The Universal House of Justice has received your letter of 23 June 1977 in which you express the ardent desire of yourself and your husband to see your children grow as active supporters of the Faith, and you ask whether, in view of the responsibilities of Bahá’í parents in the pioneering field, the seeming sufferings the children bear as the result of their parents’ commitments in service to the Cause will somehow be compensated. We have been asked by the Universal House of Justice to convey to you the following points.
It should also be realized that a child, from early life, is a conscious and thinking soul, a member of his family with his own duties towards it, and is able to make his own sacrifices for the Faith in many ways. It is suggested that the children should be made to feel that they are given the privilege and opportunity of participating in the decisions as to the services their parents are able to offer, thus making their own conscious decision to accept those services with consequence for their own lives. Indeed, the children can be led to realize that it is the earnest wish of their parents to undertake such services with their children’s whole-hearted support.
The Universal House of Justice has received your letter mailed 19 February 1982 in which you express your ardent desire to fulfil your responsibilities as a mother to guide your children aright and enable them to become firm supporters of the Cause of the Blessed Beauty. We are asked to convey to you the following points….
The House of Justice shares your concern that children from homes of devoted Bahá’í parents have left the Faith. Unfortunately there have been cases where parents have served the Cause to the detriment of the children and the family unit….
This compilation contains many references to the importance of family unity. If children are raised in homes where the family is happy and united, where thoughts and actions are directed to spiritual matters and the progress of the Cause, there is every reason to believe that the children will acquire heavenly qualities and become defenders of His Faith.
It is hoped that the above will offer assistance and reassurance and enable you to approach the duties of motherhood with joy and confidence. In parenthood, as in so many fields of endeavour, we can but do our best, aware that we shall inevitably fall short of the perfect standards towards which we strive, but confident that God will support those who labour in the path of His Faith, will answer our prayers and will make good our deficiencies.
The Universal House of Justice has received your letter of 14 September 1982 concerning the role of Local Spiritual Assemblies in guiding parents and children in standards of behaviour for children at community gatherings, such as Nineteen Day Feasts and Bahá’í Holy Day observances.
… The House of Justice has instructed us to say that children should be trained to understand the spiritual significance of the gatherings of the followers of the Blessed Beauty, and to appreciate the honour and bounty of being able to take part in them, whatever their outward form may be. It is realized that some Bahá’í observances are lengthy and it is difficult for very small children to remain quiet for so long. In such cases one or other of the parents may have to miss part of the meeting in order to care for the child. The Spiritual Assembly can also perhaps help the parents by providing for a children’s observance, suited to their capacities, in a separate room during part of the community’s observance. Attendance at the whole of the adult celebration thus becomes a sign of growing maturity and a distinction to be earned by good behaviour.
In any case, the House of Justice points out that parents are responsible for their children and should make them behave when they attend Bahá’í meetings. If children persist in creating a disturbance they should be taken out of the meeting. This is not merely necessary to ensure the properly dignified conduct of Bahá’í meetings but is an aspect of the training of children in courtesy, consideration for others, reverence, and obedience to their parents.
No detailed elaboration has been found in the Writings of the points covered in the statement by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which you quoted in your letter; the statement must be perceived in the total context of the Tablet from which it was excerpted.7 It gives emphasis to the requisites for the training of the young from their earliest years to enable them to meet the challenges of adult life and to contribute towards maintaining the norms of a balanced, progressive society; and it underscores the serious consequences that may be normally expected if due attention is not given to such requisites. In a society wholly regulated by the laws and ordinances brought by Bahá’u’lláh it will be easier to appreciate the framework in which these requisites will produce their maximum effect.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement, it should be noted, refers to attempts made by others. It does not refer to the individual’s own efforts to learn and refine his own character. Fortunately, there exist the repeated promises in our sacred writings of the dispensations of God’s mercy which are accessible to errant souls, and we have proof from the lives of the heroes of the Faith, as well as from those of ordinary people, of the power of one’s faith in God to change behaviour. As you know, a principal purpose for the coming of the Manifestation is to transform the character of individuals and, through them, the character of society as a whole. Thus He lays down laws and ordinances which enable such a broad change to occur; the ideal end is achieved gradually through individual struggle, trial and error, and, above all, steadfast faith in God.
