Teaching your children about Islam
by Hina Khan-Mukhtar | SeekersGuidance | 21 Jun 2012
I still vividly remember the first night I spent by myself in the hospital after delivering my eldest son Shaan. The guests were gone for the day, the hallway lights were dimmed, the nurses were speaking outside my room in muted tones.
“Knock, knock!” came a cheerful voice from the doorway. “Someone’s hungry and wants his mommy!”
The nurse wheeled in the crib that held my newborn, only a few hours old at the time. She cooed over him as I struggled to sit up, then efficiently handed him into my waiting arms, bustling out of the room after giving me a few words of encouragement.
I pulled the blanket away from his cheek and smiled in awe at this fragile, little creature who was being left alone with me for the first time ever. I felt privileged to be trusted with his care, overwhelmed with the weight of responsibility. No one was watching over my shoulder; he was all mine and I could do whatever I wanted.
I felt it was an appropriate time to take care of something that no one had thought of arranging so far — introductions.
“Assalaamu alaikum,” I whispered to the warm bundle nestled against my chest, “I’m your mommy.” I stroked his face and then asked the rhetorical question that every mother has asked since time immemorial. “Now…how am I going to raise you?”
It’s a question that I have continued to ask since that first magical night in the maternity ward.
I’ve asked it of grandparents, parents, sons, and daughters. I’ve asked it of Pakistanis, Indians, Afghans, Arabs, Americans, Asians, and Africans. I’ve sat people down at parties, emailed friends’ parents, called up aunties on the telephone, and stopped uncles on their way out the door. Any family whose practice of Islam has impressed me, any child whose manners have stunned me, any teenager whose conduct with his or her sibling has given me reason for pause, any adult whose balance of deen (religion) and dunya (world) has wowed me, I have accosted and asked,
“What exactly did your parents do with you?!”
“How did you raise your children?!”
“I beg you, tell me the secret of bringing up Mu’mineen (believers) like the ones I see in your home!”
What I have found in my years of “field research” is that nearly all of these families have stumbled upon the same basic secrets to success. While many of them don’t necessarily know one another, time and time again they have given me the same advice, the same tips, the same rules. I would catalogue their stories in my head, thinking I could easily remember them later. So when I was recently approached with the request for an article on Muslim parenting tips, I jumped at the chance to put it all down in writing and thus preserve the valuable insights I have gathered over the course of the past twelve years or so.
Here then, for my benefit and yours, are the tips from the “experts”, the tried-and-true heroes who have worked hard at (and, insha’Allah, succeeded at) securing their children’s minds, hearts, and souls. These words come from those parents — like you — whose primary purpose in life has been to direct their sons and daughters onto the Path they believe will earn them the Pleasure of their Creator and the respect of their fellow human beings. Some of the advice may seem “common sense”, the type you could hear on any daytime talk show or read in any self-help book. Other tips genuinely surprised me at how specific and unyielding they were in their insistence that “This is the only way”. While there has been a whole variety of advice given to me, I have noticed a pattern emerging where the same ten “Rules of the Game” seem to keep reappearing in different shapes and forms; those dominant tips are the ones that I have chosen to focus on for the purpose of my article.
I have seen with my own eyes children under the age of ten who willingly set their own alarms to get up for Tahajjud prayer. I have hosted a young soccer marvel in my home who begins his day before mine by reciting Quran at Fajr. I know of an Ivy League university student who insisted on turning the car around because she realized she had left home without giving her mother salaams (farewell wishes). I have been acquainted with doctors who make more money in a single month than most people make in a single year yet choose to live in small homes with no mortgages so that their salaries can be spent supporting scholars of Islam. My husband and I work with a young man who once flew with his mother from California to Jordan, then turned around and returned on the next flight home — all of this so that his single mother didn’t have to travel across the world alone. I have witnessed fourth graders who were able to sit quietly with impeccable etiquette in front of Muslim scholars while the adults around them stretched, yawned, and sighed. I have heard children silence their young friends with urgent reminders, “Don’t say that about him! It’s backbiting!”
