Quickening the Spiritual Growth of Children
“…Let a vivifying breeze waft over us, and quicken Thou our yearning hearts…” (from a prayer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
The Power of Stories
As I recall, they were two Koreans, an Israeli, a Lebanese, and an Italian all in my small 6th grade English-as-a-Second Language class for newcomers. I had just finished telling them a story, holding up large illustrations. At the story’s end, immediately one girl burst out “On playground, they no like me,” expressing that she felt “left out” on the playground.
As soon as she finished, a boy echoed the same feeling, then another and another! It seemed that the story had touched a deep wound in each child, revealing something they hadn’t shared before, but now sparking a common outcry. They felt “the others” in their class were mean and unfair, ostracizing them and making them ‘feel bad’ at this international school where everyone was supposed to feel welcome.
As we discussed their hurt feelings, it became clear that, unlike the boy in the story who had suffered racial discrimination, the ‘prejudicial’ treatment they were receiving came because they couldn’t speak or understand English fluently. After calming down, they concluded that their classmates were not intentionally being mean or unfair, but that they didn’t know how to explain the rules of the games they were playing quickly enough (recess was only twenty-minutes long) and they didn’t want to lose play time.
I promised I would talk to their teacher, which I did, and the problem was resolved after she held an all-class discussion wherein some of the students volunteered to teach the playground games to their new classmates.
My point here is that it was a story that sparked such an immediate and powerful response in those children. Were it not for that story, I doubt their individual hurts would have surfaced; they might have just festered silently. But in the safety of our small class, the heartache of the boy in the story became their own, and they responded passionately. They were also able to discuss their problem and probe for its real cause.
‘Mining’ Stories through Discussion
Here on the Mine Rich in Gems website, I am offering some stories that I hope will serve as a springboard for children to explore some of the situations they face– for example, situations where honesty, justice, generosity, mindfulness, etc. are needed. Through the discussion questions they can talk about what the characters do and what they themselves might do in similar circumstances. They can ponder about situations where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not blatantly obvious, or where a virtue may be difficult to practice or even seem to conflict with another virtue. Above all, these ‘story discussions’ are intended to help kids reflect on their own experiences and to share their thoughts and feelings.
Supplementing the Ruhi Children’s Program
Hopefully, these stories will be useful in settings where some of the children are not Bahá’i and need a gradual “easing in” to specifically Bahá’i content. This is often the case in a neighborhood class, when children (and especially parents) are wary of lessons based on ‘religion’ but are open to lessons based on virtues. Then, if their children participate in the “virtues class” on a regular basis, parents may notice positive effects and be more attracted to other dimensions of the Faith. Over time, they may enter deeper discussions with their Bahá’i neighbor; they may attend a fireside or devotional gathering. Experiences like praying for a common friend, consulting on neighborhood issues, and working together to solve them may build their trust in the Faith. As they understand the Faith better (and perhaps even join a Book One study circle), they may recognize the Ruhi children’s program as an opportunity for their own children’s development.
The Ruhi children’s series is, of course, the foundational program for children’s Bahá’i education worldwide. It is incredibly rich and sustainable anywhere because it requires only the most basic resources. Most importantly, it cultivates the seeds of spirituality and knowledge that will help children grow in the Faith. If followed steadfastly, the Ruhi program will quicken young souls into developing the spiritual capacities so needed to bring about the transformation of society.
As the Ruhi Institute has made clear, other children’s materials and programs are needed and welcomed to enrich the overall spiritual growth of children. Whether in our homes, at seasonal Bahá’i schools and camps, or in the context of Feast and Holy Day programs, innovative and diverse lesson-plans and activities can contribute wonderfully to children’s spiritual growth.
Kindling the Fire of Love
Still, no matter which type of Bahá’i curriculum and materials are being used, it is the spirit and methods of animating a class that truly create the ‘quickening effect.’
In all Bahá’i children’s activities, we strive to create an atmosphere of oneness– of genuine caring and love. We aim to connect children to their Source, their common reality of being human, bound together, interdependent, yet ultimately dependent on the Great Love that orchestrates the universe. We guide them in reflecting, in learning to pray, in consulting together and collaborating on simple service projects. We help them to memorize inspiring quotes and sing uplifting songs. With specific virtues in mind, we play games, create art, and work to keep this communal labor of love growing week after week.
And who is “we”?
We are the volunteer teachers and helpers–adults and youth–who initiate these classes and activities for children and keep them going.
“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…”
(Letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World, Ridván 2000)
So why do many capable adults and youth back away from teaching children’s classes? Often, they say they ‘don’t have any experience’ or ‘can’t handle children’. Thus, the responsibility for this most important of all Bahá’i activities falls on the shoulders of very few, who, for lack of support, can’t sustain it.
