While the children are yet in their infancy feed them from the breast of heavenly grace, foster them in the cradle of all excellence, rear them in the embrace of bounty. Give them the advantage of every useful kind of knowledge. Let them share in every new and rare and wondrous craft and art. Bring them up to work and strive, and accustom them to hardship.
A mother and I are preparing lunch. As we boil the lentils and peel the green figs, with the late morning sunlight gushing through the kitchen window, we discuss what the Bahá’í writings deem our most sacred duty: the carrying forward of an ever-advancing civilization—in other words, the raising of children.Six months pregnant with her second child, the mother I’m conversing withis eager to impart her wisdom, and I am eager to listen…particularly beacuse of the qualities I’ve observed in her junior-youth-aged son: unhesitating generosity, a sense of discipline, and, above all, a spirit of service. The children of the Carib Territory seem to be instilled with this spirit of service from birth….yet I suspect it has less to do with genetic inheritance than it does with how they are raised. Here, they are brought up with the understanding that hard work and helping out are basic elements of life on planet earth…and no one is exempt. If you are big enough to walk, you are big enough to peel a clove of garlic.
Less than one month remains of my period of service in Dominica; on April 24th, I will be headed north again. While I won’t use this particular entry to explore the (varied and powerful) emotions associated with this transition, I have begun to reflect on what this year and a half in the Carib Territory has taught me. The process of internalizing and sharing these learnings will, no doubt, be a gradual one, and I feel that some of the most significant growth and understanding of these past eighteen months still resides in the mystical, harder-to-articulate realm. There are, though, some Lessons Learned that have been quite straightforward. And one of them, which I’ve alluded to throughout many of these postings (beginning, I think with Why else do we live in November 2010), is the importance ofbringing up children to work and strive. As parents, as community members, as part of the “global village” that is raising the children of the world, this is—according to the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith—our fundamental obligation, and the noblest of all deeds. Why, then, especially in the “developed” world, do we tend to safeguard our children from hard work? Are we protecting them… or are we disempowering them, and cutting them off from a fundamental and deeply satisfying human activity? The friends here shake their heads and chuckle in disbelief when I tell them that many American teenagers go off to college without knowing how to wash their socks or fry an egg. “For true?” they ask, just to make sure I’m being serious. “But…why?” The only response I can think of is that sometimes we do very strange things in the name of love.
The mother in my kitchen loves her son Dante very much. But love, for her, doesn’t mean permissiveness, or coddling. It means teaching her child, from a very young age, the beauty of contributing—both to his own well being, and that of his family and community. As our lentils begin to boil rapidly on the stove, the mother reaches for a clove of garlic. “You know,” she tells me, “I started teaching Dante to cook around the time he learned to talk. Of course, he couldn’t do much at first, but I found that his tiny hands were just the right size for peeling garlic…and he could do a much better job of it than I could, once I cut off the tips for him. So, that was his main responsibility at first—peeling the garlic. Gradually, as the months and years passed, we moved on to slicing cucumbers, boiling provisions, cleaning and frying fish…” The mother adds a dash of seasoning salt to the lentils, and recounts with smile, “Now, at age 11, he invents his own recipes. A few nights ago I came home from work exhausted, and found Dante in the kitchen, preparing a meal for me of stewed chicken, vegetables, and rice. Mmmm… that really tasted nice.”
When I pass by the stand pipe on the Gaulette River bend of the Carib Territory Road, I often see Lydia there, in her pigtails and blue flip-flops, filling a gallon jug with water to carry down the hill to her home. Lydia is four—and that gallon jug is nearly half her size. Her mother is able to carry an entire pail in one arm, and Lydia’s baby brother in another…but when the mother is busy making baskets, or preparing lunch, or gathering firewood, she sends Lydia to fetch the water. I have never observed Lydia without a smile as she carries out this important household task. The walk up the hill strengthens the girl’s legs, and hauling the gallon jug strengthens her arms. Her mother will use this water to bathe the children, or to make cacao tea—and because each cupful involves effort and time, not a drop of water is ever wasted. Lydia and her family are soon moving to a home with indoor plumbing, which will make their life easier in many ways. But Lydia was blessed, I feel, to have learned in her formative years the value of conservation, and the joy of exerting effort.