With regard to your question whether mothers should work outside the home, it is helpful to consider the matter from the perspective of the concept of a Bahá’í family. This concept is based on the principle that the man has primary responsibility for the financial support of the family, and the woman is the chief and primary educator of the children. This by no means implies that these functions are inflexibly fixed and cannot be changed and adjusted to suit particular family situations, nor does it mean that the place of the woman is confined to the home. Rather, while primary responsibility is assigned, it is anticipated that fathers would play a significant role in the education of the children and women could also be breadwinners. As you rightly indicated, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encouraged women to “participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world”.
In relation to your specific queries, the decision concerning the amount of time a mother may spend in working outside the home depends on circumstances existing within the home, which may vary from time to time. Family consultation will help to provide the answers. As to the question whether courses of professional training will in future be more flexible, the House of Justice points out that future conditions will dictate such matters.
The seeker to whom you refer seems to have misconstrued the Bahá’í teachings about the responsibility of the parents for the education of their children. The father certainly has a very important role to play. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas itself, Bahá’u’lláh revealed:
Unto every father hath been enjoined the instruction of his son and daughter in the art of reading and writing and in all that hath been laid down in the Holy Tablet…. 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.
The great importance attached to the mother’s role derives from the fact that she is the first educator of the child. Her attitude, her prayers, even what she eats and her physical condition have a great influence on the child when it is still in the womb. When the child is born, it is she who has been endowed by God with the milk which is the first food designed for it, and it is intended that, if possible, she should be with the baby to train and nurture it in its earliest days and months. This does not mean that the father does not also love, pray for, and care for his baby, but as he has the primary responsibility of providing for the family, his time to be with his child is usually limited, while the mother is usually closely associated with the baby during this intensely formative time when it is growing and developing faster than it ever will again during the whole of its life. As the child grows older and more independent, the relative nature of its relationship with its mother and father modifies and the father can play a greater role.
It may be helpful to stress to your seeker that the Bahá’í principle of the equality of men and women is clearly stated in the teachings, and the fact that there is diversity of function between them in certain areas does not negate this principle.
The House of Justice recognizes full well the suffering that many women go through as single mothers, taking the entire responsibility for raising and supporting their children. The purpose of the Bahá’í Faith is to effect a fundamental transformation in the whole basis of human society, which will involve the spiritualization of mankind, the achievement of unity in human relationships and the acceptance of such vital principles as that of the equality of men and women; as a result, the stability of marriage will be enhanced, and there will be a drastic decrease in the conditions giving rise to marriage breakdowns. To attain this objective speedily, the Bahá’í community must continue to attract the spiritual powers indispensable for its success; this requires strict adherence to the principles set out in the Bahá’í teachings, with confidence that the wisdom underlying these teachings will gradually become apparent to the generality of mankind.
The issues you have raised8 are best considered in the light of the Bahá’í teachings concerning family relationships. There should be a spirit of mutual respect and consideration between parents and children, in which the children turn to their parents for advice and direction, and the parents train and nurture their offspring. The fruit of this relationship is that the children grow into adulthood with their powers of discrimination and judgement refined, so that they can steer the course of their lives in a manner most conducive to their welfare.
Within the framework of this mutual respect, the parents are called upon to show wisdom and discretion when their offspring are developing friendships which might ultimately lead to marriage. They should consider carefully the circumstances under which advice should be given, and conditions under which their intervention would be construed as interference.
As you know, the initial choice of marriage partner is made by the two individuals directly involved, and the consent of all living parents is then sought, and is required for the marriage to take place.
In this matter, as in all aspects of human relations, consultation is of great value in resolving misunderstandings and in clarifying what is the best course of behaviour in the light of the Bahá’í teachings.
