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Dr. Victoria Talwar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, joined an intimate group of students on Friday March 17th to share insight on the spiritual education of children. Dr. Talwar began her talk by introducing the spiritual education of children as a topic of study for developmental psychologists, she then went on to highlight the importance of spiritual development both in the lay community and in the Baha’i community, and then ended by highlighting the role of education in spiritual development.

Dr. Talwar argued that the current environment of political and social change has lead to a renewed interest in spirituality. This, argues Dr. Talwar, has lead to a renewed interest in the study of the development of spirituality in children, and society as a whole. Developmental psychology is the study of the development of an individual, which can be extended to include the physical, mental, and spiritual development of an individual. Dr. Talwar briefly introduced the theories expounded by Piaget, which categorizes development into discrete stages. Development is thought to be gradual and includes the following milestones: the development of the senses in the sensorimotor stage, symbolic thought and play in the “preoperational stage”, logical reasoning in the concrete operational stage, and abstract reasoning in the formal operational stage.

Dr. Talwar explained that James Fowler had developed a model based on Piaget’s categorization of mental development for the study of spiritual development in children. Though this model was developed for children, it is applicable to development of spirituality in all individuals, regardless of age. The model is built on the preexistence of a primal faith, where the child develops mutuality and trust with their family and environment. Dr. Talwar explained that everyone has an innate spirituality that is manifested at a young age. She recounted the story of a young child of three asking her father, who had asked her with great bravado to ask any question she wanted, “Who is God?” Children make sense of the spiritual aspects of their world in the intuitive projective stage by using the framework of their family’s faith. Needless to say, toddlers are very impressionable and flexible at this stage in their religious identity. Children then move on to form a relationship with God that emulates a child-parent relationship in the mythic-literal stage. Individual decisions are governed by fear of reward or punishment and literal interpretations of religious texts and stories. In the “synthetic-conventional stage”, the individual starts to form an individual relationship with God while maintaining the beliefs of the people who surround them. The last stages in Fowler’s theory involve critical assessment of faith and beliefs during the course of spiritual development. In the individuative-reflective stage, the individual critically examine and develop their explicit belief system. The “conjunctive faith stage” involves understanding the paradox of faith – striving to know the unknowable. This questioning period requires a very dynamic and trusting relationship with God. The final stage is “universalizing faith”, where we start to live our lives as part of a larger cause. This process of development is gradual and progressive – the stages build on each other, but progress is not definite.

Though scientists are reluctant to delve into the field of spirituality, Dr. Talwar pointed out that recent studies have empirically evaluated spirituality as a protective factor from delinquency, substance abuse, and psychological problems, and also it has also been associated with prosocial outcomes such as social skills and coping skills, valuing diversity, altruism and caring, moral attitudes and actions. This, however, is a very limited view of the importance of spirituality for both the individual and society.

Speaking from a Baha’i perspective, Dr. Talwar emphasized that spiritual development at both the individual and the societal level are necessary, as they are interdependent. An individual relationship with God must be developed as well as the development of a community where moral and spiritual development are encouraged. At the individual level, the spiritual development in this world is the foundation of the spiritual development in the world to come, as illustrated by Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Baha’i faith: “The world beyond is different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.” In addition, the development of spiritual nature of human beings will lead individuals to use this material world to draw closer to God by service to others and the betterment of mankind, leading to the emergence of an ever-advancing civilization in the physical world.

Continuous education to develop all of our potentialities, including our mental faculties, our physical strengths and our spiritual selves is critical. As Dr. Talwar quoted from Baha’u’llah, human beings are “as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures and enable humankind to benefit therefrom.” Our current educational system is focused on mental and physical development of the child, but often neglects spiritual education. Spiritual education in the Baha’i teachings aims to develop a individual relationship with God based on love and trust (vs. reward and punishment). Ultimately, spirituality should lead to an internalized set of values and beliefs that guide an individual’s conduct and include constant direct communication with God. The ultimate purpose of religion in this world is to “effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall effect both its inner life and external conditions.”

Dr. Talwar returned to her earlier statements on the development of spiritual qualities, and highlighted that it is a developmental process. Just as the foundations of mathematics are taught early and built upon throughout elementary and secondary education, the foundations of spiritual education must begin at home at an early age. This allows an individual to progress through the different stages of spiritual development in order to attain the stage of independent investigation. The ability to critically assess material does not equate with the ability to independently assess one’s belief systems without previous development in moral and religious beliefs. “You wouldn’t deprive your children of meat just because they may become vegetarians when they are older, or deprive them of carrots because they may chose not to eat them later on. For this same reason, you cannot deprive your children from spiritual education – it is spiritual starvation.” Baha’u’llah cautioned that education should be provided in a manner “that may not injure the children by resulting in ignorant fanaticism and bigotry.”

The importance of the education of children, particularly girls, is emphasized in the Baha’i writings because they will be the educators of the future generation. As stated by Abdu’l Baha: “Wherefore, O ye loving mothers, know ye that in God’s sight, the best of all ways to worship Him is to educate the children and train them in all the perfection of humankind; and no nobler deed than this can be imagined.” This statement effectively elevates the education of children to the level of worship – a theme that has almost become foreign in our current society.

Dr. Talwar ended by highlighting the approaches that have been inspired by the Baha’i teachings at schools such as the Schools of the Nations in Macau, Maxwell International School where and the Baha’i Vocational Institute in India. These schools strive to educate children in the spheres of moral and spiritual education, acquisition of knowledge that will be of service to others, oneness of mankind and unity in diversity, peace and world citizenship, consultation among a group to find creative solutions to problems, and service to others. The School of Nations in Macau integrates these themes into the elementary school curriculum, such as relating mathematical “sets” to the oneness of humanity. At the secondary school level, activities of service within the community are linked to topics from the curriculum, such as making pamphlets for general distribution to the public for history class. At the Maxwell International School, students are asked to integrate their knowledge to service to others. A Dance Workshop has also been developed at the Maxwell International School, integrating the arts and physical exercise, to communicate messages related to themes from prejudice to peer-pressure. The Baha’i Vocational Institute for Rural Women in India, women come for three months and learn skills such as reading, math, nutrition, spiritual growth, embroidery, and agriculture, which then allow women to start small businesses in their own communities. The role of this institute in the eradication of guinea worm through education was recognized by the United Nations.

Dr. Talwar’s presentation was a balanced account of spiritual education of children from both the scientific and the religious points of view. Her presentation not only highlighted the progressive nature of spiritual development, but also stressed the importance of an environment that allows for such growth to occur, and the educational framework that encourages youth to become spiritually mature adults. This encouragement of spiritual education in children will lead to the spiritual progression of society and the betterment of humankind’s situation. Students left the lecture inspired by the thoughts shared by Dr. Talwar and went on to break the Baha'i fast together.

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