The Course on Childhood

Children are our teachers. They carry an innocence we lost somewhere along the way. They live in the present, in a spontaneous lightness of being that more closely resembles the boundless light we adults must work so hard to reunite with. Because they only recently left this light, the membrane that separates them from it is much thinner than in our case, allowing wise insights and ancient memories to pass through into their delightfully open minds.

Not according to A Course in Miracles. The paragraph you just read, as wonderful and familiar as it may sound, is totally foreign to the Course’s point of view. The divinization of childhood is an extremely popular thing these days, yet it simply has no parallel in the Course. In this article, therefore, I would like to explore just how the Course does view childhood. Then, in our next newsletter, I will take what we come up with and apply it to the subject of Course-based parenting.

One warning: This article may prove challenging, even upsetting, for you. It may push a lot of buttons. This, I believe, is simply what happens when we look closely at how the Course views any specific area of life in this world. If you will bear with me, the challenging insights I present here will be put to practical, loving use in the next issue’s article on parenting.

How the Course views childhood is no great mystery. The Course mentions children many times. The purpose of these references is not to teach us about children but rather to use children as a symbol for our own current state of mind. Yet this in itself says a great deal about childhood. Rather than holding childhood up as an ideal toward which to aspire, the Course is using childhood as a visible symbol of the lacks, fears and immaturities we already possess. Rather than asking us to become like children, the Course is saying that we already are children. There is no point in returning to what we never outgrew.

In this article I will examine a series of passages from the Course, trying to extract what these passages say or imply about the state of childhood.

Children are prone to hurt themselves

Babies scream in rage if you take away a knife or scissors, although they may well harm themselves if you do not. In this sense you are still a baby. You have no sense of real self‑preservation, and are likely to decide that you need precisely what would hurt you most (T‑4.II.5:2‑4).

Right off we can see that the Course does not view infants as the embodiment of innocence. Rather, it speaks of them screaming in rage. We may think it unwise to attribute adult emotions like rage to an infant, yet the Course does it anyway. It even attributes anger and rage to animals (see, for instance, W-pI.161.8:2-4 and W-pI.72.6:1).

The main point this passage makes about infants is that they do not know what is best for them. They are prone to intensely crave the very thing that would hurt them the most. This observation is then applied to us: We are still babies. How does it feel to have Jesus tell you that you are a baby? Just as a baby screams in rage when a parent takes away a dangerous knife, so we kick and scream when the Course wants to take away our ego. We are still babies. In this passage, then, the goal of life is not to return to the state of infancy. We never left it. The goal is to finally, at last, leave it behind. Here is our next passage:

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).

Just in case you thought that Jesus didn’t really view children through the unflattering lens employed in that previous passage, here is a similar passage. This one also depicts children as being prone to injuring themselves, and having to be physically stopped from doing so by a parent. They have to be protected from themselves (the meaning of “his father will protect him still”). Like the previous one, this passage is really about us as adult children. God, it says, will not answer the prayer of our heart when it asks for our own punishment. Instead, the Holy Spirit will translate our prayer into a call for help and answer that prayer. Again, we are still children, who need protection from ourselves.

Children have not yet learned how to navigate through the world

This next passage is from a prayer in the Workbook:

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).

This passage, too, moves between comments about the earthly father-son relationship and our Father-Son relationship with God. How is the child characterized in this passage? He is unable to find his way somewhere without aid. Why? He does not understand which way to go. He will stumble. He will forget the way and wander off. Therefore, he needs his father’s guidance. He needs his father to pick him up when he falls, to remember for him which way to go, and to call him back when he wanders. Something in the child recognizes this. That is why he follows his father. His inability to follow a path on his own is frightening to him. Hence, he only feels safe when his father is there leading him.

Our next passage is from a place in the Manual that mentions a series of apparently chance encounters:

…a child who is not looking where he is going running into an adult “by chance…” (M‑3.2:2).

Notice the similarity to the previous passage. The child simply cannot navigate through the world very well as yet. This is a very obvious observation. In fact, all of the passages we have looked at thus far have this quality. They make note of the most obvious and unavoidable facts of childhood, facts that parents spend all day dealing with. As parents, we spend a lot of our time making sure our kids don’t injure themselves. We child-proof our cabinets, keep medicine and chemicals out of reach, make sure our kids stay off the freeway, keep matches and sharp knives away from them. We also spend an enormous amount of time guiding them, either physically, as we walk from one place to another, or mentally and emotionally, as we teach them how to navigate through the tangled jungle of this world.