Although the mother’s part in the bringing up of the children is very great indeed, we feel that it is crucial not to underestimate the importance of the responsibility that the Writings place upon the father in this area. There is a current tendency for fathers to leave the education of children to their mothers to an entirely unjustifiable degree, and we would not wish the impression to be given that the Bahá’í teachings confirm such an attitude.
Teaching the Cause is undoubtedly the most meritorious of all deeds, and the friends are doubly blessed when they combine teaching with pioneering. Attending to the needs of the family is also of paramount spiritual importance, and it is not permissible to ignore the development of the family so as to serve the Faith in a particular way. Teaching the Faith and meeting the needs of the family must both be regarded as high on the scale of service to God, but the particular circumstances of a family determine the degree to which each must be dealt with. It is inevitable that the children of pioneers are called upon to share the sacrifices of their parents when they move to a foreign field, just as the children of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shared Their sacrifices. But it should not be forgotten that the children also partake of the spiritual blessings and rewards of pioneering.
You have raised several questions about the treatment of children. It is clear from the Bahá’í Writings that a vital component of the education of children is the exercise of discipline. Shoghi Effendi has stated, in a letter written on his behalf about the education of children, that:
Discipline of some sort, whether physical, moral or intellectual is indeed indispensable, and no training can be said to be complete and fruitful if it disregards this element. The child when born is far from being perfect. It is not only helpless, but actually is imperfect, and even is naturally inclined towards evil. He should be trained, his natural inclinations harmonized, adjusted and controlled, and if necessary suppressed or regulated, so as to ensure his healthy physical and moral development. Bahá’í parents cannot simply adopt an attitude of non-resistance towards their children, particularly those who are unruly and violent by nature. It is not even sufficient that they should pray on their behalf. Rather they should endeavour to inculcate, gently and patiently, into their youthful minds such principles of moral conduct and initiate them into the principles and teachings of the Cause with such tactful and loving care as would enable them to become “true sons of God” and develop into loyal and intelligent citizens of His Kingdom….
While the physical discipline of children is an acceptable part of their education and training, such actions are to be carried out “gently and patiently” and with “loving care”, far removed from the anger and violence with which children are beaten and abused in some parts of the world. To treat children in such an abhorrent manner is a denial of their human rights, and a betrayal of the trust which the weak should have in the strong in a Bahá’í community.
It is difficult to imagine a more reprehensible perversion of human conduct than the sexual abuse of children, which finds its most debased form in incest. At a time in the fortunes of humanity when, in the words of the Guardian, “The perversion of human nature, the degradation of human conduct, the corruption and dissolution of human institutions, reveal themselves … in their worst and most revolting aspects,” and when “the voice of human conscience is stilled,” when “the sense of decency and shame is obscured,” the Bahá’í institutions must be uncompromising and vigilant in their commitment to the protection of the children entrusted to their care, and must not allow either threats or appeals to expediency to divert them from their duty. A parent who is aware that the marriage partner is subjecting a child to such sexual abuse should not remain silent, but must take all necessary measures, with the assistance of the Spiritual Assembly or civil authorities if necessary, to bring about an immediate cessation of such grossly immoral behaviour, and to promote healing and therapy.
Bahá’u’lláh has placed great emphasis on the duties of parents toward their children, and He has urged children to have gratitude in their hearts for their parents, whose good pleasure they should strive to win as a means of pleasing God Himself. However, He has indicated that under certain circumstances, the parents could be deprived of the right of parenthood as a consequence of their actions. The Universal House of Justice has the right to legislate on this matter. It has decided for the present that all cases should be referred to it in which the conduct or character of a parent appears to render him unworthy of having such parental rights as that of giving consent to marriage. Such questions could arise, for example, when a parent has committed incest, or when the child was conceived as a consequence of rape, and also when a parent consciously fails to protect the child from flagrant sexual abuse.
