Musings on Motherhood: No Nobler Deed

As many parts of the world are celebrating ‘Mother’s Day’, I find myself reflecting on the high standard in the Baha’i Writings for our youth, and I can’t help but think about the importance of moral and spiritual education during those precious first years of a child’s life. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

You must be distinguished amidst men by your sanctity and detachment, loftiness of purpose, magnanimity, determination, noble mindedness, tenacity, the elevation of your aims and your spiritual qualities; that you may become the means of exaltation and glory for the Cause of God and the dawning places of His heavenly bestowals; that you may conduct yourselves in conformity with the counsels and exhortations of the Blessed Beauty — may my life be offered up for His loved ones — and by reflecting Baha’i qualities and attributes, you may stand out distinguished from others.1

Society tends to downplay the significance of being a mother. What do you suppose attracts more interest when I answer that typical question at dinner parties: “What do you do?” Lawyer or mother? Usually, when I choose to answer, “I am a mother,” people smile and say, “Oh, that’s nice.” There is never an incredibly interested follow-up question on what kind of exciting parenting I practice. The polite ones never say it, but some of them are probably thinking, “You’re a mom? What do you do all day?” Indeed mothers, myself included, often fail to comprehend the momentousness of the work we do, when in fact, according to Abdu’l-Baha, “no nobler deed can be imagined!”2

As Baha’is, our understanding of the Writings of our Faith should inform everything we do. I was so grateful to my own mother for giving me A Compilation on Baha’i Education when I first found out I was expecting. I just wish I had spent more time studying and reflecting on it before my son was born. Nowadays, I’m lucky if I can get through reading a passage before falling fast asleep. And yet, as I try to read and reflect upon it, I begin to understand why being a mother “is a great and important affair and a high and exalted position.”3

In a Tablet translated from the Persian, Abdu’l-Baha describes this most necessary responsibility entrusted to mothers:

O maid-servants of the Merciful! It is incumbent upon you to train the children from their earliest babyhood! It is incumbent upon you to beautify their morals! It is incumbent upon you to attend to them under all aspects and circumstances, inasmuch as God—glorified and exalted is He! — hath ordained mothers to be the primary trainers of children and infants. This is a great and important affair and a high and exalted position, and it is not allowable to slacken therein at all! If thou walkest in this right path, thou wouldst become a real mother to the children, both spiritually and materially…4

Just think of the implications for the advancement of civilization when mothers become “real mothers to the children, both spiritually and materially”. What new race of men lies potentially waiting to unfold in our little ones?

The task of bringing up a Baha’i child, as emphasized time and again in Baha’i writings, is the chief responsibility of the mother, whose unique privilege is indeed to create in her home such conditions as would be most conducive to both his material and spiritual welfare and advancement. The training which a child first receives through his mother constitutes the strongest foundation for his future development, and it should therefore be the paramount concern of your wife…to endeavour from now imparting to her new-born son such spiritual training as would enable him later on to fully assume and adequately discharge all the responsibilities and duties of Baha’i life.5

Baha’u’llah tells us that the Book of God is the “unerring Balance established amongst men.”6 He of course recognizes the importance of science as a source of knowledge, but such knowledge must be weighed “in this most perfect Balance.”7 There is an increasing body of scientific research that points to the importance mentioned in the Baha’i Writings that children should receive a strong moral and spiritual education from a very young age. For example, Dr. Judith Smetana professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester affirms that “it is clear that the moral universe begins to develop very early for young children.” In a recent interview, Dr. Paul L. Harris, a professor of Education at Harvard University, says his research suggests children learn a great deal just by engaging in dialogue with their mothers. It was reaffirming to read that “conversation — and question asking — allows young children to grasp highly abstract concepts, from religion to history, at an earlier age.” It became very clear to me that it’s not just about our children having plenty of interaction with adults, but more importantly it is about the content of these conversations. Abdu’l-Baha tells us, for example, to:

…Train these children with divine exhortations. From their childhood instill in their hearts the love of God so they may manifest in their lives the fear of God and have confidence in the bestowals of God. Teach them to free themselves from human imperfections and to acquire the divine perfections latent in the heart of man. The life of man is useful if he attains the perfections of man. If he becomes the center of the imperfections of the world of humanity, death is better than life, and nonexistence better than existence.8

It would seem from these writings, that Baha’i mothers are the best equipped to have these conversations with their young. Dr. Harris goes on to explain that “[i]t’s perfectly routine for children to believe in things that they can’t observe, and they do that presumably by listening to what other people say and looking at the presuppositions in what people say. This is as much true of germs and oxygen as it is of special beings such as God or Santa Claus or the tooth fairy”. He affirms that this process of learning through interaction should commence even before kids start to talk! It really picks up around 18 to 24 months when children begin to ask an incredible amount of questions seeking information about the world. Did you know that “if a child spends one hour a day between the ages of 2 and 5 with a caregiver who is talking to them and interacting with them, they will ask 40,000 questions in which they are asking for some kind of explanation?”

My first thoughts in reading these findings were who is talking to our children? What abstract concepts about God, religion, divine perfections latent in the heart of man, are our children learning? What are kids learning about prayer? What explanations are children getting about moral choices, the existence of God, or developing a love and appreciation for Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha?

Often we hear seasoned mothers say, these precious early years pass so quickly; enjoy it while you can. And while I am aware of the many joys during these early years, I am also reminded of the implications of the fundamental moral and spiritual education that must take place, not only for the future of our child, but for the future of human progress itself. As Abdu’l-Baha warns,

It is extremely difficult to teach the individual and refine his character once puberty is passed. By then, as experience has shown, even if every effort be exerted to modify some tendency of his, it all availeth nothing. He may, perhaps, improve somewhat today; but let a few days pass and he forgetteth, and turneth backward to his habitual condition and accustomed ways.
Therefore it is in early childhood that a firm foundation must be laid. While the branch is green
and tender it can easily be made straight. Our meaning is that qualities of the spirit are the basic and divine foundation, and adorn the true essence of man; and knowledge is the cause of human progress. The beloved of God must attach great importance to this matter, and carry it forward with enthusiasm and zeal.9

Hopefully, these reflections on the vital importance of the mother especially in those first years of a child’s life will serve to inspire amazing mothers everywhere to carry on with their job “with enthusiasm and zeal” and take to heart that in the sight of God, “no nobler deed can be imagined.”

  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Prayers and Tablets for the Young, Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1978, p.30 []
  2. Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha [rev. ed.], Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1982, p. 139. []
  3. Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas, vol. III, Chicago: Baha’i Publishing Society, 1916, Vol. III, p. 606 []
  4. Ibid. p. 606 []
  5. From a letter dated 16 November 1939 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer. []
  6. The Kitab-i-Aqdas, Pages 49-63 []
  7. Ibid. Pages 49-63 []
  8. A Compilation on Baha’i Education, Pages 56-57 []
  9. A Compilation on Baha’i Education, Pages 16-17 []

About the Author

A public interest lawyer by training, Talieh has concentrated on women's rights and socio-economic development. She worked with immigrant communities in the US in the area of child health and while still in law school advocated for women's reproductive health rights under international law before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. For the past five years, Talieh has worked full-time as a mother, and teaches classes for the spiritual education of young children in her community. She lives in the Washington DC area.

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