March 19, 2013

parenting..a journey of learning

"We must strive with energies of heart, soul and mind to develop and manifest the perfections and virtues latent within the realities of the phenomenal world, for the human reality may be compared to a seed. If we sow the seed, a mighty tree appears from it. The virtues of the seed are revealed in the tree; it puts forth branches, leaves, blossoms, and produces fruits. All these virtues were hidden and potential in the seed. Through the blessing and bounty of cultivation these virtues became apparent. Similarly the merciful God our creator has deposited within human realities certain virtues latent and potential. Through education and culture, these virtues deposited by the loving God will become apparent in the human reality even as the unfoldment of the tree from within the germinating seed."

parenting.  it's a loaded word.  it becomes part of our consciousness the moment we discover a new life is growing within our womb, and then enters an organic journey of continual stages of evolution until we leave this world.

when i reflect on the first sentence of the quote above, i feel as if there is not a moment in a parent's life to relax in the ways of helping their children grow.  striving 'with energies of heart, soul and mind to develop and manifest the perfections and virtues latent with the realities of the phenomenal world' requires endless, tireless, conscious, wholehearted exertions.  it implies drawing upon one's inner powers of sacrifice, wisdom and embodying the necessary virtues and perfections oneself to set an example for the child. parenting, then, from a Baha'i perspective, requires an all-encompassing, never-ending, ever-evolving investment of effort and focused attention toward being a most loving, wise and supportive pillar for a child's life.
"For mothers are the first educators, the first mentors; and truly it is the mothers who determine the happiness, the future greatness, the courteous ways and learning and judgement, the understanding and the faith of their little ones."

 ~ Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 126
Domani (8 yrs), Dyami (11 yrs) and Ayana (13 yrs)
for me, parenting has been one never-ending learning experience full of ups and downs, trials and victories, joy and pain.  ultimately it is the crucible for my own spiritual development as i immerse myself in the rigors of raising 3 souls in the attributes of selflessness, the love of God and humble servitude.  our children are in the long process of learning about these qualities so that as adults they can actually embody them..

my husband and i became parents in 1998 (before digital cameras and Facebook).  i was 30 years old and we lived in America.  although we felt like we didn't fit into the typical American mold of what people do and how they live, we found ourselves embracing the typical middle-class ideas of how to prepare for becoming parents:  we bought a nice wooden crib and set up a little room for 'the baby'.  it was an idea that we didn't give much thought about except that it would be the place where the baby would sleep and be nursed.

looking back it seems very odd to us, almost cruel and strange, that a helpless baby just brought into this world would be kept alone in a room by herself for the entire night.  nonetheless, this is what we agreed upon at that time:  nurse her to sleep, put her down in the crib, go back to the room to nurse when she woke up crying, put her down again.. this didn't last too long before she and i started nursing lying down on the floor on some blankets and me leaving her to go back to bed with my husband.  sometimes i'd fall asleep on the floor with her for the rest of the night. eventually we brought her into our bed and nursed her to sleep until the age of 2.  this is one of many examples along our journey whereby we came into parenting ignorant and soon discovered for ourselves what resonated with our souls, rather than society's general expectations and marketing schemes for becoming a parent.

a spiritual way of life was instantly woven and knit into our children's discovery of this world.  those early years were days and nights of singing and chanting prayers to babies, teaching them the language of prayer, creating a Montessori learning environment, training them in good manners and courteous ways, and having as much joy in our home as possible.  for as sweet and beautiful as it was, it was full of difficulties and learning through painful moments. 

life took on the familiar rhythm of facing a crisis; needing (and learning how) to consult about how to resolve it with a unified decision; implementing the decision through consistent and continual effort in training the child's (or our own) behavior; and then easing through the days with a new pattern of learned behavior until facing another crisis.  i had to look at myself most of the time before trying to correct my child's behavior.  was i patient?  could i have been paying closer attention?  am i not providing what s/he needs emotionally?  these types of questions are the basis from which we have grown into parents who are consciously striving to grow spiritually, demanding better conduct and a purified character to better guide, protect, care for and love these children who are dependent on us, just as we are dependent on God for His loving-kindness and protection from ourselves.

as the years have progressed, new rhythms and patterns of our daily life as a family have evolved.  we learned from the Montessori philosophy how there are cycles of development in a child's life, from one stage to the next.  with this understanding we were able to understand some of the changes that were occurring in their psyche from one stage to the next.  we have continued to pray, sing, drum and recite together in the evenings as part of our daily routine, while a few years ago my husband introduced a special time together that we call 'family friday night'.  these activities are woven into a Baha'i way of life.  now that 2 of our children are in the junior youth stage of development, we are drawing upon Baha'i resources and materials to understand how to best nurture their capacity for becoming youth who are distinguished as leaders in both moral and academic excellence.

