Abdu’l-Baha was the eldest son of Baha’u’llah. When Abdu’l-Baha passed away on 28 November 1921, He was eulogized as One who led humanity to the “Way of Truth,” as a “pillar of peace” and the embodiment of “glory and greatness.”
Baha’is see the young as the most precious treasure a community can possess. In them are the promise and guarantee of the future. Yet, in order for this promise to be realised, children need to receive spiritual nourishment, such as can be found in the children’s classes happening all around the world.
When I first heard about Mama Papa & Me, I was excited for so many reasons. The education of children is a tremendously important duty in the Baha’i Faith. In fact, Abdu’l-Baha calls it “among the most meritorious acts of humankind”.
So when I found out that Mama Papa & Me focuses on education during the early years, which is now widely recognised among educators as being the crucial years in which the foundation for a person’s lifelong learning and wellbeing is formed, I was fascinated and wanted to know more about their Early Years Education Programme.
And then, when I discovered that Mama Papa & Me’s focus was not just on the early years, but also on helping parents and caregivers develop the capabilities they need as the first educators of their children, I definitely wanted to know more!
Serendipitiously, a family wedding brought me to London, which is where Danielle Pee, the amazingly talented founder of Mama Papa & Me, is currently based. And so I jumped on the opportunity to sit down with her and ask all my questions.
What started as a conversation about education, parenting and the work that Mama Papa & Me is doing ended up becoming a deeper conversation about capacity-building and the Baha’i approach to community development, as well as an illuminating discussion about what it means, in very practical terms, for Baha’is to attempt to contribute towards the advancement of civilization.
I gained so much from my conversation with Danielle, not just in terms of my own professional interest in education and community development, but also personally, as I listened to the story of her own inspiring journey and the many lessons she has learned along the way. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
Baha’i Blog: What is Mama Papa & Me about?
Mama Papa & Me provides advanced level training for parents, caregivers and child care professionals to equip them with the knowledge, skills and insights necessary to nurture the integrated development of all their children’s capacities intellectual, social, emotional, physical and moral.
The courses focus on the formative years, those children aged between 0-5 years. This focus comes at a time when science has shown that the first years of life are the most rapid period in brain development; it is also a time when many of the social and moral values that will guide a child through the rest of his or her life are being formed.
Baha’i Blog: How did Mama Papa & Me start? When did you first get the idea?
I worked in a Bahai-inspired NGO in India called the Foundation for the Advancement of Science. During my time in India I had several consultations on how I can direct my energies in the field of education with my boss, Sohayl Mohajer – a man with a keen sense of vision. Sohayl suggested that if I really want to contribute to the field of education, I should focus my endeavours on early years and parenting education. It was during my conversations with him and my own research that I realised that while significant headway had been made in secondary education, and interesting shoots of activity were happening in primary education, the early years as a field, was an area left largely untapped when we consider the implications of education as a means to foster one’s two-fold purpose. Meanwhile, five time zones away, in a small suburb in the south of England my youngest sister gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Many of my conversations with her revolved around her fears and concerns about how unprepared she felt at this important task. The combination of my discussions with Sohayl and the birth of my nephew in 2007 propelled me to focus my efforts in the early years with a specific emphasis on parenting education.
On my return to England I realized that many friends around me had given birth and were starting to ask some serious questions about the development of their children. What they had realized was there was so much available to prepare you for birth: how to breathe, what do you do after pregnancy, feeding and sleep routines. But a year in, when all of that became slightly more manageable, big questions remained including the…ok “NOW WHAT?”.
There didn’t seem to be anything that they found very useful in terms of raising their children to become “conscious and thinking” beings. As a result of this need, a few discussions started and we started looking at certain quotations from the Baha’i writings and various child development theories and well it all evolved from there really.
Baha’i Blog: And this of course, was the beginning of the training that Mama Papa & Me Parenting runs. Tell me a bit about what Mama Papa & Me currently offers.
The Early Years Education programme starts from the premise that each child from early life is a conscious and thinking being, a member of his or her own family and community. The programme draws upon a variety of materials that aim to assist caregivers to support the development of that consciousness within an environment focused upon service. Experience in the field has shown me that love and discipline, as well as education, are two important and necessary components to foster a child’s consciousness and development. As a result the course is made up of two units: Loving Environments and Learning Environments.