Children confuse fantasy with reality

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 so badly are not real, because children believe in magic. You merely reassure them that they are safe now (T‑6.V.2:1‑3).

Again, this passage is really about how the Holy Spirit deals with big children–us. But what does it tell us about the miniature version? It reminds us that children are afraid of the dark and plagued by nightmares. Further, they believe their nightmares are real, “because children believe in magic.” I take this to be a reference to what psychologists call “magical thinking,” in which one’s thoughts, words or deeds are seen as magically causing some outcome in reality. In the case of children’s nightmares, magical thinking means that children believe that their private mental images are somehow real events which make a real difference in reality. This is similar to the views of many indigenous peoples who believe their dreams are real excursions to other places.

Children, then, think that scary things lurk in the dark, believe their nightmares are real and believe their mental images have a magical effect on reality. All of this is summed up in a line that occurs two paragraphs after the passage we just examined:

Children do confuse fantasy and reality, and they are frightened because they do not recognize the difference (T‑6.V.4:3).

Children confuse fantasy and reality. They think their imaginations are real and this scares them because they imagine scary things. This confusion of fantasy and reality is perhaps the major theme about children in the Course, as we will see in the next several passages.

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, children are depicted as misinterpreting reality and being frightened by their misinterpretations. In the darkness of their bedrooms, they see a curtain and think it is a ghost; see a shadow and think it is a monster; dream of a dragon and think the dragon is real (another reference to confusing nightmares with reality). Didn’t we all, as children, have such experiences? Therefore, children need a trusted adult to help them translate their misinterpretations into what is really there. When this happens, their fears will transform into laughter.

Fairy tales can be pleasant or fearful, but no one calls them true. Children may believe them, and so, for a while, the tales are true for them. Yet when reality dawns, the fantasies are gone (T‑9.IV.11:6‑8).

Here is another confusion of fantasy and reality. Children may actually believe that fairy tales are true, but the goal is not to stay in this state. It is to awaken from fantasies, to experience the dawning of reality.

Our next passage speaks of someone looking up at the clouds and imagining figures and action in the changing cloud patterns:

Figures stand out and move about, actions seem real, and forms appear and shift from loveliness to the grotesque. And back and forth they go, as long as you would play the game of children’s make-believe (T‑18.IX.7:3‑4).

In this familiar game, children are not truly mistaking fantasy for reality. They are merely pretending that the cloud patterns are actual figures. What we were dealing with before was an involuntary confusion of fantasy and reality. Now we are talking about a voluntary partaking in fantasy. This brings up the whole subject of toys and games:

Who has need of toys but children? They pretend they rule the world, and give their toys the power to move about, and talk and think and feel and speak for them. Yet everything their toys appear to do is in the minds of those who play with them. But they are eager to forget that they made up the dream in which their toys are real, nor recognize their [the toys’] wishes are their [the children’s] own (T‑29.IX.4:5‑8).

Notice the inherent rub in the use of toys. On the one hand, the toys are not really doing anything. They are simply being puppeted by the child. Like a ventriloquist’s dummy, the toys are being made to think the child’s thoughts, speak the child’s words, carry out the child’s actions. On the other hand, the child must do his best to forget all this, or else it is no fun. As the ventriloquist, the child tries to give the audience the illusion that the dummy is actually alive. Only in this case, the child is the audience. The child must purposefully try to fool himself, to substitute fantasy for reality, for the sake of his own enjoyment. The discussion of toys in the Course continues:

Nightmares are childish dreams. The toys have turned against the child who thought he made them real. Yet can a dream attack? Or can a toy grow large and dangerous and fierce and wild? This does the child believe, because he fears his thoughts and gives them to the toys instead. And their reality becomes his own, because they seem to save him from his thoughts (T-29.IX.5:1-6).

This passage combines two topics: toys and dreams. It is a difficult passage to understand, but here is what I think it means. A child has destructive thoughts, thoughts he thinks he shouldn’t have. These thoughts scare the child; they seem to be a threat to him. To save himself from these thoughts, he gives them to the toys to act out for him. This gives him a harmless outlet for his destructive thoughts. But more than that, it distances him from these dangerous thoughts by making them, in effect, someone else’s. In other words, there is a darker motive behind the child giving his thoughts to the toys and then forgetting he did so. It is not just to make his play more fun, but to escape from his own frightening thoughts.

