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 a hold 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:
- “I have seen you display the need for ___________.”
- “I have judged that need to be a sin.”
- “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:
What can [name of child] seek for, Father, but Your Love?
Perhaps she thinks she seeks for something else;
a something she has called by many names [name specific things the child has sought, such as toys, food, playmates, video games].
Yet is Your Love the only thing [name] seeks, or ever sought.
For there is nothing else that she could ever really want to find [not toys, not food, not video games].
Let her remember You through my recognition of what she really wants.
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.
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]