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Children are even as a branch that is fresh and green; they will grow up in whatever way you train them. Take the utmost care to give them high ideals and goals, so that once they come of age, they will cast their beams like brilliant candles on the world, and will… set their hearts on achieving everlasting honor and acquiring all the excellences of humankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 135-136.
I have a friend, a poet, who has had some success in his craft. Every time he gives a poetry reading, he tells me, people usually ask him one standard question: “When did you start writing poetry?” He has a standard answer: “When did you stop?”
So, in the spirit of my friend’s reflective question, did you have high ideals as a child? If so, what happened to them?
My wife, an educator, has taught me over the years that children are natural-born idealists. Kids need goals, and small goals don’t really inspire anyone. High ideals and goals, her work has proven, give children a sense of purpose. They allow children to aspire to something noble, to set their sights on something worthy, to measure their lives against a big outcome.
Where children are concerned, the Baha’i teachings urge us adults to “take the utmost care to give them high ideals and goals,” so they can “set their hearts on achieving everlasting honor and acquiring all the excellences of humankind.”
I know of no better advice for parents than this wise counsel. It allows growing children an expansive and morally-aware way to see the world; and forge a path to wisdom, inclusion and unity:
A man begins with a little selfish view of Good limited to himself; after a time he learns more wisdom and his view of Good enlarges to his own household. Then with more wisdom comes the realization that Good must include his family, no matter how large. Again more wisdom, and his family becomes his village, his village his city, and in turn, his city his country. But this is not enough; as his wisdom grows, his country becomes his continent, and his continent the world his family has become mankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 10, p. 334.
Practically, then, how can parents encourage their children to adopt high ideals and goals? We all know we should praise and reward our children when they evince kind, generous behavior—but should we also praise their character?
In his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Wharton School professor of management and psychology Adam Grant details several studies that help answer those questions.
Child development researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler designed and conducted a study to investigate how different kinds of positive reinforcement helps children build a moral identity. When 7- and 8-year-olds in their research study won marbles and donated some to poor children, the researchers randomly assigned the children to receive different kinds of praise.
For some children, the researchers praised actions: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.”
For others, they praised character: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.”
In their follow-up several weeks later, when the children had more opportunities to give and share, the ones whose character had been praised were much more generous than those whose actions had been. The researchers concluded that praising a child’s character helped them internalize morality as part of their identity. The children learned about themselves from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person.
In another research project, the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan found a similar conclusion—that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs.
In Bryan’s study, to get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” he found it 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.” When our actions become a reflection of our character, all of these studies concluded, we tend to make the moral, spiritual choices. Over time, those moral habits actually become part of us.
So to inculcate high moral ideals and goals in children, science and the Baha’i teachings agree, parents should focus on praise and encouragement in building a childhood identity. Mothers especially, as the first educators of their children, have the responsibility and privilege of raising kind, moral children with high ideals and goals:
Work ye for the guidance of the women in that land, teach the young girls and the children, so that the mothers may educate their little ones from their earliest days, thoroughly train them, rear them to have a goodly character and good morals, guide them to all the virtues of humankind, prevent the development of any behaviour that would be worthy of blame, and foster them in the embrace of Baha’i education. Thus shall these tender infants be nurtured at the breast of the knowledge of God and His love. Thus shall they grow and flourish, and be taught righteousness and the dignity of humankind, resolution and the will to strive and to endure. Thus shall they learn perseverance in all things, the will to advance, high mindedness and high resolve, chastity and purity of life. Thus shall they be enabled to carry to a successful conclusion whatsoever they undertake.
Let the mothers consider that whatever concerneth the education of children is of the first importance. Let them put forth every effort in this regard, for when the bough is green and tender it will grow in whatever way ye train it. Therefore is it incumbent upon the mothers to rear their little ones even as a gardener tendeth his young plants. Let them strive by day and by night to establish within their children faith and certitude, the fear of God, the love of the Beloved of the worlds, and all good qualities and traits. Whensoever a mother seeth that her child hath done well, let her praise and applaud him and cheer his heart; and if the slightest undesirable trait should manifest itself, let her counsel the child and punish him, and use means based on reason, even a slight verbal chastisement should this be necessary. It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 124-125.
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