Now, when the child falls asleep, he is apt to have nightmares in which his toys have turned against him. Why? Because the toys have become the carriers of the thoughts that threaten him. Given this, the most logical thing for the toys to do (at least in the child’s imagination) is to threaten him, to turn against him. And so in his nightmare, a favorite toy grows “large and dangerous and fierce and wild” and turns on him. This discussion continues in the next paragraph:

The dream of judgment is a children’s game, in which the child becomes the father, powerful, but with the little wisdom of a child. What hurts him is destroyed; what helps him, blessed. Except he judges this as does a child, who does not know what hurts and what will heal. And bad things seem to happen, and he is afraid of all the chaos in a world he thinks is governed by the laws he made (T‑29.IX.6:4-7).

Now the full picture becomes clearer. The child has fantasies of ruling the world (as we saw in a previous passage), of taking the place of his father (“the child becomes the father”), of playing god. Every child feels frustratingly powerless and would like his every wish to be instantly obeyed, his every desire magically satisfied. And so, somewhere inside, he has secret fantasies in which everything that pens in his will is vengefully swept aside, including his parents. Now he is the omnipotent ruler, who dishes out instant death to his enemies and lavish reward to his friends.

These, of course, are the frightening thoughts that we referred to above. And how frightening they are! They terrify the child for two reasons: First, these thoughts seem to make the child bad and threaten him with repercussions (we touched on this above); second, a child is not ready to run things on his own. He needs his parents. He needs their protection and guidance. He does not yet know what hurts him and what will help him (which reminds us of our first passage about the baby with scissors). He still has “the little wisdom of a child.” For these reasons, his fantasies of ruling the world, exhilarating as they may seem, are permeated with fear, which oozes up through every crack in the fantasy world.

These fears come out in countless stories that remind us of the above passage. In these stories, someone has fantasies of domination and omnipotence, of ruling the world. But he is unequal to the task, and he deserves to be taught a lesson for his wicked thoughts. And so things come crashing down around him. His weapons backfire and end up killing him. His robots, built to destroy others, end up turning on their creator. We can see these stories as manifestations of the dynamics the Course is pinpointing here, dynamics which are perhaps more obvious in children but exist in us all.

I am no child psychologist. If I were (and if I followed the Course), the last few passages would most likely drive me nuts. They probably raise far more questions than they contain answers for. Yet we can be fairly sure of at least one thing: The Course sees children’s play as far less innocent than we normally assume. It sees at least some of this play as being driven by dark motives, motives which could even be characterized as patricidal and matricidal, motives that scare the child, impelling him to throw them out of his mind and onto his toys.

But it is not just our view of children’s play that is blown here. So much of what we romanticize about children is exploded. The last several passages have targeted a long list of childhood items: fantasy, imagination, magic, dreams, play, pretend, make-believe, toys, games, fairy tales (we could also throw myths into this; see T-4.II.8-9). All of these have in common a single thing: the ability of the mind to roam free into realms of its own making, far from the constricting chains of reality. We look at children engaging in these activities and we feel a little wistful. Aah, we think, if only our minds were as free as children’s. If only we too could unchain our minds and let them soar into imaginary realms of their own construction.

Many of us see this as a spiritual process. Fantasy, imagination, magic, dreams: These are sacred pillars of the spiritual realm–at least for many of us. The Course, however, sees it very differently. These are all negative terms in its system, terms associated with the ego. Why? Don’t these abilities lift us out of this mundane world and into new realities? Isn’t leaving the physical world behind for invisible, happier realities the very essence of the Course?

True, in the Course we do overlook the world and focus our minds on an invisible, happier reality. But this reality is received from God, not dreamt up by our own imagination. Can we use our imagination in service of this goal? I think we can. After all, it takes a great deal of imagination to really entertain the things the Course is talking about. Lesson 107, for instance, guides us through a process in which we “imagine what a state of mind without illusions is” (2:1). Yet this is one of those cases where the Holy Spirit is redirecting something we originally made for the ego. His use of imagination is dramatically different than ours. In His use, rather than letting our minds roam in “realities” of our own making, we attune them to a pre-existing reality that Someone Else created.

The Course is quite clear about what is going on when we retreat from our everyday world into fantasy realms of our own devising. There is a discussion of this in “The Basis of the Dream” (T-18.II), which focuses on the process by which nighttime dreams are generated (which, incidentally, appears to be exactly the same as the process we just saw behind children’s play, though I won’t detail the parallels here). According to this section, we are angry at our daytime “reality,” because we don’t get our way. This leads us to want to change it, to forcibly remold it to suit our wishes, “to triumph over it and make it serve you” (T-18.II.3:8). This deep-seated urge is the source of our nighttime dreams:

Dreams are perceptual temper tantrums, in which you literally scream, “I want it thus!”…They are your protest against reality, and your fixed and insane idea that you can change it (T‑18.II.4:1, 5:15).

