Eleven weeks, one day, eight hours and three minutes ago my life changed forever. With the birth of our first child, I went from being an independent individual – responsible for nobody but myself – to a mother.This new task of motherhood is both difficult and precious as, all at once, I have been given the opportunity – and the challenge – to shape and raise a human being.
Abdu’l-Baha says that ‘…mothers are the first educators of mankind; if they be imperfect, alas for the condition and future of the race.’ Uh oh! And as the first educators of the young, our task as mothers is to free them ‘from human imperfections and to acquire the divine perfections latent in the heart of man.’ Ah, that’s a fairly lofty goal. How and when do I rise to meet this challenge?
The early years of a person’s life are a period of rapid development and present the greatest opportunity to shape character. While it often seems that infants are oblivious to the goings-on around them, this is not the case. The task of educating my child has actually already begun. ‘Abdu’l-Baha states:
…education begins with the milk. A child at the breast is like a tender branch that the gardener can train as he wills. ‘Abdu’l-Baha on Divine Philosophy
My regular googling pursuits as well as the visits I’ve received from midwives and attendance I’ve had at parents’ group tend to focus solely on the physical and intellectual ‘training’ of my infant. I hear, read and am bombarded with information and tips on how to progress my baby’s various milestones: grasping, swiping, rolling over, crawling, walking etc. But I hear very little about the development of empathy or emotional intelligence or spiritual attributes.
While the physical and intellectual stimulation is, of course, important, ‘Abdu’l-Baha says that we should encourage children from their earliest years to ‘master every kind of learning, and make them eager to become skilled in every art’. Training in morals and good conduct is considered ‘far more important than book learning’.
Abdu’l-Baha tells us that:
A child that is cleanly, agreeable, of good character, well-behaved – even though he be ignorant – is preferable to a child that is rude, unwashed, ill-natured, and yet becoming deeply versed in all the sciences and arts. The reason for this is that the child who conducts himself well, even though he be ignorant, is of benefit to others, while an ill-natured, ill-behaved child is corrupted and harmful to others, even though he be learned. Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha
(Of course, to be both learned and good is best, and as ‘Abdu’l-Baha goes on to describe, results in ‘light upon light’.)
Nurturing the Ability to Love
In a book I read while pregnant, Born For Love, the authors discuss the development of empathy in children and discuss the nurturing of children in a way that I think aligns well with a Baha’i perspective. They describe the interdependence of our society, and how it is ‘in our nature to nurture and be nurtured’ – that we survive as a human species because we can love.
This, I think, is similar to the Baha’i perspective on love. ‘Abdu’l-Baha states:
… love is the cause of the existence of all phenomena… Love is the essential bond of union which exists between God and all things in their ultimate reality… Love is the highest law in this great universe of God. Foundations of World Unity
In the book, the authors claim that we are born for love, but that at birth we are not yet fully loving – that ‘the gifts of our biology are a potential, not a guarantee’. Again, this aligns with the Baha’i perspective that without the right education and training, we can become ‘the manifestation of satanic qualities, the sum of animal vices, and the source of all dark conditions’.
Infants’ brains are the most malleable that they will ever be outside the womb, so nurturing their ability to love and empathise even at this very young age is critical. But how do I, as a parent, nurture this capacity?
We instinctively show love and affection to our children and attend to their needs when they cry. This consistent and repeated loving attention is actually the most important and effective method of nurturing this capacity as it tells infants that they are safe, special and secure. When infants feel this, they are able to more easily develop attributes important for their emotional and spiritual capacities – for example, an ability to form bonds and maintain healthy relationships.
With their needs met from a consistent source, they also begin to learn to be able to self-regulate – that is, be able to control their feelings and reactions. These early skills set the foundation for infants to grow into children that, with further education (such as what we find in Ruhi Book 3), are able to develop more complex spiritual attributes such as tolerance and respect for ideas and people different to themselves (that is, differences and unfamiliarity are no longer a threat).
So, simply showering my baby with love and helping him feel safe and secure, something that we do instinctively with our young, is actually an important strategy for training their characters. I reckon I can manage that.
Nurturing a Love of God
As a Baha’i, showing my child that I love them is just half the equation. Nurturing a love of God and things of the spirit is an equally important love-shower. Abdu’l-Baha says that:
… the mother must continually call God to mind and make mention of Him, and tell of His greatness, and instil the fear of Him in the child, and rear the child gently, in the way of tenderness, and in extreme cleanliness. Thus from the very beginning of life every child will be refreshed by the gentle wafting of the love of God and will tremble with joy at the sweet scent of heavenly guidance. In this lieth the beginning of the process; it is the essential basis of all the rest. A Compilation on Baha’i Education by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice
While I’m a little uncertain about how to do this when my child is so young, I try to regularly do simple activities such as sing and read prayers to him, show him pictures of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and let him know that God loves him:
Know ye the value of these children, for they are all my children. ‘Abdu’l-Baha,The Promulgation of Universal Peace
Motherhood (and fatherhood!) is a precious opportunity (and big challenge) to become greater than our own selves and focus on nurturing the next generation. As the Kahlil Gibran poem so vividly describes: ‘You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth”.
I am just a new parent, and learning my way everyday, so if you have any other ideas on how we can nurture the moral character of our infants, please share!
Love them and win their love, and shower on them all the treasures of your heart. Fill up their days with happiness, and share with them their mirth and innocent delights. Childhood is but for a day. Ere you are aware it will be gone with all its gifts for ever. George Townshend