A sign of someone whom Allah loves is that when you see him/her, you remember Allah. The examples I have listed here are all people who have caused me to wonder about my own station with Allah in relation to theirs; they have motivated me to at least try to change, to improve. I’m sure readers will agree that, although Allah Alone knows the hidden reality of hearts, these people at least seem to have triumphed both in their embodiment of the true spirit of Islam and in their practical participation in the dunya. I pray that Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala will continue to send examples like them into our lives so that we may continue to learn and implement that which draws us closer to Him. Aameen.
1.) Dua, Dua, Dua
“None of this is from us,” insists one mother of three UC Berkeley graduates who have never voluntarily missed a single prayer. “Everything begins and ends with dua. It is only by His Generosity that we have been blessed with believing children; we had nothing to do with it. Now that we have it, we try to hold onto it by showing gratitude and not taking it for granted.”
Every single family I have “interviewed” about raising children in this day and age inevitably began by reminding me about the power of supplication. “Every success I have seen in my family’s life, I can remember having prayed for it first,” admits one grandmother of three huffadh (memorizers of Quran). “If my dua doesn’t come true in this world, I have faith that it will in the next one, so I have patience.”
Another mother of four tells me, “I recited Surah Maryam every single day of my pregnancy. I want pious children above all else — it’s all that matters.”
A convert friend of mine suggests that couples who are about to embark on the path of parenthood should ask themselves, “Why do we even want children?” She believes in renewing one’s intentions on a daily basis. “Who are we doing this for?” When she gets embarrassed by something her children say or do, she questions herself, “Why am I upset? Is it because I’m afraid that they’re doing something displeasing to Allah? Or is it because I’m afraid that they’re displeasing people?”
Her unwavering dua is that her children live their lives seeking only His pleasure.
Many families shared with me their reliance on Salaat-ul-Istikhaara (Prayer for Guidance) before making any major life-altering decisions and Salaat-ul-Haajah (Prayer for Need) when desiring something they felt was crucial for their children’s well-being. Whenever a blessing appeared in their lives, they were quick to pray Salaat-ul-Shukr (Prayer of Gratitude) as well.
“All that I have is due to my mother’s duas,” believes one mother of five children. “She was the one who was always praying for us, even when we forgot to.”
2.) Suhba (companionship) will make you or break you.
“There were times we sacrificed our own friendships in order to do what was best for our children,” a married couple of sixteen years tells me. When pressed for reasons why one would end a relationship, they explain, “Before we had children, we had friends who ‘drank socially’, who played poker, who hosted dance parties. Once our kids were born, we avoided those types of atmospheres. Our social gatherings are now the type where both the respected elders and the innocent children feel welcome and comfortable.”
“It doesn’t necessarily need to be that it’s the ‘drinking, gambling, partying crowd’ that is holding you back,” muses a mother of elementary school children upon hearing the couple’s history. “I have one set of ‘dinner party friends’ who believe in a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ philosophy. They plant the kids around TV sets and video games while the parents socialize in other rooms. Then I have another group of friends who engage their children in the adult conversations, who don’t keep the younger ones ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It might surprise you to learn that my own kids actually prefer to be around the adults who actually care enough to get to know them.”
“Sometimes I look around at the people I hang with and I think ‘What happened?’” laughs a mother who has chosen to homeschool her three kids. “None of these folks are the type I would have chosen as friends when I was younger, but I admire the way they live their lives and crave the peace and tranquility they trail behind them everywhere they go. They have a sense of purpose and an awareness of Allah in everything they do. I want to pass those qualities on to my own kids, so here we are.”
“Suhba is of the utmost importance. If you sleep with the dogs, don’t be surprised if you rise with the fleas,” a respected scholar advises. The words that struck me the hardest with their wisdom? “When you sit with People of the Dunya, you become a drop in their ocean, but when you sit with People of the Akhira (Hereafter), the dunya becomes a drop in your ocean.”
“A person is known by who their friends are,” my mother always reminded us. “Don’t ever assume that you are better than your friends. No! You are who your friends are.”
