When my friends asked me “Should we raise our children with a religion?” I thought their question probably had this subtext: “What’s the best way to train our children morally and spiritually?”
They’ve certainly wondered, as most parents do, about the point when the moral character of a child actually comes into being.
When Does Human Character Form?
Previously, some early developmental experts believed that character formation didn’t happen until the early adult years, during the late teens and early twenties. Sigmund Freud held this view, for example. But child development specialists like the Swiss scholar and theorist Jean Piaget in the 1920s, and the German-American developmental psychologist Eric Erikson in the 1950s, asserted in their work that children start to develop their moral character much, much earlier—even in infancy.
In fact, a consensus has now emerged among those who study and research this subject: people develop the foundation of their basic moral character very early in life, somewhere between birth and the age of five or six. Of course, those findings mean something vitally important for anyone who raises a child: children need moral and spiritual training early in life. In other words, as the Baha’i teachings say, good character must be taught:
The root cause of wrongdoing is ignorance, and we must therefore hold fast to the tools of perception and knowledge. Good character must be taught. Light must be spread afar, so that, in the school of humanity, all may acquire the heavenly characteristics of the spirit …
It followeth that the children’s school must be a place of utmost discipline and order, that instruction must be thorough, and provision must be made for the rectification and refinement of character; so that, in his earliest years, within the very essence of the child, the divine foundation will be laid and the structure of holiness raised up.
Know that this matter of instruction, of character rectification and refinement, of heartening and encouraging the child, is of the utmost importance, for such are basic principles of God. …
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.
Tradition and Moral Training
For the crucial moral and spiritual training of their children, most people tend to rely on tradition, which has an important place in our lives. Tradition anchors us to our ancestors, to the past, to the things we think of as deeply important. Many of us received our early moral and spiritual training by following the religious traditions of our parents and grandparents.
But what defines a tradition? The standard Webster’s Dictionary definition says that the word tradition comes from the Latin root tradere, which means “to deliver.” It normally refers to “the handing down orally of beliefs, customs, etc. from generation to generation.”
The Baha’i teachings warn against a sole reliance on tradition in the development of moral and spiritual values:
… every man must be an investigator for himself. Ideas and beliefs left by his fathers and ancestors as a heritage will not suffice, for adherence to these are but imitations and imitations have ever been a cause of disappointment and misguidance. Be investigators of reality, that you may attain the verity of truth and life. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 291.
… it is necessary for a man to put aside all in the nature of superstition, and every tradition which would blind his eyes to the existence of truth in all religions. He must not, while loving and clinging to one form of religion, permit himself to detest all others. It is essential that he search for truth in all religions … – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 134.
We all know, however, that no parent could ever expect their small child to rationally explore and investigate the various spiritual and moral traditions, compare them and then make an informed, logical decision about which ones to believe and follow. Only adults can do that. What, then, does the Baha’i Faith—with its teachings regarding the essential oneness and harmony of all religions—recommend for the training of children?
Early Childhood Education from a Baha’i Perspective
The Baha’i teachings call for universal compulsory education for every child, regardless of race, gender, nationality or economic class. But the Baha’i teachings also point out that:
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. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 135-136.
This means, from a parental perspective, that children must receive their moral and spiritual training from the earliest possible age, and with great love and tenderness:
Ye should consider the question of goodly character as of the first importance. It is incumbent upon every father and mother to counsel their children over a long period, and guide them unto those things which lead to everlasting honour. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 133-134.
… it is in early childhood that a firm foundation must be laid. While the branch is green and tender it can easily be made straight.
Our meaning is that qualities of the spirit are the basic and divine foundation, and adorn the true essence of man; and knowledge is the cause of human progress. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 136-137.
If a young child learns those “qualities of the spirit”—the love, kindness, consideration and moral courage that reflect the underlying spiritual teachings of all Faiths—then the eventual adult that child becomes will have the essential tools necessary to live a good life, avoid blind imitation, seek the truth and make independent decisions:
… blind imitation deadens man’s senses, and when an untrammeled search for reality is made, the world of humanity will be released from the shackles of blind imitation. – Abdu’l-Baha’s letter to Martha Root.
Man must be just. We must set aside bias and prejudice. We must abandon the imitations of ancestors and forefathers. We ourselves must investigate reality and be fair in judgment. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 346.