Up till now these units have been offered in face to face groups in local neighbourhood settings. Now I am experimenting with the idea of facilitating online groups as there has been an interest from people in different regions on the world.
Baha’i Blog:Apart from drawing on the Writings as part of the material covered in the course, how else does the Faith impact on your work?
What’s really interesting right now about the Baha’i community is that we are learning about how to generate and apply new knowledge. There are many aspects to this approach but the main aspects we are all familiar with is: study, planning, consultation, action and reflection. Generating knowledge in this way is described by Paul Lample in his book Revelation and Social Reality as non-foundationalism. Richard Bernstein, a brilliant thinker, discusses this throughout his book: Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. This approach has been used in the development of materials offered by Mama Papa & Me and I feel this is one significant way the Faith has impacted the work I have been engaged in.
This is quite different to mainstream approaches. Often early years education courses or parenting courses are shaped around a particular theory in child development. While all theories will inevitably provide insights into the characteristics of a developing child, the absence of a learning-centred framework has meant that entire ways of raising children are often made subject to a set of predetermined prescriptions of theory, each of which, has tended to view alternative insights as being ill-conceived. When we add to this the difficulties arising from the short life span of most social theories, the approaches to raising and educating children over the last few decades appears to have been influenced by a series of fads, rather than a process of understanding who our children really are and how we can bring out the best in them.
Baha’i Blog: Tell me more about what non-foundationalism looks like in the course. How does it help to build the capacity of parents and caregivers?
I think this is in three main ways. First, as an organization we have made an effort to shy away from revolving our materials around a particular school of thought in child development and education. While we draw upon a variety of materials, our courses encourage participants to embrace the numerous possibilities open to nurturing children, thus freeing themselves from the limitations of absolute knowledge imposed upon us by age old traditions or the fashionable theories of child development of a given age.
Second, the course aims to develop particular capabilities so it doesn’t seek to prescribe information and quick fixes that participants take away. While of course ideas are scattered around, as part of the experiences and insights generated from working with parents, the idea is to equip them with the capabilities needed for building capacity.
Third, the idea is that participants themselves generate new information or new knowledge and apply the knowledge they’re learning into their home settings. And as they apply it, new knowledge is further generated through experience, which is then reflected upon in consultation with others. There’s this continuous cycle of constantly generating knowledge from the grassroots, as opposed to a more top-down approach, which is what we generally see in society, where theory is formed and then applied to practical settings.
In the course, participation is central so every participant – the tutor included – has a workbook that the group works through together. There are several passages and questions that aim to be thought-provoking and open up the forum for discussion. It is through the consultation and discussion with other participants that you gain ideas and develop new answers to the questions.
Baha’i Blog: Can you give me an example of how you have seen new knowledge generated through this process of reflection and consultation?
In one discussion we had, there were some Western parents and some Chinese parents discussing potty training. Over here, in the UK, it is very common for your child to be potty trained by around the age of 1.5 years – 2 years but the Chinese parents in the group were saying that it is very common in China to potty train children by 6 to 9 months.
That discussion was really interesting and offered a whole lot of new insights into ways to potty train and different understandings of the standards we have for children. We often think that children don’t have the capacity to do certain things before a certain age and that’s often because there’s some theory in child development that tells us this but often when we start to question these things, especially in dialogue with people from different cultures and different experiences we begin to generate new knowledge and question these theories that are so dominant.
Another really important insight is related to the “terrible two’s.” In the western society many parenting books and course will tell parents this is a natural phase of development and that we should expect this of our children. However, many children from many societies (and there is now extensive documented evidence to support this) do not have this phase at all. It begs one to ask, if this is not a natural state of childhood, why is it so common in western societies? Our programmes try to enable participants to critically think about these issues too.
Baha’i Blog: You mentioned that the course draws on both Baha’i quotations and child development theories. How do you work with the various theories about child development to build the capacity of parents and caregivers?
The course has tended to shy away from looking at one particular theory of child development. Often courses subscribe to a particular theory – attachment based, behaviourist, positive discipline etc – and centre all their discussions and advice around the theory. This is something I was quite careful to stay away from…I feel quite strongly actually that if we are raising a new generation, a generation that is to create a better world, we cant do it by applying current approaches of child development. While of course the insights we gain from these approaches will be useful to some degree, we must be aware that these approaches were developed in a particular context and using particular paradigms.