…Although Bahá’í children do not automatically inherit the Faith of their parents, the parents are responsible for the upbringing and spiritual welfare of their children. Bahá’í parents must therefore strive to convey to their children from their earliest days an awareness of God and love for Him, and must endeavour to guide the children into wholehearted obedience to the exhortations, ordinances and laws of Bahá’u’lláh. Among these is the recognition of and love for all the Manifestations of God, association with the followers of all religions, friendship towards all human beings, and the importance of the independent investigation of truth. It is natural, therefore, to regard the children of Bahá’ís as Bahá’í unless there is a reason to conclude the contrary. With such a basis of knowledge and understanding each child will be better equipped to think clearly and judge for himself as to what course he should follow upon reaching the age of maturity or in his adult life.
There are many passages in the Sacred Writings that emphasize the importance of family unity, and the great responsibility that children have toward their parents and parents toward their children. In this regard, Bahá’ís are indeed called to be obedient to their parents….
One of the most important principles of the Faith, however, is the principle of moderation in all things. Even virtues, if they are carried to excess and are not balanced by other, complementary virtues, can cause untold harm. For example, a child should not be expected to obey a parent’s instruction to commit a sin. There is a danger, furthermore, in aggrandizing any single law in isolation either from the fundamental principles that underlie it or from other laws. As explained by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the unity of the family is of critical importance, but must be balanced against the rights of each member of the family:
According to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh the family, being a human unit, must be educated according to the rules of sanctity. All the virtues must be taught the family. The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered, and the rights of the individual members must not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the mother—none of them must be transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary. Just as the son has certain obligations to his father, the father, likewise, has certain obligations to his son. The mother, the sister and other members of the household have their certain prerogatives. All these rights and prerogatives must be conserved, yet the unity of the family must be sustained. The injury of one shall be considered the injury of all; the comfort of each, the comfort of all; the honour of one, the honour of all.
Another fundamental principle that should influence a Bahá’í’s understanding of and approach to the requirement to be obedient to parents is the exhortation to consult in all things. According to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, consultation is, in fact, “one of the fundamental elements of the foundation of the Law of God.” If, through consultation, a child and parent can deepen their understanding of each other’s viewpoint and achieve unity of thought and purpose, then conflicts over obedience can be avoided.
With respect to your discussion of the relationship between obedience to parents on the one hand and individual self-expression, freedom, and spiritual growth on the other, the House of Justice suggests an alternative understanding for your consideration. Although individual persons are responsible for their own actions and spiritual development, individuals do not exist in isolation, but as parts of families and communities. Deciding to forgo one’s personal wishes in deference to one’s parents—or to the institutions of the Faith, civil authorities, or the law for that matter—represents an expression of free will, not a curtailment of it. By choosing to obey, a child can contribute to unity of the family and thereby further the Cause of God.
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….
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 Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances….
And now we wish to address a few words to parents, who bear the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We appeal to them to give constant attention to the spiritual education of their children. Some parents appear to think that this is the exclusive responsibility of the community; others believe that in order to preserve the independence of children to investigate truth, the Faith should not be taught to them. Still others feel inadequate to take on such a task. None of this is correct. The beloved Master has said that “it is enjoined upon the father and mother, as a duty, to strive with all effort to train the daughter and the son,” adding that, “should they neglect this matter, they shall be held responsible and worthy of reproach in the presence of the stern Lord.” Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mould their children’s moral character. For they exercise indispensable influence through the home environment they consciously create by their love of God, their striving to adhere to His laws, their spirit of service to His Cause, their lack of fanaticism, and their freedom from the corrosive effects of backbiting. Every parent who is a believer in the Blessed Beauty has the responsibility to conduct herself or himself in such a way as to elicit the spontaneous obedience to parents to which the Teachings attach so high a value. Of course, in addition to the efforts made at home, the parents should support Bahá’í children’s classes provided by the community. It must be borne in mind, too, that children live in a world that informs them of harsh realities through direct experience with the horrors already described or through the unavoidable outpourings of the mass media. Many of them are thereby forced to mature prematurely, and among these are those who look for standards and discipline by which to guide their lives. Against this gloomy backdrop of a decadent society, Bahá’í children should shine as the emblems of a better future.