Notice the imagery of children throwing a temper tantrum and screaming, “I want!” This childish process, the Course implies, is at the root of the entire realm of dreams, fantasy, magic, imagination, games and make-believe. They are all our “protest against reality.” They are our private triumph over all that triumphed over us in the public forum. They are our vengeance on our oppressive daytime lives (which is why many fantasies are so clearly fantasies of vengeance).

The Course, then, takes a dim view of the whole realm of fantasy. Why? Because when we are floating off in imaginary realms of our own construction, we are dissociated from true reality. Our retreat from daytime “reality” into fantasy, then, is simply a reflection of our larger retreat from Heaven into illusions. It is a miniature version of the process that made this imaginary world.

What does this say about childhood? The Course depicts childhood as a state in which this process is especially evident. In childhood, fantasy is readily confused with reality, either on purpose (as in pretend and make-believe) or because children cannot tell the difference. This adds up to a very simple idea: Children are out of touch with what is real, being more in touch with their own imaginary constructions. In short, according to A Course in Miracles, childhood is a state of illusion.

Children are afraid

Our next passage is strikingly similar to the toy passages we examined above.

A child is frightened when a wooden head springs up as a closed box is opened suddenly, or when a soft and silent woolly bear begins to squeak as he takes hold of it. The rules he made for boxes and for bears have failed him, and have broken his “control” of what surrounds him. And he is afraid, because he thought the rules protected him. Now must he learn the boxes and the bears did not deceive him, broke no rules, nor mean his world is made chaotic and unsafe. He was mistaken. He misunderstood what made him safe, and thought that it had left (T‑30.IV.2:2‑7).

The child wants to omnipotently control his environment, but he is insecure about his ability to do this. Instead, he fears that his environment has control over him. In order to gain control, he needs to figure out the rules by which things work. If he understands how they work, he can anticipate danger and respond to it effectively. So, based on his observations, he devises in his mind the rules by which he thinks a box works, or the rules by which a woolly bear works. Once he devises these rules, he thinks they are what keep him safe. After all, they are what allow him to anticipate and respond to danger.

Thus, when the box or the bear behave outside of his rules for them, what happens? He is frightened. He has lost his control over his environment. His rules have been broken and so his safety has seemingly fled. Clearly, the child is in a profound state of illusion. He has failed to make the right rules for how bears and boxes work (just as our earlier child failed to discern that the ghost was really only a curtain). And because he thought these rules made him safe, he now feels threatened by toys that are completely harmless. He feels endangered and deceived by them, even though they are behaving exactly as they are supposed to. He thinks his world is thrown into chaos, even though everything is fine. He has thus not only been wrong about the toys, he has been wrong about where his safety really comes from. It does not come from his rules, but from the fact that, hopefully, his parents do not allow dangerous objects into his environment.

The child, therefore, is in a state of unreality. But we have already discussed this at length. What I want to focus on now is that the child is afraid. This theme has run through almost every passage we have looked at. This, in fact, will give us an opportunity to summarize all that we have seen.

First, recall that a child does not know what is best for her and cannot reliably decide what will make her safe. Thus, she might think that scissors are a great toy. She is therefore prone to injuring herself and this must give rise to fear. The child also does not know how to get around in her world. She is given to stumbling, losing the way, wandering off, not looking where she is going. Thus, she only feels safe–free of fear–when a parent is leading her. Further, the child is unable to discern reality from fantasy, and this, too, is frightening. She tends to interpret harmless objects as frightening ghosts and monsters. She is afraid of the dark and plagued by nightmares. She lives in a world where magic happens, but much of this is dark, scary magic.

She retreats from a world that does not satisfy her every whim into a world of pretend, play and make-believe, where she can get her way. Yet there is a frightening side to this as well. For she has her toys act out her own frightening thoughts, her thoughts of wanting to control and triumph over this unfair world. She has them act out her rage. Now her frightening thoughts seem to be looming outside of her, in the toys, in the world, and so she unconsciously fears that her toys will turn against her and her world will fall into chaos. She tries to gain control over her world by figuring out its rules. Inevitably, however, her world breaks the rules she thought it obeyed, seemingly threatening her safety. Unconsciously, she interprets this as a sign that her evil thoughts are coming home to roost, that she is being punished for trying to be the one in charge. And she is reminded that, in trying to control her world, she is in way over her head.

