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Spiritual education—the process of developing virtues, those potential spiritual qualities that God has imbued within us—means learning to be a good human being.
Social education requires the same development, because the skills required to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships are all based on these same character virtues.
We must raise the level of our expectations continually upward, and not teach our children to make peace with mediocrity by demonstrating our acceptance of it. We must teach by example, striving for excellence in everything we do. This does not mean that we try to exceed others, but that we actualize our own potential and exceed ourselves:
Certainly, certainly, neglect not the education of the children. Rear them to be possessed of spiritual qualities, and be assured of the gifts and favours of the Lord. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet translated from the Persian.
O Thou kind Lord! These lovely children are the handiwork of the fingers of Thy might and the wondrous signs of Thy greatness. O God! Protect these children, graciously assist them to be educated and enable them to render service to the world of humanity. O God! These children are pearls, cause them to be nurtured within the shell of Thy loving-kindness. Thou art the Bountiful, the All-Loving. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha'i Prayers, p. 36.
Practical education involves not only the cultivation of mental and spiritual skills, but also hands-on, or manual, experience. This allows us to give form to the thoughts and ideas that come to us as inspiration. These manual skills are vital to our overall education because through them we learn to build and not destroy, to cherish and not break that which is beauteous in the world.
For beauty to be valued, it must sometimes be shaped by hand and not just passively observed. It is a long-understood fact that we are less likely to devalue, deface, or vandalize that which we have designed, constructed, or decorated. Appreciation sometimes requires personal involvement. The attractiveness of a garden is enhanced when we have a hand in its planting and upkeep; art and music take on special meaning if we have developed the skills to produce or perform them ourselves. The following extract from the Baha'i teachings elaborates on the importance of applying what we know:
High aims and pure motives, however laudable in themselves, will surely not suffice if unsupported by measures that are practicable and methods that are sound. – Shoghi Effendi, Baha'i Administration, p. 87.
These practical mental, physical, and spiritual components of education are all essential to the character development of children. Parents need to praise and sustain those beneficial parts of their child’s emerging character, identify and correct those that are not, and learn to tell the difference. It is important to begin shaping the process of character development from the very beginning, because the longer we delay the process, the more difficult it becomes. Baha’is do not accept the doctrine of original sin—instead, the Baha'i teachings say every child is born in a state of purity, innocence, and nobility that can be built upon:
Man is a child of God, most noble, lofty and beloved by God, his Creator. Therefore, he must ever strive that the divine bounties and virtues bestowed upon him may prevail and control him. Just now the soil of human hearts seems like black earth, but in the innermost substance of this dark soil there are thousands of fragrant flowers latent. We must endeavor to cultivate and awaken these potentialities, discover the secret treasure in this very mine and depository of God, bring forth these resplendent powers long hidden in human hearts. - Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 293.
However, without care and guidance, this inherent nobility, purity and innocence can soon be replaced with unruly attitudes and behaviors that take root and become increasingly difficult to eradicate with the passage of time. To avoid that outcome, the Baha'i teachings recommend education as “the indispensable foundation of all human excellence:”
The education and training of children is among the most meritorious acts of humankind and draweth down the grace and favor of the All-Merciful, for education is the indispensable foundation of all human excellence and alloweth man to work his way to the heights of abiding glory. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 129.
Praying for and with our children is an integral part of spiritual parenting. Even from the child’s first days in the womb, we need to speak of God in the presence of our children, so that later in life believing in God and turning to Him for guidance will come naturally to them.
It is never too early for a child to establish a relationship with God, to memorize prayers, and get into the habit of saying them each day. In the beginning, children need their parents’ assistance to read or recite prayers, but if this is done regularly and consistently, soon they learn to pray on their own without the prompting of others.
As children grow and mature they can continue to deepen this relationship with God through prayer. Even when they are adults, parents do not stop praying for their growth and well-being. The best gift we can give to our children is to raise them with the spiritual strength to one day raise a family of their own that worships God and is spiritually focused. This Baha'i prayer for children asks God for exactly that kind of upbringing:
Glorified art Thou, O Lord my God! I give Thee thanks inasmuch as Thou hast called me into being in Thy days, and infused into me Thy love and Thy knowledge. I beseech Thee, by Thy name whereby the goodly pearls of Thy wisdom and Thine utterance were brought forth out of the treasuries of the hearts of such of Thy servants as are nigh unto Thee, and through which the Day-Star of Thy name, the Compassionate, hath shed its radiance upon all that are in Thy heaven and on Thy earth, to supply me, by Thy grace and bounty, with Thy wondrous and hidden bounties.
These are the earliest days of my life, O my God, which Thou hast linked with Thine own days. Now that Thou hast conferred upon me so great an honor, withhold not from me the things Thou hast ordained for Thy chosen ones. I am, O my God, but a tiny seed which Thou hast sown in the soil of Thy love, and caused to spring forth by the hand of Thy bounty. This seed craveth, therefore, in its inmost being, for the waters of Thy mercy and the living fountain of Thy grace. Send down upon it, from the heaven of Thy loving-kindness, that which will enable it to flourish beneath Thy shadow and within the borders of Thy court. Thou art He Who watereth the hearts of all that have recognized Thee from Thy plenteous stream and the fountain of Thy living waters. Praised be God, the Lord of the worlds. – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations, pp. 177-178.