Most parents, sooner or later, go through this upsetting and challenging experience: you learn that your child did something unkind, mean or even cruel.
When my sons were small, still in the single-digit ages, a friend told me that he had seen the older one “terrorize” the younger one. You know how it goes: the older boy threatens the younger one something like this—“if you don’t give me that toy, I’ll hit you.”
Sadly, this kind of behavior can sometimes seem common and even universal in children. Threatening physical pain or harm; forcing smaller children to do the bidding of older, larger ones; doing something mean to get your way or gain some advantage—all of these bullying patterns of behavior challenge parents to stop the meanness and turn the child’s actions toward kindness instead.
They also raise a fundamental psychological and spiritual issue: are children naturally mean, or naturally kind? Does humanity have an innately evil disposition?
Kids, as we all know, can be amazingly sweet and thoughtful. We’ve all seen children who behave in ways that exemplify kindness. On the other hand, cruelty and meanness do sometimes seem natural to children.
The Baha’i teachings account for both of those extremes in this unique way:
In the innate nature of things there is no evil—all is good. This applies even to certain apparently blameworthy attributes and dispositions which seem inherent in some people, but which in reality are not reprehensible. For example, you can see in a nursing child, from the beginning of its life, the signs of greed, of anger, and of ill temper; and so it might be argued that good and evil are innate in the reality of man, and that this is contrary to the pure goodness of the innate nature and of creation. The answer is that greed, which is to demand ever more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is displayed under the right circumstances. Thus, should a person show greed in acquiring science and knowledge, or in the exercise of compassion, high-mindedness, and justice, this would be most praiseworthy. And should he direct his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts, this too would be most praiseworthy. But should he display these qualities under other conditions, this would be deserving of blame.
It follows therefore that in existence and creation there is no evil at all, but when man’s innate qualities are used in an unlawful way, they become blameworthy. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 248-249.
This approach to child psychology and spirituality—that no child’s inherent traits are evil, bad or wrong, but that each child needs spiritual guidance to apply and use those traits properly—puts much of the responsibility for the rearing and education of children on the parents:
For the inner reality of man is a demarcation line between the shadow and the light, a place where the two seas meet; it is the lowest point on the arc of descent, and therefore is it capable of gaining all the grades above. With education it can achieve all excellence; devoid of education it will stay on, at the lowest point of imperfection.
Every child is potentially the light of the world – and at the same time its triple darkness; wherefore must the question of education be accounted as of primary importance. From his infancy, the child must be nursed at the breast of God’s love, and nurtured in the embrace of His knowledge, that he may radiate light, grow in spirituality, be filled with wisdom and learning, and take on the characteristics of the angelic host. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 129-31.
The Baha’i teachings say that the root cause of all wrongdoing is ignorance, which gives parents an enormous responsibility—they must not only eradicate ignorance by educating their children intellectually, but spiritually as well. Parents who bear children bring a sacred trust into the world. They not only have a responsibility to morally and spiritually educate the child—their parental responsibility ultimately extends outward to everyone that child interacts with during the course of his or her life:
Training in morals and good conduct is far more important than book learning. A child that is cleanly, agreeable, of good character, well-behaved – even though he be ignorant – is preferable to a child that is rude, unwashed, ill-natured, and yet becoming deeply versed in all the sciences and arts. The reason for this is that the child who conducts himself well, even though he be ignorant, is of benefit to others, while an ill-natured, ill-behaved child is corrupted and harmful to others, even though he be learned. If, however, the child be trained to be both learned and good, the result is light upon light. – Ibid., p. 135.
What’s the best way, then, to train your children in “morals and good conduct?” How can we, as parents, ensure that our children develop good characters? In the next essay in this series, let’s examine those questions and see if we can find some answers.
Next: Good Character Must Be Taught