All in all, the Course sees childhood as a state of fear. Fear lurks in every corner, underneath every bed, behind every closet door. It is no wonder that children have nightmares.


This is clearly about as unromantic a view of childhood as you can get. According to A Course in Miracles, childhood is a state of illusion and a state of fear. To soften this seemingly harsh view, let us realize that the Course is not singling children out. On the contrary, it is refusing to single them out. This is how the Course sees everything in this world. In a crazy world, where no one knows what’s what, where everyone is terrified and all of us are haunted by our own aggressive impulses, children, alas, are no exception.

The Course’s view may sound extreme, yet the more I have pondered it, the more it seems to take into account the obvious, the main currents of childhood. Children are afraid and they do live in a world of fantasy and make-believe. And the Course is not alone in seeing this. In a recent essay in Time magazine (April 6 edition) reflecting on the shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Lance Morrow echoes the Course’s sentiments with an eery specificity. His comments, in fact read like a concluding summary of what I have presented:

It seems grotesque to think of the Jonesboro slaughter in terms of play. But that is a way to approach the otherwise mystifying spectacle of children gunning down children. First of all, play is not necessarily innocent. Nor is childhood. The innocence of children (which was the unspoken premise of much horrified commentary last week about the Arkansas shooting) is an adult myth. The reality is children’s extreme vulnerability; their storms of anger and irrationality and their dramatically imaginative lives, which conjure monsters and heroes and set them in motion….Those imaginations sometimes indulge crazy fantasies of revenge and annihilating vindication.

In light of what is there in childhood for any observer to see, how is it that so many of us have so romanticized, even divinized, the state of childhood? The Course provides a possible answer to this. Lesson 182 says that somewhere inside, every single one of us knows that we are not at home here. Hence, we endlessly search for our true home, for the place we really belong, and for a state of innocence we fear we lost. Then it says this:

Perhaps you think it is your childhood home that you would find again. The childhood of your body, and its place of shelter, are a memory now so distorted that you merely hold a picture of a past that never happened. Yet there is a Child in you Who seeks His Father’s house, and knows that He is alien here (W‑pI.182.4:1‑3).

I see several relevant points here. First, the Course doesn’t trust our memory of our childhood nor of our childhood home. In fact, it won’t even dignify these things by calling them that. Childhood is merely “the childhood of your body.” It is not our beginning, but only the beginning of our body. Likewise, our childhood home is not really a home at all; it is just a “place of shelter” that protected our body. We, on the other hand, have placed all kinds of meaning onto these things that wasn’t really there. We tend to look back through a haze of memories formed and re-formed, over and over again, to the point where the childhood we remember never even happened.

Many of us, of course, remember a horrible childhood. Yet others of us look back through rose-colored glasses. That is who this passage is addressed to, to those of you who “think it is your childhood home that you would find again.” Why do some of us bend our memories in this direction? Why do we remember an idyllic childhood that never really happened? Because we want to find our true home and our original innocence, which we sense we had once, but which we think we lost somewhere along the way. For some of us, childhood seems to fit this description rather well.

We don’t realize that what we are looking for is not in this world, but in us; that within us is the perfectly innocent Child and the pristine home of Heaven itself. No, we assume, perfection cannot be right here and right now. Look at our burdensome adult lives. Perfection cannot be inside of us. Look at our tarnished souls. It must lie somewhere else; in the past, in a distant time and place. That is where we must look to find it. And so we displace our yearning for our true home and true innocence onto a pseudo-version of these things, onto our childhood past. Then we subtly alter our memories so that this past seems to fit the bill.

Do you see what we have done? We have retreated from true reality, within us here and now, into an imaginary past that we have fabricated. We have retreated from reality into fantasy. We have done exactly what a child does! This is what we are doing anytime we look for paradise in a romanticized past or a fantasized future. By thinking that paradise lies in a return to childhood we are proving that we don’t need to return. We are still there.

A final note

Does the Course have anything truly positive to say about children? Aren’t there any special virtues which they have and which we adults have lost? I am happy to say that the answer to both questions is actually “yes.” Let’s look at one final passage:

The Bible tells you to become as little children. Little children recognize that they do not understand what they perceive, and so they ask what it means (T‑11.VIII.2:1‑2).

In this passage, children have a special virtue, but it is neither innocence nor spiritual wisdom. It is simply that they realize they do not understand and so they are willing to ask. Being in a state of illusion and a state of fear, they implicitly recognize that they need help. Their special virtue, in other words, is that they know they need their parents. This brings us to the whole topic of parenting, the subject of my next article.


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