Parenting in Imitation of God

Swedenborg Foundation

By Coleman Glenn

Our early impressions of God are strongly intertwined with our early impressions of our parents. After all, when we are young children, our parents are the ones who clothe us, feed us, teach us, and sustain us—they act in some ways as surrogates for God. It’s no surprise that so many religious traditions, including Christianity, refer to God as a divine parent.


If it’s true that our ideas about parenthood shape our ideas about God, it’s also true that our understanding of God shapes how we raise our children. If we think of God as stern and dictatorial, we’re likely to be stern and dictatorial as parents. If we think of God as gentle and warm, we’re likely to act gently and warmly as parents (or at least try to!).

The Swedenborgian understanding of God comes from reading the Bible with the firm conviction that God is love and that Jesus is God. The picture of God that emerges in this reading is one of a God who loves each and every person in creation, who protects human freedom as the apple of his eye, and who always acts for the eternal welfare of all. Looking at those attributes, we can draw insights into how we might better imitate God in our parenting.

Here are three ideas that have been particularly valuable to me as a father of two young kids:

1.  Loving your child means loving everyone else’s children, too.

There are passages in the Bible that explicitly suggest acting in imitation of God. Several of them have to do with loving as God loves. This means loving not only ourselves, our own families, or people who agree with us, but loving even our enemies:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44–45)

What does this mean for parenting? Because we know our children’s hearts, we can be tempted to assume that in any conflict, they are in the right. But if we’re called to love as God loves, then we’re called to extend love to other people as much as we extend love to our own kids. Obviously, we will feel a stronger affection for our own children, but we are called to act as lovingly even toward strangers and those who seem to be our enemies.

This doesn’t mean we have to choose between loving our children with all our hearts and loving everyone else. One of my favorite Swedenborgian concepts is that in the long run, caring for an individual and caring for the good of all make for one and the same thing. For example, if we teach a child to care for the less privileged, we’re serving the less privileged and our child by creating the foundation for a life—an eternal life!—of joyful service. It’s not an either/or situation, so it’s a useful exercise to ask in any situation whether there is a course of action that will be best both for our children and for everyone with whom they are interacting.

2.  Protect your child’s freedom and sense of self—even if it’s easier not to.

My personality is such that I find it much easier to just do things myself than to try to help others do them. In some situations, this is a useful trait; in many others, though, it’s a failing. This is particularly true in parenting: it is much easier to pick up after my kids than it is to coax them to pick up after themselves. It is much easier to wrangle over my son’s head whatever shirt I choose than it is to patiently wait while he tries to choose between dinosaurs and robots.

It is significantly harder to offer a child freedom and a sense of self than it is to do everything for them. It takes much more work, but I remind myself often that the work is worth it. We do have to set limits, of course. But within those limits, it is vital that children be free to make choices and to have a sense that they are acting from themselves.

The book Divine Providence expresses just how much the Lord cares about human freedom. One of the Lord’s greatest gifts to us is heavenly freedom: the sense that we act from ourselves and that from this we have the ability to act with free will. According to Swedenborg:

The Lord protects our freedom the way we protect the pupil of our eye. The Lord . . . is constantly using our freedom to lead us away from our evils, and to the extent that he can do so through our freedom, he uses that freedom to plant good things within us. In this way, step by step he gives us heavenly freedom in place of hellish freedom. (Divine Providence §97)

It’s not easy to watch my kids make choices I don’t want them to make. But I remember that it’s not easy for the Lord to watch me make choices he’d rather didn’t make—and yet, he keeps giving me the freedom to make those choices. I think it’s important that I offer the same gift to my kids.