“I had a girlfriend whose company I really enjoyed,” remembers one mother wistfully. “She was the best person to share a cup of tea with, to go shopping with.” So what happened? “She and her husband decided that they weren’t going to raise their children as Muslims. Even though we liked each other a lot, we just didn’t see eye to eye on what was appropriate for kids. There were certain behaviors in her home that were complete anathema to us. I decided that I couldn’t have an independent friendship with the mom; at some point her kids were going to start influencing my kids, and we needed to part ways…so we did.”
One father confesses with a sheepish laugh, “I don’t know if our children are so God-conscious because of anything we necessarily did. My nieces are very spiritual young women, and my own daughters were always drawn to them. I think we got lucky that our children wanted to follow in their older cousins’ footsteps.”
“On the Day of Judgment, you’ll be standing with the ones you loved most in the dunya,” reminds another well-loved scholar, “so choose your friends wisely.”
More than one parent has gushed about the power a charismatic aunt or uncle, imam, halaqa (study circle) leader, or Sunday School teacher has had over their young ones. Many of the adults gave up a good portion of their weekends, driving long distances to take their children to gatherings and events where they hoped their children would benefit from being around like-minded people. “I firmly believe that no friends are better than bad friends,” states a father of five childen, “but I did go the extra mile to make sure that my kids did have friends with whom they connected.”
“Sometimes kids start to tune out what the parents say because it’s all been said before,” a mother of a middle schooler smiles. “My own parents told me to pray all my life, but it wasn’t until I connected with an articulate teacher who explained how prayer was for our benefit that I finally got the message…and it was my friends who led me to that teacher.”
3.) The Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) was a living, breathing reality in our lives.
“What better suhba is there than one who reminds another of the deen? Can there be a better ‘companion’ than the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam)?” asks a UCLA graduate married to a doctor who also does interfaith work for Islam.
When a learned scholar was recently asked, “What should we teach our children?”, his response was swift and unequivocal — “The seerah (biography of the Prophet) and nasheeds (devotional songs of praise). If your kids love the Prophet, they will automatically love Allah.”
“The best way to call people to Islam is to have them fall in love with the Prophet,” insists another scholar. “Children should fear and love Allah, but teach them about the love first. They can learn about the fear when they’re older. And who loved Allah more than the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam)?”
An eight-year-old recently burst into tears when he realized that his mother had neglected to wake him up for the Fajr prayer. The adults who were present exchanged glances, wondering what kind of terror the parents must have driven into this young one’s heart. Was he afraid that Allah was going to punish him? Did he think he was going to burn in hell? Upon inquiry, the child revealed that the real cause of his distress was the knowledge that he had neglected something the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) took very seriously, something he had exhorted the believers about while on his death bed. Needless to say, the mother has been vigilant about waking her son on time for prayer ever since.
Many of the parents made it a regular part of the daily routine to recite the sunnah duas — the duas for beginning and ending meals, the duas for entering and leaving the home, the duas for waking and sleeping — until they became automatic. It isn’t a surprise for guests in their homes to see children as young as three reciting the dua for traveling as they get strapped into their car seats. “We didn’t minimize any sunnah in our home,” one Pakistani-American father tells me. “Once you start to think, ‘Oh, that sunnah isn’t a big deal; we can ignore it’, you’ve entered dangerous territiory. What comes next?”
In order to help his children learn the daily duas, this father neatly prints the supplications on index cards and posts them up all over the house until the kids have learned them by heart. I decided to follow his lead and taped up the dua for “looking at one’s reflection” on my sons’ bedroom mirror, completely forgetting to put a card on my own bathroom mirror. The result? My eleven-year-old now knows exactly what prayer to recite while brushing his hair for school, whereas I struggle to remember the Arabic words when getting ready in the morning.
“A co-worker recently asked me to name one thing that makes Islam different from other faiths,” my brother-in-law once shared with me. “Among other things, I told him that with Islam I got a prophetic example for how to live my day-to-day life. No other prophet’s life is so carefully recorded as our Prophet’s (salallaahu alaihi wasallam).”
With toddlers and pre-schoolers, I noticed that a lot of the parents mentioned the Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) as if he were a relevant person in their lives. They talked about him the way one would talk about any respected elder whom the child adored. It wasn’t unusual to hear parents telling their little ones, “The Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) loved green, so let’s wear our green clothes for Friday Prayer!” or “Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) taught us that we should sit down when we get angry, so let’s sit down since you’re feeling so frustrated.”
