Friday, September 26, 2008

"Open House" with parents strengthens children's class for Year 2

Over and over we have seen that our friends and neighbors are open to and interested in children’s classes for theirs sons and daughters. Of, course, this does not mean, however, that the process of starting a children’s class is always as quick and effortless as knocking on a neighbor’s door and announcing, “Hi, we’re from the Bahá’í community and we want to start a children’s class in the neighborhood; may your children participate?”—and the parents give you a big hug and push their kids out the door with a “God bless you, have a wonderful time!”. If you find yourself thinking, “Well, maybe that’s how it works in SOME places, but definitely not in MY neighborhood!”, then you will love this story from Beverly Hills, CA (B) and the efforts of one couple to continue their children’s class into its second year.

There are so many lessons that can be drawn from their experiences: how to meet the challenge of ensuring that the class stays true to its purpose and its content is not watered down; the necessity of being completely open with parents about the program and nature of the class; the importance of adapting one’s approach to the context of the specific community—in this case one where people have certain assumptions or skepticism about religion—while also keeping true to the original vision of the classes. In short, they reached out, they opened up, they boldly presented some new ideas, and strengthened their connections with the parents. (Note: the pamphlet they mention can be accessed at

Dear Friends,

I know we're all struggling with how best to apply the 5-year plan to our particular circumstances in our particular neighborhoods. When it comes down to the question of how best to communicate the beauty and spiritual power of the Bahá'í teachings to people we know--that can be a deeply personal challenge! . . .

We have been struggling with the fact that last year we had a fairly successful children's class comprised mainly of our older daughter's school friends, but in which we took the lessons from Ruhi 3 (for 5 and 6 year-olds) and slimmed them down a bit to create what was basically a virtues class. It did however incorporate memorizing some prayers in song form, and we had some short-lived success when it came to the kids committing the selected writings to heart.

This year we realized we had to do something entirely different, in that Ruhi 3A (for 7 to 9 year-olds) contains a lot more purely Bahá'í content. Also, our amazing tutor for Ruhi 3 and 3a pointed out that, ultimately, our responsibility in having a children's class was to make sure that our own daughter receives a loving and faithful Bahá'í education—that time is just too short to provide her with anything watered down or in the style of a virtues class. It dawned on us that central to any Bahá'í children’s class was helping each child discover and learn to reproduce specifically that moment in prayer, when one feels inspiration, support, guidance, love, and communion with God.

This realization of the centrality of prayer to our purpose, led to the need, in a spirit of full disclosure, to communicate to our parents who have been eager to return to the class this year, that it would have a decidedly Bahá'í religious content this year, and that a trust in God and habit of daily prayer were two of the most important things we wished to teach.

Thus, we realized we had to face head-on the challenge that we live in an affluent, intellectually-sophisticated, entertainment-oriented, and largely agnostic community, that holds religion to be a quaint vestigial organ from the past (like an appendix) or merely a vessel for carrying forward ancient traditions or a family/community loyalty. Convincing a parent that religion is both alive and of vital importance to their child and to the world is a whole different thing from simply inviting their kids to a virtues class. . . .

So we decided to have an "Open House" with the sole purpose of communicating the religious nature of the class rather than just starting in with the first lessons.

Because we were unsuccessful in finding materials that were quite what we needed, or in finding a ready-made explanation that suited our particular circumstance, we developed our own pamphlet that conveys a line of reasoning suitable to our community.

Our presentation went something like this:

First, we distributed the following beautiful quotation from George Townshend about the preciousness of this time:

While they are at your side, love these little ones to the uttermost. Forget yourself. Serve them; care for them; lavish all your tenderness on them. Value your good fortune while it is with you, and let nothing of the sweetness of their babyhood go unprized. Not for long will you keep the happiness that now lies within your reach. You will not always walk in the sunshine with a little warm, soft hand nestling in each of yours, nor hear little feet pattering beside you, and eager baby voices questioning and prattling of a thousand things with ceaseless excitement. Not always will you see that trusting face upturned to yours, feel those little arms about your neck, and those tender lips pressed upon your check, nor will you have that tiny form to kneel beside you, and murmur baby prayers into your ear.

Love them and win their love, and shower on them all the treasures of your heart. Fill up their days with happiness, and share with them their mirth and innocent delights.

Childhood is but for a day. Ere you are aware it will be gone with all its gifts forever.

George Townshend (1876–1957)

Then our talk conveyed the following points:

This is a vital time for our children in that we have no more than a few years left to cultivate and uncover their moral and spiritual nature and to develop habits of noble thought and noble behavior.

Rather than becoming people who could be easily swayed by the comments or actions of their peers on the playground, we want our children to become leaders who think for themselves and are grounded in a firm knowledge of right and wrong.

Although the virtues class we did last year was inspiring and had value, psychological research has shown that children who not only know, but also act, on moral principle have associated this with a positive emotional charge. That is, getting people beyond mere knowledge of virtuous behavior to the step of acting on that knowledge cannot be achieved through cognitive means, i.e. reasoning, or by punishments, or by material inducements; rather it occurs when a child or individual has developed a positive emotional charge and association with the virtuous behavior.

Similarly, in the medical science of helping people overcome addictions and other problematic behaviors, it has become well-established that an essential ingredient for a success is to associate self-restraint and positive behavior with trust and love for a higher power.

So, what we think our children need just as much as knowledge of virtues is to develop an inner strength and moral fortitude based on the love of God, i.e. a higher power. Also we think it is vital that they learn the universal skill of meditation/prayer/communion with God, which they can use to maintain their spiritual health, to find joy and inspiration, to regain peace when they become upset, and to find the answer when facing a difficult problem.

To this end we will ask the children to say the prayers they are memorizing together with their parents every night. And for those of you who have not yet had the experience of praying with your kids, we think you will find this is one of the most beautiful things you will ever do with them!

Then we used the pamphlet to briefly describe the specific elements of the class as listed on the page headed by “Each class will include”.

Every community is unique, of course, but for us, this formal process of inviting families to an Open House and, after some socializing, gathering parents in the living room to provide a rationale for the classes as above and going through the specific elements of each class seems to have gone over very well. I'm happy to report that the parents of last year’s participants are sending their children to the class again this year. Further, our explanation that children NEED prayer and a reliance on God has had other effects: two parents who had described themselves as “not religious” have now shown an interest in continuing a very direct and open discussion about the Bahá'í Faith.

Best Wishes,

A and J

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