Course-based Parenting, Part II

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

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.

Conclusion

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.