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All of the world’s religions make mention of the essential human virtues—and ask us to teach them to our children:
Every child must be trained in the things of the spirit, so that he may embody all the virtues and become a source of glory … – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 142.
An education in the inner human virtues can take shape in a variety of ways. Spiritual learning is not a process that is suited only to a classroom environment, for it is a learning experience that never stops. It is taught more by what we do than by what we say. Parents and other family members, who are the first teachers of their children, provide an example their children will readily follow, and there is much that they can do to create learning opportunities.
A formal education in a classroom setting with teachers as mentors and exemplars is yet another means by which children can learn about and apply the many virtues of God in their own lives. However, the first and most important role of parents, according to the Baha’i teachings, is teaching children to work and strive by giving them a taste of how to deal with the hardships of life they will inevitably face as adults:
While the children are yet in their infancy feed them from the breast of heavenly grace, foster them in the cradle of all excellence, rear them in the embrace of bounty. Give them the advantage of every useful kind of knowledge. Let them share in every new and rare and wondrous craft and art. Bring them up to work and strive, and accustom them to hardship. Teach them to dedicate their lives to matters of great import, and inspire them to undertake studies that will benefit mankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 129.
If we are trying to raise our children spiritually, it makes an enormous impact on their character to accustom them to hardship. This may be a novel and perhaps even shocking notion to many parents. The last thing we want for our children is to see them suffer or know sadness; it’s painful for us to see our children suffer. Yet there is an undeniable wisdom to this Baha’i principle.
Perhaps the wisest person is the one who has grown up with an appreciation for, and an understanding of, what it means to struggle in life. Having too many privileges without earning them or receiving too many things without having to work for them prevents a person from learning empathy, and precludes the understanding that can be gained from making personal sacrifices.
For children, learning that not every demand is responded to favorably and that not every path is easily traversed is a valuable spiritual lesson. After all, growing up is itself a struggle. A good analogy that illustrates this principle can be seen in the infant who is trying to learn to sit up on her own. A father can lovingly help the baby to sit by propping her up with pillows or balancing her against his own body. When the father does this the baby is in fact “sitting up,” but the necessary development is for the baby to learn and to develop the physical strength to do it herself. This is not a simple feat. It takes months of physical development, practice, and frustration before mastering this skill—one that most physically capable adults take for granted. Though there will inevitably be falls and mishaps along the way, and though it would be easier and less painful for the baby to give up and quit trying, the parents know that this is an important, if challenging, physical milestone. If the child gives up at this stage, unwilling to endure the frustration or put forth the effort to master the skill, her development is arrested and other important physical developmental milestones such as crawling, standing, walking, and so forth, will be nearly impossible to reach.
So there is great value in realizing that some lessons are very hard to learn, some goals are not attainable, and suffering has its place. If children do not learn this, they will not be prepared for the unexpected, unfortunate, and unavoidable reality of tragedy and loss in their own lives. This will make it much more difficult for them to grow beyond their current spiritual condition to develop the virtues latent within their souls.
Perhaps the hardest lesson for parents to learn is to not accommodate their children’s every whim or fancy—but to instill an appropriate sense of the need for sacrifice and struggle in their lives. This notion has to be balanced with moderation, however, as the intent is not to force children to suffer unreasonably, but to help them realize that disappointment and struggle are just normal, necessary parts of the process of spiritual growth and improvement:
… with clear vision we are enabled to struggle onward and upward, ever progressing in the paths of virtue and holiness, and becoming the means of light to the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 83.