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My children know what I do. They know that mommy goes to work and tries to help other mommies protect themselves and their children from “bad things.” I worry about how they are viewing the women I serve. I often ask myself: how can I enable my children to see that clients of the Tahirih Justice Center are powerful, strong, smart, insightful women who are fighting for justice and for the transformation of the treatment of women in their communities?
Tahirih’s clients – women and girls who have suffered greatly – don’t need our pity or our judgment, but they do need an empowering, helpful hand during a temporary stage of their lives. (Just like most of us do to differing degrees at some point in our lives.) With justice and safety, they will flourish and share their talents with the world. They are not less capable – in fact, they are often more capable than many who would never face their trials.
Naturally, all parents want their children to understand the world. We want them to grow into smart, safe and secure adults; and we want them to develop the good character traits that will allow them to thrive, be happy and selflessly help others. We want them to see themselves as a part of one human family and not as above any member of that family. The Baha’i teachings reinforce this powerful concept of humility:
O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 20.
How do we keep our children humble? How to we prevent our children who are economically privileged compared to the rest of the world, who grow up with media messages about the superiority of the United States, and who may have advantages because of their race, gender, or education level from believing that they are superior? I don’t claim to know the right way to do this. I have found myself, like many other parents, yelling ineffectively, “Eat your dinner! Don’t you know that there are starving children who have nothing?” (My kids usually just look at me and continue to refuse to eat their dinner.)
Perhaps in teaching humility we can provide them with service experiences that, when appropriate, allow them to form authentic relationships with others whose lives are very different from theirs. Through service experiences, our children might come to understand the issues and experiences of others. But, service without authentic relationships formed with those in need may result in the “voluntourism” we want to avoid.
When we meet and interact with someone who needs help, let us interact as we would with our own sister. Let us embrace them with the same love as we would a long lost friend. Let us get to know them and their strengths, as well as challenges. And, let us not judge, because none of us knows our own fate or the obstacles others might have endured. Let us be true friends.
Children are quite capable of this. One year, my children were attending a Tahirih client holiday party. We had gathered donations of toys and were about to give them out to the children. I pulled my own children aside and said, “These toys are not for you, they are for the children of our clients who have very little and aren’t receiving any gifts for Christmas.” They stared up at me and nodded in agreement.
A few minutes later, my then six year old, Serena, ran to me crying. She had been playing all evening with another little girl from Mali — who was living in a homeless shelter while her mother was fighting in the legal system to protect her from female genital mutilation. But Serena didn’t know that. With tears streaming down her face, she said, “Why can’t I have a toy? Samira is getting a toy and she is just like me! She is my sister!”
Serena saw no difference between them in their friendship. Why should she? That was a division I imposed. I quickly told her that she was right, let her have a toy, and then reimbursed the organization for it.
I pray that our children can have a deeper understanding of what it means to be of service to others than we do.