3.  Discipline with a purpose.

I firmly believe that there is no inherent value in punishment—it must always be for a purpose and never simply for payback. The prophet Ezekiel records God as saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). If God allows punishment, it is never for its own sake; it is always so that the person may “turn and live”:

People have charity and mercy . . . when they exercise justice and judgment, punishing the evil and rewarding the good. Charity is present in the punishment they inflict, because zeal moves them to reform the wrongdoer and to protect others from the harm such a person might do. In the process they are looking out for the best interests of the wrongdoer, their enemy, and are wishing that person well. At the same time they are looking out for and wishing well to others, and to their country itself. (Secrets of Heaven §2417)

As parents, we are required to instill discipline in our kids. While discipline is much broader than consequences or punishments—involving other such things as establishing routines—it does still have to include these kinds of corrective actions. With all our choices in this area, we need to be asking ourselves the following questions:

  • How will this disciplinary action help my child make a better choice next time?
  • How will it help protect the child herself and the people around her?

So we should keep some things in mind:

  • Encourage our children to think about what they might have done wrong and what other choices they could have made.
  • Help them come to those conclusions themselves; but if they are unable to do so, always be very clear with them.
  • Demonstrate, when possible, a clear connection between consequence and behavior (e.g., “I am going to take away the baseball bat for a week because you had trouble stopping yourself from hitting the walls with it, and that hurts the walls.”)
  • Let them know they are still loved, and let them know you believe they can make a better choice next time.

There are thousands of different perspectives on exactly the right way to set up discipline. Find what works best for you and your family, but make sure it follows these guidelines: it will work to help the child in the long run, and it will work to keep the child and others safe. Remember the first principle mentioned above: from the eternal perspective, loving our children well and loving our neighbor well make for one and the same thing. This is the perspective of God, who desires what is best for all of his children.

Coleman Glenn is an author and a New Church minister currently working with General Church Outreach in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.

Permissive parenting – what does it mean?

permissive parenting

Given the huge decline in the influence of organised religion, what is right and wrong is now mainly learned in the home and through the media.  We tend to still assume that the role of a parent is to supervise children and teach them right and wrong. But to what extent is this still happening in this age of permissive parenting?

Permissive parenting and monitoring what teenagers get up to

During the 2011 English riots there were fathers and mothers of rioting teenagers who didn’t know or claimed they didn’t know their offspring were out on the street at night. One view is that some parents could indeed take more responsibility for the behaviour of their children, but that others are struggling to cope at the best of times, sometimes dealing with chronic illness or the effects of domestic abuse. Some parents in social housing work very long hours in low paid jobs to make ends meet and cannot afford a childminder to keep an eye on their children when they are doing evening shifts or during the long school holiday.

For the rest of the population who are not particularly well off, especially younger families, money is very tight. High housing costs and reducing wages mean more mothers are obliged to go out to work for the family to make ends meet. Nevertheless there is still a common expectation these women will also do most of the domestic work in the home. As a consequence they have less to do with their children. All these factors appear to be social conditions conducive to permissive parenting.

Permissive parenting and absent fathers

One argument is that since the 1960’s, permissiveness in western culture has led to early sexualisation often not making its way into stable relationships, and that this leads to higher rates of divorce and weakened parenting. It is not inevitable that permissive parenting occurs when one parent is absent. However mothers do lack help from absent fathers to deal with bad behaviour with no-one to back them up telling kids about right and wrong.

We can only guess at this stage how many looters come from homes with incomplete parenting. From film on television, black youths were seen among the rioters. Is it a co-incidence that according to a BTEG report, 48 percent of black Caribbean families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent? This compares to the national average in the UK of 7 percent of households with children having a lone parent (according to Office of National Statistics 2007) It would be instructive to know the rate of lone parenting amongst the families bringing up the white rioters.

Permissive parenting and children’s access to mass media

Another aspect of permissiveness has been the absence of effective public censorship of film, video and television. Someone said that being in the middle of the riot was like being in the middle of a computer game or a film set. Admittedly, research into the potential anti-social effects of the media is difficult area to investigate and has not always produced consistent results. However, many academic studies do suggest a relationship between exposure to media violence and violent behaviour.

