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As parents, what do you want most for your children?
Of course, we all want our kids to become successful when they grow up. We want them to have good educations and good jobs. We want them to be happy and productive, to have stable, loving relationships. We want them to be high achievers, to excel at what they choose to do. We want them to avoid the most terrible, devastating tests of adolescence and adulthood—drug addiction, alcoholism, criminal activity, abusive relationships, depression, poverty and misery. We want them, most of all, to become kind and caring adults—to have a sense of moral responsibility toward others.
The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology published a fascinating, internationally-recognized research study on this subject fifteen years ago, called “Value Hierarchies Across Cultures,” which concluded that “school teachers in 56 nations and college students in 54 nations” agree that “benevolence, self-direction, and universalism values are consistently most important” in the raising of children. The research found that parents and teachers from widely-varying cultures valued altruism, benevolence and caring much more than they valued any measure of achievement or material success.
In other words, most parents want, more than anything, to raise kind, caring children.
But that’s not easy to do, especially in today’s more materialistic, selfish and narcissistic societies. Even when kind, altruistic parents attempt to raise children with those basic moral values, they often fail. Instead, our cultures teach children and adolescents to “look out for number one,” to get what they can for themselves, and to compete ferociously, at the expense of others, for position and achievement.
So how do we raise morally well-adjusted children to become kind and caring adults? How do we accentuate and encourage a child’s most generous, loving and helpful spiritual tendencies; and try to control and de-emphasize their more negative and harmful material ones?
It turns out that religion and science both have a great deal to say about these questions, and in this series of essays on raising moral children, we’ll try to use both of those resources to answer them.
Let’s start by exploring some of the most recent science on the genetics of caring. Research has shown that we genetically inherit some measure of our ability to care about others. Many studies have discovered that even babies have altruistic moral tendencies long before they acquire language, which leads scientists to the conclusion that humans have an inborn, natural inclination toward kindness and moral behavior. Studies of genetically identical twins suggest that we inherit somewhere between a quarter and half of our propensity toward inborn giving and caring behaviors.
In other words, some percentage of our innate character already tends toward caring and kindness. But if we get even half of our kindness and caring from a genetic predisposition; that means the other half comes from nurture, from our environment and from the way we’re brought up. Our education, our upbringing and our cultural experiences influence our moral development significantly.
That’s why, psychologists and sociologists have concluded, moral laws exist in our human societies. We evolve and enforce them so human beings can unify, work together cooperatively and establish larger societies. Religion, many now acknowledge, plays a large part in that process:
“If we didn’t have religious minds we would not have stepped through the transition to groupishness,” says Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We’d still be just small bands roving around. Those who found ways to bind themselves together were more successful.”
Dr. Haidt’s work on human moral development has convinced many scientists and psychologists that our evolution has gradually curbed our selfishness through natural selection. In order for people to live together and cooperate in larger societies, Haidt’s research indicates, they have had to develop a sense of reciprocity and fairness; as well as a larger, group-driven ethic of sanctity, faithfulness and moral rightness. Individuals and cultures who successfully develop those character traits tend to flourish; historians have concluded, while those without them tend to fail.
The Baha’i teachings agree; and emphasize the spiritual utility of selflessness:
The man who thinks only of himself and is thoughtless of others is undoubtedly inferior to the animal because the animal is not possessed of the reasoning faculty. The animal is excused; but in man there is reason, the faculty of justice, the faculty of mercifulness. Possessing all these faculties he must not leave them unused. He who is so hard-hearted as to think only of his own comfort, such a one will not be called man. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 10, p. 118.
When we teach our children to prefer others over themselves, we build on that child’s inherent altruism, reinforce their inclination toward kindness and enhance the caring for others that each child naturally feels:
…among the teachings of Baha’u’llah is voluntary sharing of one’s property with others among mankind. This voluntary sharing is greater than equality, and consists in this, that man should not prefer himself to others, but rather should sacrifice his life and property for others. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 302.
But raising moral children involves much more than just teaching them to share and sacrifice. Instilling a kind, caring morality into children demands a multi-faceted and diligent child-rearing process. In the subsequent essays in this series, let’s explore what it takes to raise truly moral children.
Next: Children: Naturally Mean, or Naturally Kind?