all suffering that a child experiences—whether it takes the form of starvation, sickness, child abuse, or something else—is ultimately caused, at some level, by the child's own choices. (I should note that all of the positive things a child experiences are a result of the child's own choices too—it's not all dark.)

Objections to applying this idea to children

As I've said, I have found that the idea that children choose their experiences (both events and perceptions) is a lightning rod for anger and distress. People ask, "How could this be?", and offer up all sorts of reasons why it can't be. I think "How could this be?" is a very reasonable question, and I think it is important to face the objections to this radical idea squarely. The following, then, are some of the major objections I have heard to the idea that children choose their experiences, and my answers to those objections.

1. Children are innocent.

This is probably the primary objection. It is a truism that children are innocent—that is, pure beings who come into this world as pristine blank slates, who over the course of time "lose their innocence" as they are shaped and molded by parents and the world around them. The idea that children are innocent is coupled with the idea that they are not responsible for their thoughts and actions, because they are not mature enough to be capable of real choice. In a nutshell, the idea of childhood innocence says that children come into the world without egos, and don't develop egos until they've spent some time in the "school of hard knocks" we call life.

Of course, children are innocent in the same sense that all of us are innocent—we are innocent Sons of God, who have not sinned no matter how mistaken our choices may have been. But if we read the Course carefully, it becomes clear that children are not innocent in the sense of being egoless. Passages like the following make it clear that we have egos (in the Course sense of the term) before we ever enter this world:

No one who comes here [to the world] but must still have hope, some lingering illusion, or some dream that there is something outside of himself that will bring happiness and peace to him. If everything is in him this cannot be so. And therefore by his coming, he denies the truth about himself. (T-29.VII.2:1-3)

This passage tells us that we come to the world for the purpose of finding something outside ourselves that will make us happy—the ego's endless search for idols. A line from later in this same section puts it even more starkly: "You came to die, and what would you expect but to perceive the signs of death you seek?" (T-29.VII.5:2). It seems pretty clear to me that if our very purpose for coming to the world is the ego's purpose of seeking idols (culminating in the ego's ultimate idol, death), then we must have egos before we are born. We don't enter the world egoless. Children, then, are not innocent in the sense of being egoless. They, like all of us until we change our minds, identify with the ego and make decisions based on its dictates. Following the ego is the very reason they come to this world. And if the world the ego made is indeed "the symbol of punishment" (T-13.In.2:4), then children, identifying with their egos like the rest of us, choose to come to the world to be punished—which takes the form of suffering at the hands of the external world.

2. Children are helpless.

This, of course, is related to the idea of childhood innocence: We think that children are weak and powerless, so how can they be responsible for anything? But we've already seen that as far as the Course is concerned, no one is weak and powerless. We have powerful egos that predate our entry into this world, and influenced by our egos, we choose the circumstances of our lives before we are born. Once in this world, our choices continue to affect our circumstances and, more importantly, our perception of our circumstances. That this applies to children (at the very least, the part about our perception of our circumstances) is made abundantly clear in personal comments Jesus made to Helen and Bill, recorded in Ken Wapnick's Absence from Felicity. These comments were specifically directed to Bill, who resented his parents for what he felt they did to him, and blamed them for many of his current problems. In these comments, Jesus directly refuted Bill's belief that as a child he was helpless and therefore had no choice but to be molded by the authority of his parents:

Children have an authority problem only if they believe that their image is influenced by the authority. This is an act of will on their part, because they are electing to misperceive the authority and give him this power. (Absence from Felicity, p. 273)

There is little doubt that external factors like parental attitudes and societal influences play a role in molding a child's self-image. But according to this passage, this only happens because the child has chosen to allow this. The child is not helpless in the face of powerful external forces; rather, the child chooses to believe that external forces have such power—this choice is an "act of will" on the child's part, something the child is "electing" to believe.