Noticing that storm clouds have covered the sun (the skies change on a dime here), Dante’s mother and I interrupt our meal preparation to retreive my clothes from the line. As we spread the still-damp tee shirts and shorts on the sofa and arm chair, the mother explains to me the double benefit to children washing their own clothes. There’s the obvious importance of learning this basic life skill (and saving their parents time and energy, especially as clothes washing here involves a trip to the river and lots of knuckle grease). Additionally, though—according to this mother—if children wash their own clothes, they will take more care to keep them clean. She notes with pride that when Dante arrives home from school, his white uniform is usually spotless. And when it isn’t…well, he knows he’ll have to devote extra time to scrubbing out those spots.
During the December holdidays, nine-year-old Briana spent a week and a half at my home. It was a really special time. We said prayers together every morning and evening, invented all sorts of fun games, cooked meals together, and watched some good cartoons. And at the end of each day, Briana did the dishes. I tried to dissuade her at first—partly beacuse she was already helping out so much with the cooking and cleaning (after morning prayers, the first thing she’d do was sweep the porch, even before drinking her hot chocolate), and partly because I actually take great pleasure in doing the dishes, and had no intention of letting anyone usurp my favorite chore. I soon realized, though, that Briana delighted in doing the dishes, maybe even more than I did. And she carried out this job with a greater degree of excellence—leaving not a trace of soap residue or carrot peel, not even on the tricky-to-clean grater. I’d peek in from the living room, sometimes, and watch the child at work. I noticed how when she finished, she’d survey her work (inspecting every last fork and bowl), and—if it passed inspection—give a satisfied little nod to signal the completion of a job well done.
One of the children who has most impacted me in my life is four-year-old Reynaldo, who I met in a small village in Bolivia. I share his story over and over, and am reminded of this child every time I eat an orange. This extraordinary young boy spent his days peeling potatoes with his mother, caring for his baby sister Sofia, watching over the family’s small herd of goats, grinding corn for tamales, and learning his alphabet in the village pre-school. He sang and hummed and giggled as he worked. I’d brought his family a basket of oranges from the city—a precious commodity, as fresh fruit was hard to come by in the drier regions of the Andes. Every night Reynaldo would remove one of the oranges and peel it, slowly and meticulously. He would then offer half to me, dividing the other half between his mother, father, baby sister, and himself. I protested at first, but Reynaldo wouldn’t even take a bite until I’d eaten my share. Dante is much like Reynaldo. He knows that if he comes to school with a whole sandwich, and his classmate has nothing to eat, then half, or less, will be plenty. Besides, even if he has to go without lunch entirely, he can prepare himself some stewed chicken and rice when he gets home…as long as he first sets aside a portion for his mother.
It has been said that the work of children is to play. Out of curiosity, I looked up the definitions for both “work” and “play” on the computer’s dictionary, and this is what I found:
Work (verb): Engage in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a purpose or result
Play(verb): Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose
These definitions are unsatisfactory for me…and I feel that, as we’re striving to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization, we can also advance in our understanding of concepts, leading perhaps to the creation of new, more evolved definitions of words. From what I have witnessed in the children of the Carib Territory, I’d venture to redefine Work (verb) as: Engage in an enjoyable, recreational, and learning-filled activity, that also happens to serve a practical purpose.
When viewed in this light, work isn’t deprivation or punishment—it is service, it is joy, it is contributing… it is not waiting ‘til you’re old enough to vote before you can be useful in your household, in your community, in the world. After all, if our sons and daughters are able to peel garlic by age two, just imagine what they might be capable of by age three. 🙂