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Our youngest daughter is just a step away from adolescence, on the cusp of entering a new—and sometimes problematic—stage of life.
Like many parents of kids this age, we worry about the current state of society. How can we protect our children from the waves of prejudice that assail them everywhere they go? How can we help them face cruelty without becoming heartless? How can we teach them to love humanity, but also protect themselves from bad influences? My husband and I, and many of our friends, ask ourselves these kinds of questions all the time.
Our responsibility as parents is great, and we know that it doesn’t end when we find a good school for our children. To generate a positive family environment doesn’t seem to be enough anymore, either. Our children, we’ve realized, need a community where they can practice the values and talents we help them develop. The Baha’i teachings say that
Parents have the responsibility of ensuring that their children are educated and, to the extent possible, must provide the material support for their academic or vocational training up through their youthful years; parents also continue during this period to offer them moral and practical guidance as befit their parental duties and with respect to the spiritual obligation which they share in common with their Baha’i children. – The Universal House of Justice, October 28, 1992.
So, we need to educate ourselves and our children, while at the same time we need to give them moral guidance.
A few years back, we had junior youth groups in our town: groups for kids 12-15 years old that help them to develop capacities of spiritual perception and reflection through group study of deep topics and through community service. In this environment, we learned, these early adolescents develop strong friendships with their peers and with older youth that act as the “animators” of the group, helping to coordinate their activities.
Thanks to the junior youth groups we had in our town, we’ve seen with our own eyes how they help kids weather the storms that inevitably accompany their exit from childhood and their entry into the turbulent adolescent years. This age cohort, according to the Universal House of Justice, represents:
… a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mold their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth … – To the Baha’is of the World, April 2000.
Our daughter needs these kinds of social interactions and programs of activity. As she approached adolescence, we realized that we didn’t have a group in our town that she could be a part of. We asked her what she thought about forming one, and if we could also invite one of her best friends. We were sure both of them would love to be part of a group. One of the youth in our community who had previous experience as an animator also committed to helping us.
We knew we would have to work together to form the group. I contacted some of the mothers from school and from my neighborhood, and we went together to explain what the junior youth program was all about, and to invite the kids. As it was the middle of the school year, many of the kids were already engaged in other after-school activities (like soccer, Sunday school, etc.) and to find a time when the group could meet became a real challenge.
The group started its activities with a visit to a senior home in town. For several logistic reasons, only two junior youth were able to go with the animator: my daughter and her friend. They spent the afternoon visiting and talking with the seniors. This experience touched the heart of these kids. We saw our daughter come home with a new light in her eyes.
Today, when society can harden the hearts of our children so early in life, it was encouraging to see this light generated by service to others.
As parents, we need to dedicate this care and extra effort for the development of our community to the well-being of humanity, and especially for the well-being of our own children. We might not be ready to be in charge of these groups, but we can create the opportunities for these activities to grow in our neighborhoods. We can offer our home for meetings or transportation for the kids, invite our friends’ children, talk regularly with the animator to see how the group is doing and what they might need, and learn how these activities work so we can help in any way we can.
Today, the group is still inviting other friends, and though they have had some difficulties meeting every week, they are doing their best. This effort is what we want for our daughter, so she sees that everything good in life requires effort and perseverance. That is something we always talk about at home, but thanks to the junior youth group she is living it in a group, with her friends.
Next year will surely bring new challenges for us, but with the new group and her animator, I know we are not alone anymore.