The following is the first in a series of posts that I have dedicated to the subject of parenting. Your feedback is very welcome.
As an ex-employee for a major bookstore, I am very aware of the hundreds and thousands of guides, workbooks, biographies, and related works discussing the many struggles and joys of parenthood. Therefore, I am not attempting to re-articulate what has already been conveyed by those far more qualified than I. What I hope to offer is a uniquely personal reflection that draws on my desire to explore and understand truth. Throughout this reflection I will be drawing on a number of sources and commenting on a variety of subjects that include, as its central focus, parenting.
Before we move on, let me make one thing clear: when it comes to parenting, application speaks louder than speculation. It’s quite easy for an academic to conduct a large research study to come to the conclusion that, for instance, corporeal punishment is poor parenting. However, it is a whole other issue when you try to convince a generation of adults to restrain themselves from doing what they were always conditioned to do. Often, it requires the efforts of various societal institutions such as schools, governments, municipal programs, neighbourhood outreach, etc. Only through such an extensive approach can a whole society be transformed. Since this is merely a commentary, I will try my best not to speculate as to what all parents should or shouldn’t do; rather, I will draw conclusions based on my own limited experience and from observations I have made of other parents, which you may be able to tailor to your own circumstance.
I’d like to clear the air: I am an absolutist. This means that I believe in the existence of truths. I’m very cautious around approaches that invoke relativism. I strongly believe that some approaches to parenting are better than others and certain values and traditions are more acceptable than others (I can hear all you post-modern relativists squirming in your seats, and that makes me happy on many levels). I find that, as parents, we are very comfortable making value judgments for our own children, e.g., I would never buy MacDonalds for my children! Problems arise, however, when our personal values conflict with prevalent norms. You know, like when you’re at a play-group, and one of the other parents offers your child a “pesticide covered” apple, and you freak out – yeah, you know what I mean 😉
For myself, this issue has been one fret with humiliation, embarrassment, and anxiety. When your first child is born, suddenly you become this irrational beast that hops from bandwagon to bandwagon, gawks and sneers at the difficulties of other parents, and relishes in the ordinary development of its own offspring. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of picking the right battles. For example, we’re at a restaurant and the waitress offers our crying 6-month-old some crackers. I’ve seen parents say: “No, sorry, we haven’t introduced him to crackers yet and he might have allergies to it, today he’s on peas,” to which the waitress responds “Oh, that must be one of those new things going around. When I was a child, we were eating everything, and we turned out okay. It’s probably your first child.” At this point you’re probably considering throwing your boiling hot coffee at the waitress. My personal reflection is that the parent in this scenario believes that we live in a world where every individual has assumed a humble posture of learning. Yeah right.
Humble posture of Learning
In its most recent Ridvan Message to the Bahá’ís of the world, the Universal House of Justice gave us a vision of social interaction that provides a glimpse into Bahá’í civilization:
“In relationships among the friends, then, this development in culture finds expression in the quality of their interactions. Learning as a mode of operation requires that all assume a posture of humility, a condition in which one becomes forgetful of self, placing complete trust in God, reliant on His all-sustaining power and confident in His unfailing assistance, knowing that He, and He alone, can change the gnat into an eagle, the drop into a boundless sea. And in such a state souls labour together ceaselessly, delighting not so much in their own accomplishments but in the progress and services of others. So it is that their thoughts are centred at all times on helping one another scale the heights of service to His Cause and soar in the heaven of His knowledge.”
So, is it an appropriate time for me to speak up and effect change, or should I restrain myself for the sake of unity? Is there something that I could learn from this experience, could I possibly be wrong here? As a parent, assuming a posture of humility in ones social interactions can make all the difference in the world. So how do I make distinction between a situation that requires immediate action and one that requires understanding and humility? As my mother in law would say, “use the three ‘I’s”: any behaviour that is immoral, illegal, or inflicts harm, I intervene immediately. Therefore, if you offer my toddler apple juice with lots of sugar in it, I’ll consider the situation and act accordingly; but offer my toddler a beer, face my humble wrath.
The reason why I started with this concept is because I believe that to be an effective parent, you must be willing to learn, to embrace crisis, to celebrate victory, and to evaluate your own approaches. It is equally important to forgive oneself, to welcome change, and to regard mistakes as learning opportunities. My responsibility as a parent is to create a safe and encouraging environment that allows my children the opportunity to become independent investigators of truth, and contributing members of an ever-advancing civilization. Such an undertaking necessitates a humble posture of learning.
Parenting is a spiritual responsibility. There is a passage from the Writings of Bahá’u’llàh that I have adopted as my Parenting Vision Statement. I’d like to share it with you:
“He that bringeth up his son or the son of another, it is as though he hath brought up a son of Mine; upon him rest My glory, My loving-kindness, My mercy, that have compassed the world.”
NOTE: Without getting into the semantics of the particular uses of gender specific nouns and pronouns in the Bahá’í Writings, let me assure you that this passage applies to both sons and daughters.
If anyone should ask why I take my role as a parent so seriously my response would be that these children do not belong to me. Rather, Bahá’u’llàh entrusted them to me – what an honour. From the moment we conceived our first child, my wife and I entered into a contract with God. We became foster parents. This is a HUGE responsibility. He provides the souls, we raise them; He delivers the tests, we provide guidance. In this sense, we are the primary caregivers of God’s sacred trust. Indeed, parenting (and, in general, the education of children), is truly one the most important services that any individual can offer.
“Among the greatest of all services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God is the education and training of children, young plants of the Abha Paradise, so that these children, fostered by grace in the way of salvation, growing like pearls of divine bounty in the shell of education, will one day bejewel the crown of abiding glory. It is, however, very difficult to undertake this service, even harder to succeed in it. I hope that thou wilt acquit thyself well in this most important of tasks, and successfully carry the day, and become an ensign of God’s abounding grace; that these children, reared one and all in the holy Teachings, will develop natures like unto the sweet airs that blow across the gardens of the All-Glorious, and will waft their fragrance around the world.” – Abdu’l-Baha.
I will end here because I need to go be a parent right now…