with 3 children at different stages of development, our family is a bundle of learning through mistakes and being reminded that we are souls on a spiritual journey called life.  the greatest lessons have come from backbiting, lying, selfishness, disrespect and an unkindly tongue.  as they stumble and sometimes fall, we are there to provide divine counsel and moral encouragement.  we are there to
listen and forgive.  we are there, as parents, to walk the path of spiritual growth with them..

the view of being a mother is of such a high station that i felt like i was entering a most significant stage in my life.  we agreed that what worked for us was me not working outside of the home while our children were young.  through countless consultations, our intentions remained focused on conducting ourselves in as many of the perfections of God as we could, including how we spoke, what we spoke about, what we chose to do with our time, what the child was exposed to, what was on the television, etc.  we knew we were responsible to God to strive to be the best parents we can be to prepare this new soul's life for its destiny as a servant of God.  for me this meant the beginning of disciplining myself while choosing how i spent my time, who i spent it with, the manner in which i spoke, etc.  as soon as our first child was born i entered the realm of selflessness to a degree that forced me to grow up spiritually in many ways.

as a couple, my husband and i are always a team; we are one.  there is no division between us in their eyes.  if we have to consult about an issue, we remove ourselves and talk about it until we have an agreement.  the decision may be wrong, but we are in agreement so there is unity.  without unity there is no light, no energy, no power for the family unit to thrive on.  the Baha'i way is that unity is right, not our opinion.  it is better to be wrong about something and agreed, than to argue about what we think is right and create estrangement and disunity.  this method of consultation in Baha'i family life requires humility.  it requires sacrifice and detachment, qualities that demand subduing one's ego.

less then 2 years after our first child was born, the Universal House of Justice -- the international governing body of the Baha'is of the world -- issued a Message addressing the vital concerns regarding children throughout the world.  this Message spoke to my heart like a magnetic field, attracting every part of my heart toward the loftiest standards by which our children need to be raised:
“…there is a pressing challenge to be faced: Our children need to be nurtured spiritually and to be integrated into the life of the Cause. They should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition- it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realize that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimization too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation. Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realization should spur us all to urgent and sustained effort in the interests of children and the future.

"..Spiritual education of children and junior youth are of paramount importance to the further progress of the community. It is therefore imperative that this deficiency be remedied. Institutes must be certain to include in their programmes the training of teachers of children’s classes, who can make their services available to local communities. But although providing spiritual and academic education for children is essential, this represents only a part of what must go into developing their characters and shaping their personalities. The necessity exists, too, for individuals and the institutions at all levels, which is to say the community as a whole, to show a proper attitude towards children and to take a general interest in their welfare. Such an attitude should be far removed from that of a rapidly declining order.

"Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children. They are a trust no community can neglect with impunity. An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them; these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline, the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices. An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel that they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Baha’i standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.”

            ~ The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 157, 2000, p. 8
Baha'is use the analogy of a seed sprouting and being nurtured until it grows into a strong tree to describe the spiritual reality of a soul as it grows in this life.  the child is like the young plant in dire need of care and gentle affection, tenderness and love, until it begins it's period of youth when it is receives a different degree of care.  my husband and i responded to this Message by seeing ourselves as the signs of God for our child -- so if we were just and kind, they would learn that God is just and kind.  this is true for all of the virtues of God, and this is how we spoke to the children about everything, using the language of virtues to identify any circumstance.  instead of saying to them, 'Say thank you' we asked them, 'How do you show your appreciation?'  instead of saying something negative like, 'That's wrong' we would offer something like, 'What virtue are you forgetting to practice?'

i am far from the high standard of being a spiritual parent who is always patient, calm, wise and compassionate.  i continue to make many mistakes, every day.  when i became a mother i was full of spiritual immaturity and felt overwhelmed and oftentimes inadequate.  yet through prayer and consultation, my husband and i have worked together to live by one of the many counsels of Baha'u'llah:
"The most vital duty in this day is to purify your characters, to correct your manners, and improve your conduct."
as we strive to overcome our faults and shortcomings as parents, we continue painting a canvas of virtues for them to see in themselves.  we encourage them to tap into their God-given potential and use it to develop as spiritual human beings who love God and desire to serve the world of humanity rather them merely themselves.  the journey of learning is far from over.. as parenting continues each and every day..

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