Jesus provides further evidence for this idea in the following comment to Helen about Bill:

As you [Helen] have so often said, no one has adopted all of his parents' attitudes as his own. In every case, there has been a long process of choice, in which the individual has escaped from those he himself vetoed, while retaining those he voted for. Bill has not retained his parents' political beliefs, in spite of the particular kind of newspapers that constituted their own reading matter in this area.
There must be some acute problem of his own that would make him so eager to accept their misperception of his own worth. This tendency can always be regarded as punitive. It cannot be justified by the inequality of the strengths of parents and children. This is never more than temporary, and is largely a matter of maturational and thus physical difference. It does not last unless it is held onto. (Absence from Felicity, p. 269)

The first paragraph here presents a persuasive argument against the idea that children are totally at the mercy of their parents (or the larger world): If this were so, then children would have no choice but to adopt all of their parents' attitudes and beliefs, which is clearly not what actually happens. Bill, for instance, did not adopt his parents' political beliefs, even though he was heavily influenced in this area via his parents' newspapers. Therefore, there must be a "long process of choice" going on, in which children reject some of their parents' beliefs and accept others.

To me, this idea helps to explain why different people can emerge from virtually identical childhood experiences with vastly different perspectives on themselves and the world. Many of us, I'm sure, have wondered at the fact that some children are so much more resilient than others, even in the face of suffering. Why is it that some people are horribly traumatized by childhood suffering, while others seem to emerge from similar circumstances virtually unscathed? If Jesus is correct, then the reason for this is that different children make different choices about how to perceive their respective situations.

The second paragraph here refutes the common idea that children are helpless because they are weaker and less mature than parents. Here, Jesus says directly that children's tendency to accept their parents' perception of them "cannot be justified" by appealing to the difference in strength and maturity between parents and children. In other words, this tendency is due to free choice on the part of children (a choice that is "punitive"—a means of punishing their parents and/or themselves), and is not forced upon them by their parents' greater strength and maturity. Jesus acknowledges that a difference in strength and maturity does exist, at least temporarily, and certainly this difference makes parents and the surrounding world highly influential in molding the lives of children. But influence is not the same as cause. A television commercial may influence me to buy a product if I am open to being influenced, but it is still my free decision that causes me to buy the product. It is the same with parents' influence on children. The Course refers to this idea that others can influence but not directly cause our choices in the following passage:

When you project [error] to others you imprison them, but only to the extent to which you reinforce errors they have already made. This makes them vulnerable to the distortions of others, since their own perception of themselves is distorted. (T-1.III.5:9-10)

Certainly children, as a result of their temporary weakness and immaturity, are "vulnerable to the distortions of others." But they are not helpless in the face of the distortions of others; their choices are still their own. And the differences in strength and maturity are only temporary. Whatever choices they may have made under the influence of parents or the world at large can be unmade, especially as they grow up and come into their own strength and maturity.

3. This idea is "blaming the victim," which adds guilt onto the victim's suffering.

The way we normally perceive things, responsibility is inextricably fused with guilt. If you're responsible for something painful, you're guilty; if you're not responsible, you're innocent. We think that responsibility and innocence are mutually exclusive, and so we flip-flop between acknowledging responsibility (which seems to preserve personal power, but at the cost of innocence) and denying responsibility (which seems to preserve innocence, but at the cost of personal power). Applying this to children, we believe that the way to preserve their innocence is to deny their responsibility.

But the Course's idea of responsibility severs the connection between responsibility and guilt. In its system, we are responsible for our experiences within the illusion, but precisely because it is an illusion, we are not responsible for causing any real damage. "Nothing real can be threatened" (T-In.2:2). Therefore, however mistaken our perception may be, we have not caused any actual damage to reality, and thus have no cause for guilt:

The Son of God can be mistaken; he can deceive himself; he can even turn the power of his mind against himself. But he cannot sin. There is nothing he can do that would really change his reality in any way, nor make him really guilty. (T-19.II.3:1-3)

All of us, including children, are responsible for what happens in our lives, but we are not guilty. Thus the Course's idea of responsibility is never about "blaming" anyone, a word that is filled with connotations of guilt. As Robert Perry puts it, we are always responsible, but never to blame. The Course's notion of responsibility has nothing to do with guilt and blame.