What support is needed?
Love and time. If these two energies can be “quickened” in a community, our most precious treasure-–our ‘seeds of future society’– will be well-nurtured.
Imagine there are two very dedicated, Ruhi-trained teachers in a community with ten Bahá’i children from ages three to ten. Whatever they decide to do, whether the Ruhi lessons for the Bahá’i kids, or a neighborhood virtues class, or perhaps some combination of both–-those two teachers can succeed IF THEY HAVE HELP. I won’t go into the organizational possibilities here because there are many. But I’d like to suggest that it is the love energy and the gift of people’s time that are most essential.
What comes to mind is this:
“For the true lover, reunion is life and separation is death.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words).
Here, of course, the ‘lover’ is the seeker, the person of faith who is constantly seeking his Beloved– that is, God.
“Among the greatest of all services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God is the education and training of children.” (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l Bahap. 106)
What a wonderful way to seek and serve God: being instrumental in the spiritual growth children. One might say it takes “enkindled” adults and youth to quicken children. But remember! There is a complementary effect. Children, by nature, enkindle us!
Children are natural lovers and seekers. They delight in exploring, discovering, inventing, and creating. They are curious, enthusiastic, fun-loving, funny, and attracted to people who love them.
So, whether one is driving in a carpool or walking kids to and from class, or preparing materials for the teacher, or making snacks, or just being there to sing along and assist, that communal effort– that flow of loving energy– greatly contributes to the overall endeavor. Even a ‘helper’ who can’t be present but who can help coordinate the calendar and call parents, can contribute to the communal effort that makes a children’s activity successful.
Bahá’u’lláh counsels us:
“Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.” (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf)
If children feel the cooperative, friendly spirit of the adults and youth who are implementing their Bahá’i activities, they will most likely absorb it and become capable of generating it themselves.
Finally, the gift of TIME is crucial. It takes time to consult before the next class, to coordinate different helpers’ efforts, to prepare whatever is needed materially and (for the teacher) to plan the lesson. Fortunately, we now have texting, Zoom and other technologies that make adult meetings and communication more efficient. Still, volunteers need to be realistic about how much time they can give and give it graciously. It’s the spirit with which we give that time, that has quickening power.
Other ‘Quickening’ Factors
‘Abdu’l-Bahá reminds us that in the plant-world, the sunshine and rain quicken the seedling, vivify it and make the potential tree inside to develop and bring forth its fruits.
Children are born with both a lower and higher nature and with myriad hidden potentialities. Nurturing children’s spiritual nature (to be just, generous, kind, creative, loving, etc.) can help each child develop his own unique gifts and capacities toward the betterment of humanity. Through our own ‘quickening’ energy, we can help children develop confidence their relationship with God, discover the benefits of prayer and reflection, practice virtues, and experience the joys of friendship, artistic expression, physical exertion, and cooperation.
Besides the ancient practices of mentoring and storytelling, here are a few more “quickening” factors that tend to bring out the “gems” in children.
– Maintaining a delicate balance of control and freedom
– Balancing times of stillness and quiet with times of strong physical activity
– Providing conditions for children to be creative, innovative, and to ‘think outside the box’
– Encouraging them to explore their own particular interests and likes
– Evoking reflection by saying “I wonder about. . .Or I wonder why. . .” to prompt children to explore their own thoughts and perceptions
– Encouraging active sharing, inclusiveness, consulting, and problem solving
– Inviting child-friendly artists and experts to interact with them so that they experience the joys and disciplines of creative, analytic, and innovative processes
– Awakening their attraction to the beauty of
-language and all forms of artistic expression
-mathematical elegance and scientific discovery
– noble behavior and true friendship
– Developing their ability to speak with ease and dignity
– Encouraging self-knowledge through the habit of private prayer and reflection, bringing oneself to
– Helping them to pay attention to others’ needs
– Stimulating their desire to be of service
– Allowing free time and space (within boundaries) to explore, discover, play, and create
– Besides whole-group bonding, creating opportunities for special friendships to develop
Ultimately, it is the home that is the first and most enduring environment where these ‘quickening’ practices can be cultivated. So, even if a family lives in circumstances where only their own children can be induced into Bahá’i children’s activities, the most fertile ground is right here at home!
To close, may we remember that whoever and wherever we are– those of us who sense the urgency of cultivating spiritual children– we must persist in advocating for quality children’s activities as part of Bahá’i community life, and we must encourage friends to volunteer to help us with them. For if we don’t, who will?