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Instructing children in the methodology of developing inner virtues is one of the greatest gifts parents can bestow.
In the Baha’i teachings, what has been called Abdu’l-Baha’s “golden rule” of education is the axiom that the early training of the child in forming habits and patterns of self-discipline is relatively easy—the word “relatively” being the operative term here. But as a youth approaches the age of maturity (fifteen years of age for Baha’is), change in essential patterns of behavior becomes increasingly arduous, for both parent and child:
Children are even as a branch that is fresh and green; they will grow up in whatever way ye 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 not be defiled by lusts and passions in the way of animals, heedless and unaware, but instead will set their hearts on achieving everlasting honour and acquiring all the excellences of humankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 136.
Indeed, it is virtually axiomatic that without some capacity for self-discipline, a developing child cannot be released from one level of response in order to ascend to the next. Consequently, the early training of the child in the formation of good habits and in the initiation of self-discipline becomes, when properly taught, when nurtured instead of being coerced, a key to the child’s freedom, a truly precious gift, a profound expression of love—not, as some would have it, stifling the child’s creative spirit.
Once we become accustomed to the rewards of applied habit and discipline, the less likely it is that we will be overwhelmed by the initial difficulties that inevitably occur in the struggle against the natural inertia or resistance to growth. In fact, attempting spiritual growth without discomfort is like trying to become physically conditioned without enduring stress, sore muscles, and repetitious exercises.
If a child has not been trained to persist in spite of anxiety and discomfort, if he or she has not experienced analogous situations in which persistence, willpower, and repeated effort have paid off and proved rewarding, no degree of assurance about abstract spiritual rewards will likely prove sufficient impetus to ensure success in exhorting the child to change. Indeed, nothing is more frustrating to a child than constantly to be admonish to be “good” without having any concrete example of exactly what this nebulous abstract reality of “goodness” really is or how exactly it is attained.
The child needs to be aware of this initial discomfort in acquiring patterns of behavior—good habits—so that when the child begins to weigh the value of moral principles against the enticements of sensuality, what “feels good” will not be the sole index as to what is the best course of action to follow. If the child is allowed to assume this commonly held epicurean philosophy of catering only to comfort, it is virtually certain that he or she is doomed from the start.
As an aside, if we think about it much, this same principle holds true in our investigation of religion. If we search for a set of beliefs that does not challenge us, if our sole criterion for discovering a suitable and credible system of belief is that it “feels comfortable,” we may be in danger of assuming that our current state of development is the proper touchstone, the correct standard by which to judge beliefs—that we are already in a state of perfection.
Obviously the reverse should be the case—we need to assess our own progress by a standard independent of our own condition, a standard that is based on spiritual truths that describe reality, but also a standard that continually exhorts us to strive beyond our present state of stasis and achievement.
Finally, we may choose not to use the metaphorical classroom to advance our growth, but all creation, from the smallest seed to the universe itself, exhorts us to fulfill our inherent destiny, to ascend from mere physical subsistence and to soar in the heights of human perfection:
… the human embryo grows and develops gradually in the womb of its mother and assumes different forms and conditions until it reaches maturity with the utmost beauty and appears in a consummate form with the utmost grace. In like manner, the seed of this flower which you see before you was, in the beginning, a small and insignificant thing, but it grew and developed in the womb of the earth and assumed different forms until it appeared with such perfect vitality and grace in this degree. It is likewise clear and evident that this terrestrial globe came to exist, grow, and develop in the matrix of the universe and assumed different forms and conditions until it gradually attained its present completeness, became adorned with countless beings, and appeared in such a consummate form. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 210.