Many of these theories that are dominant in the social discourse are developed within a Western middle-class context and based on particular philosophies that we subscribe to in the West. A lot of these philosophies are quite individualistic. These theories often focus on what children can and cant do at particular stage of development and often focus on the biological dimension of man, completely negating the capacities of the human soul and all the potential within.
Baha’i Blog: Tell me about your background. How did you come to this?
I come from an extended family where the majority of us are either in education or development, or a combination of the two, so it seems to be a bit of a family thing! I’ve always wanted to do something that creates change and I’ve always known that education and development would be the best way that I could personally be of service to humanity, but I didn’t always know how exactly. I worked for a few of the larger NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and it became apparent quite quickly that this wasn’t the best use of my time. I could see a lot of problems so I decided instead to go and find out more about the programs that I thought were really innovative and were really contributing to change at the grassroots. And I decided that the best way to find out more about these programs was to actually work on them.
So I took three and a half years out, even though that meant not earning any money, just to go and work with these organisations and find out how to develop skills so that I could do the same thing, which as it turned out, happened to be within the early years context.
Baha’i Blog: There are so many Baha’is who, I think, identify education and community development as being important and are similarly trying to figure out how to be effective within that arena. What words of advice would you have for them?
There are two resources that I found really helpful. Firstly, the book The Lab, the Temple and the Market, especially the last chapter by Dr Arbab, who gives a really clear overview of some of the problems within development and alternative ways people are contributing to change. Secondly, I definitely recommend doing the ISGP courses, which provide a foundation and a new framework within which to work.
The other thing is to really be open to learning. It can often feel like there’s a great deal of uncertainty and a great deal of not knowing where to go. But you know this is really okay and part of the journey. In many ways, we are at the beginning of a path that hasn’t been trodden and so, of course, it’s going to be uncertain and difficult but the more you keep striving and the more willing you are to learn, the clearer things become.
Also, persevere. The road that I have travelled hasn’t been easy. It didn’t just fall on my lap. Many, many, many doors closed and it was very disappointing when those doors closed. But at the same time different doors opened. As you walk down this path be open to the doors that open and walk through them. Also I think it important to realise that whatever stage we are in is part of a process, there is not really an end or a beginning, it’s a process.
Baha’i Blog: So what’s the big picture plan for Mama Papa & Me? What is your vision for it?
Well again it’s a process, but at the moment there are a number of ideas that I am thinking about in relation to capacity building. The first one being to raise capacity of those working with children, and understanding with caregivers what this capacity looks like. The second aim is to understand what capacity building looks like within particular neighbourhood settings, and finally how to raise the capacity of parents and caregivers so that they can contribute more meaningfully and powerfully to the prevalent discourse in society surrounding parenting, child care and development. In working with parents and child care providers I am beginning to realise how important this last point actually is and how much the voice of parents are missing from policy debates on the issue.
Unfortunately, most of us live in societies which do not really value the importance of parents or early-years educators. Despite much lip-service to the contrary, early childhood educators are amongst the least well-paid and the social discourse surrounding parenting merely extends to the age old dichotomy of whether one should stay at home or go to work. Of course this is a relevant and important question facing many families, but when we start to view the child as a “conscious and thinking soul,” then the discussions surrounding parenting, childcare and child development, will inevitably need to extend beyond such dichotomies to include wider and more profound questions. Such questions may include “what is the spiritual reality of the child,” “what do we want for our children,” “what is the purpose of parenting,” and “what is the role of the community in supporting parents in this endeavor.” These questions will need to be related to even larger questions about “what is the purpose of life” and “what society do we want to build” and the discussions will need to include all the participants of society: individuals, communities and institutions.
Thank you, Danielle! It’s been so lovely to chat with you. I’m very excited that I’m going to be able to participate in the online course all the way from Australia, and I can’t wait till January 2013.
In her professional life, Preethi has dabbled in various combinations of education, community development and law. At heart, though, she's an overgrown child who thinks the world is one giant playground. She's currently on a quest to make learning come alive for young people and to bring the world's stories and cultures to them, with educational resources from One Story Learning.