Permissive parenting is watching and exposing the family to bloodshed, sexual extortion and theft on television and video film. This can only be helping with desensitisation to violence and other horrible behaviour.

Also the distinction between the virtual and the real seems to be disappearing for some young people. The computer game ‘Grand Theft Auto’ contains some horrendous scenes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if some individuals eventually act out these hate-filled fantasies. If one opens one-self to such excitement there should be no surprise if a hellish state of mind starts to rule one’s actions. The Christian religion argues there is a reality to evil from which we need to be saved.

Permissive parenting and moral education

Parents might tell their kids about legal penalties if one is caught breaking the law and may say it is morally wrong to steal from, harm or tell lies to others. To know what is said to be right and wrong is one thing, but to understand why it is a good rule is another.  How many parents are not at home to explain their views e.g. when their kids are watching television. They may be too tired to be other than permissive in their attitude to bad behaviour in the home.

It is good to show care for others by respecting their property, helping them, and being honest with them. The hope for society is that the spiritual principles behind moral codes can be shown by adults engaging in responsible rather than  permissive parenting: then the principles can be seen as good and acceptable.

It is up to their offspring to do the rest – to think about matters, to accept what is a moral guideline worthy of following, to resolve to follow it in personal life and to resist temptation to go against it – these are all different stages in moral development.

But if they are not brought up to appreciate what makes laws good and useful they are unlikely to obey them if they believe they can get away with it. When the mob is doing crime, this is exactly what those joining in assume. They will be lost in the crowd. Their natural tendency to self-love and conceit that they know best then take over.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Loving Children for Heaven

An unexpected area that offers fertile ground for unifying science with religion is to be found from some relatively recent discoveries in neuroscience concerning the importance of love. Unlike the cerebrum, the cerebellum can continue to create new neurons within a child’s early life. The surprising stimulus that triggers the formation of these new neuron’s in a child is parental hugging, rocking, being picked up, and other forms of physical closeness including being fussed over.

So, as the cerebellum develops it can continue to form new connections with the emotional centers of the Limbic system, which in turn, promote alertness in the thinking brain or cerebrum of the child. Parental love therefore has a big effect on a child’s learning abilities and his or her curiosity of the world by implanting the affection for acquiring knowledge. While I am a Christian I was delighted to learn that in Hinduism a mother is called a child’s first guru. This is because they understood that love first opens the mind to learn.

Scientists believe that an infant deprived of the warmth and physical closeness of parental intimacy will suffer improper emotional development and reduced cell connections, which can lead to dysfunctional and anti-social behavior. But I want to return to the positive side of things, where parental love can help God’s ultimate goal of taking a child’s mind beyond normal worldly development and intellectual curiosity.

Eighteenth Century scientist and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg learned from his deep spiritual experiences that hugging and the warmth of physical closeness could also play a crucial role in the inner growth and spiritual development of a child. He discovered that God carefully protects and stores these precious moments of innocent love and peace deep within the involuntary and unconscious mind (cerebellum) of the child. Swedenborg called these stored feelings remains, because they remain protected from the developing cerebrum which is influenced by the allurements of the world.

These remains are re-activated later by God where they can be used as a foundation or matrix for further spiritual growth. This divine operation is felt in an individual as a new yearning for something greater than the physical world of the senses can offer. Its commencement is represented in the Genesis story of Holy Scripture by the passage, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). God’s moving in this deep darkness represents the stirring up of the remains within the depths of the unconscious mind, which then bubbles up into the emotional centers of the Limbic system until it becomes a new conscious striving in the cerebrum.

The Genesis story, when translated into its higher quantum vocabulary, actually addresses our spiritual re-creation or epigenesis and the seven stages that mark our return to innocence and peace (and God’s rest). Do you believe that the Holy Word can contain a multi-leveled quantum vocabulary capable of communicating God’s infinite wisdom?