Now, certainly most people do associate responsibility with guilt, and for this reason I believe that we would be wise in the vast majority of cases not to tell a child (or anyone) who's currently experiencing a painful trauma that he or she is responsible for it. When people are suffering, they usually benefit far more from being reminded of their true innocence than being reminded of their responsibility. But, that being said, I think it is vitally important for us to learn that responsibility and guilt do not inevitably have to be connected. The idea that responsibility does not imply guilt is simply one of the most radical and liberating ideas in the Course. The Course disconnects responsibility and guilt in a marvelous way that preserves both the personal responsibility that can empower us to undo suffering, and our incorruptible innocence as Sons of God, which is the very thing that makes it possible for suffering to be undone.

4. In situations where a child is being abused by another person, this idea exonerates the abuser.

The Course's notion of responsibility does not deny the fact that people can and do abuse children, at least on a form level. And if it is true that we are all responsible for our lives, then it must be that abusers are responsible for their lives, just as children are responsible for theirs. If both parties are responsible for a situation, then their coming together must be a kind of unconscious agreement in which each person is fully responsible for his or her part, an agreement that can be ended at any time by either party. In the case of Bill and his parents, Jesus acknowledged that while Bill was ultimately responsible for his difficult childhood, Bill's parents certainly didn't help matters. While Bill's parents didn't cause his pain, their own attitudes were certainly a negative influence:

Bill, your parents did misperceive you in many ways, but their ability to perceive was quite warped, and their misperceptions stood in the way of their own knowledge. (Absence from Felicity, p. 271)

Thus the idea that children are responsible for their experiences doesn't exonerate child abusers in the sense of denying the abusers' responsibility for their own experiences (and actions). Child abusers are fully responsible for their choices, just as children are fully responsible for theirs. Abusers will experience the painful effects of their decision to attack children, just as children experience the painful effects of their decision to be attacked. But, as discussed above, while everyone involved is making mistakes which have painful consequences, no one involved is guilty. This idea of responsibility acknowledges that both abuser and child are responsible for their mistakes, but also affirms that both are innocent in truth.

5. Accepting this idea means that we would do nothing to change painful external situations, since any suffering a child experiences is the child's fault.

As I said above, acknowledging the responsibility of children (which is quite different than "fault") does not mean denying the responsibility of abusers. Nor does it deny that, at least on the level of everyday experience, external conditions do affect children, and those external conditions need to be addressed. The question of how we should address them is a behavioral question, and the Course tells us that we should refer all such questions to the Holy Spirit. As I've said in previous Q and A's, I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us to do the most loving thing possible, given our level of development. Applying this to the suffering of children, I am certain that He would guide us to feed starving children, nurse sick children, and protect children from abusers. What else would love do? The question of how to solve the larger problems facing children is fraught with controversy, and I certainly do not have all the answers. But I doubt very much that the Holy Spirit would guide us to do nothing externally to alleviate children's suffering, since that would hardly be the loving thing to do.

How, then, do we help suffering children, as well as adults recovering from childhood trauma?

Again, guidance on specifics should come from the Holy Spirit. But I do think there are some basic guidelines we can follow (I think these guidelines can be applied to any situation in which we are working with a suffering person). First, I think we simply need to do whatever can be done behaviorally to get children out of harm's way—again, we feed the starving, nurse the sick, and protect the abused. This is simply good old-fashioned human kindness.

Second, once they are out of harm's way, we can assure them that they are now safe, and that they are loved. The Course, in a passage that refers to how the Holy Spirit helps us (who are very much children in His eyes), tells us that the first thing frightened children need after experiencing a nightmare is simple reassurance that they are safe:

You do not inform them that the nightmares that frightened them so badly are not real, because children believe in magic. You merely reassure them that they are safe now. (T-6.V.2:2-3)

This, I think, applies equally to working with adults recovering from childhood trauma. Before they can really do any deeper work on healing childhood issues, they need to feel safe. Only in an atmosphere of safety and love can real healing take place.

Third, as I mentioned above, I think that in working with children and adults recovering from childhood trauma, we should primarily emphasize their true innocence rather than their responsibility—we should focus on the fact that they're not to blame, rather than the fact that they're always responsible. This emphasis is apparent in the following passage, which describes how the advanced teacher of God facilitates the healing of the sick:

Certainly sickness does not appear to be a decision. Nor would anyone actually believe he wants to be sick. Perhaps he can accept the idea in theory, but it is rarely if ever consistently applied to all specific forms of sickness, both in the individual's perception of himself and of all others as well. Nor is it at this level [the level of getting the patient to accept the idea that sickness is a decision] that the teacher of God calls forth the miracle of healing. He overlooks the mind and body, seeing only the face of Christ shining in front of him, correcting all mistakes and healing all perception. (M-22.4:1-5)

Most people are simply unready to accept the radical idea that their own decisions cause their suffering. They are even less willing to believe that they would want to make a decision that causes them suffering. Given the inevitable association between responsibility and guilt that most people (especially children) make, telling them they are responsible will most likely just exacerbate their guilt, which is that last thing that frightened, suffering people need.

Therefore, rather than emphasizing responsibility, the teacher of God emphasizes innocence. When he beholds a sick and suffering person, he looks past the sick body and the faulty decisions that brought the sickness about, and sees only the innocent Christ standing before him. In short, he forgives the patient, and his behavior toward the patient then becomes a means of communicating his love for the patient. It is this—seeing the patient's innocence and loving her—which corrects the patient's mistakes, including the patient's mistaken belief that she is not responsible for her decision to be sick. Ironically, it is through emphasizing the patient's innocence that the teacher of God helps the patient to accept her responsibility. This is how mistakes are corrected. This is how healing occurs. This is the best thing we can do for children and those who have suffered from childhood trauma.

Unfortunately, I've seen all too many Course students (myself included), in their well-intentioned efforts to help others, emphasize responsibility at the expense of innocence. I'm sure that most of us have had the experience of another Course student offering up some version of the classic New Age line, "What did you do to create that?" when we're in the midst of some painful situation. Has that ever really felt loving to you? The personal responsibility idea is challenging enough when it comes from an egoless Jesus; when it comes from another ego-bound person, however well intentioned, it usually ends up being a judgmental attack, which just reinforces the problem. For that reason, I think we are best off refraining from this for the most part. The Course itself says as much when it tells us what the teacher of God should not do in dealing with his pupil's magic thoughts:

If he argues with his pupil about a magic thought, attacks it, tries to establish its error or demonstrate its falsity, he is but witnessing to its reality. Depression is then inevitable, for he has "proved," both to his pupil and himself, that it is their task to escape from what is real. (M-18.1:2-3)

I don't think this means that we should never teach people that they are responsible for their experiences. Certainly the Course itself does so all the time, and as we've seen, the Course considers learning this lesson "the secret of salvation." I myself am obviously teaching it in this Q and A. Children, especially as they get older, can certainly benefit from learning that they can choose how to perceive a situation and that they have real power over the circumstances of their lives. And teaching adult survivors of childhood trauma that they can make new choices now that will help them to reclaim their lives is an important aspect of many successful therapies.

However, I simply believe we should exercise caution with this, especially with the Course's radical idea that we are responsible for all of our experiences. We should discuss it with another person—especially a suffering person—only when we truly feel prompted by the Holy Spirit (we need to exercise careful discernment in determining whether we are truly prompted), and only when the other person expresses some willingness to explore the idea. Personally, I generally don't talk about this idea unless the person asks me about it directly. Above all, our teaching of personal responsibility should be rooted in the deeper truth that we are all innocent. People who are suffering don't want to be tersely reminded of their responsibility; they just want to be loved. Everything else must flow from that.

Conclusion

The idea that all of us, including children, choose all of our experiences does seem cruel at first. But I truly believe that it is an incredibly benevolent, compassionate, hopeful, and liberating idea if it is rightly understood. It frees us from the shackles of victimhood, and empowers us to be as God created us. It does not imply guilt, however much we may believe it does. It is not a license to ignore the external conditions that contribute to suffering, nor is it a license to callously remind suffering people of their responsibility when what they really need is love. Placed in the deeper context of our absolute innocence as Sons of God, this idea frees us from guilt, and thus opens the door to true healing. For if we are responsible for our suffering, the key to salvation is also in our hands. If we crucify ourselves, we can also save ourselves, with God's help. Let us, then, see this idea for the blessing that it is:

How kind and merciful is the idea we practice! Give it welcome, as you should, for it is your release. It is indeed but you your mind can try to crucify. Yet your redemption, too, will come from you. (W-pI.196.12:3-6)

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