While visiting my sister in Southern California one weekend, I noticed that an English translation of Imam Tirmidhi’s “Shama’il” (Characteristics) sat on my six-year-old nephew’s beside table. She explained that it was part of their son’s bedtime ritual for her husband to share one hadith from that famous ninth century text with him. “Learning intimate details, like the fact the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) enjoyed eating dates with cucumbers, makes our son feel like he actually personally knows the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam).”
“Today’s generation is so fortunate, masha’Allah,” says one grandmother. “When our children were younger, there were hardly any quality Islamic literature or media out there. Today’s kids have so many choices! My grandchildren go through a different seerah book every year. They are constantly humming new songs about the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam). I pray that they always find joy in learning about (and then following) their Prophet, insha’Allah.”
4.) Having fun wasn’t “haraam” in our home, but we kept the home environment as pure as possible.
It would be extremely remiss of me if I failed to mention that every single family I interviewed emphasized the need to severely limit exposure to entertainment media — television in particular, but internet and video games included. There were some families who didn’t have a television set in the house at all, while there were others who allowed their children to watch an hour of pre-screened Saturday morning cartoons or an occasional family night movie. Computers were always stationed in a public area of the house where email exchanges and internet research were conducted on a set schedule under the watchful eyes of involved parents.
“If Shaytan (Satan) were to ring our doorbell and ask if he could come in and babysit our children, we would throw him out,” one scholar says, “yet we allow the television set to do exactly that…we literally invite Shaytan in when we turn the TV on!”
“Preserving my children’s fitra (primordial state) is of the highest priority to us,” one mother of two pre-schoolers tells me. “Right now, the difference between right and wrong is so clear in their eyes; they really get it when we explain what’s what to them. The entertainment industry’s depiction of what’s ‘normal’ manages to confuse adults, so just imagine what it does to children!”
“We’re Indian, but we never watched Bollywood films in our home,” a friend admits matter-of-factly. “We didn’t have bhangra dance parties; we didn’t wear revealing clothing like skimpy saris and sleeveless blouses; we weren’t allowed to be overly chummy with our guy cousins.”
Basically, what she’s letting me know is that what is often excused as “culture” was not allowed to contradict the Islamic shariah (sacred law) her parents taught her to respect.
“But don’t think we were bored or deprived!” she is quick to reassure me. “My parents inculcated in us a love of Urdu poetry. We read classic English literature aloud to one another in the evenings and went on father-daughter hikes in the mornings. My mother showed us how to garden, my father taught us how to fish. My brother had a paper route; the younger ones were Girl Scouts. We had a home life full of energy and activity.”
“It’s important to replace every haraam you stop your child from with at least two halaals they can enjoy,” advises a popular Muslim family counselor. “You don’t want your children to grow up thinking that Islam is just a bunch of no’s — ‘no, you can’t do this; no, you can’t do that.’” She laughs heartily, “Make it about ‘yes, we can!’”
I have a Yemeni friend who has taken that philosophy to heart with gusto. She and her husband may not throw birthday or New Year’s Eve parties, but you should see the festivities they do arrange. When her twins memorized the thirtieth juz (chapter of the Quran), the picnic in the park was enjoyed with two separate gourmet cakes and party favors for all. When this same brother-sister team went on to memorize the twenty-ninth juz, they came home from school to discover their bedrooms decorated with streamers and presents. My five-year-old son Raahim and his preschool buddies recently memorized twelve surahs under this auntie’s guidance, and she was quick to organize a party complete with a pinata, awards, balloons, and treats. With memories like these, Muslim adults are bound to look back on their childhoods as a time filled with celebrations, insha’Allah.
“There is so much fitna (tribulation) out there in the world. We can’t protect our kids from everything bad,” warns a devout grandfather of ten children. “But it is for that very reason that the home must be an oasis where Allah is remembered and obeyed, where children can relax and feel cherished, where they can practice their religion without feeling apologetic or alien. The home environment should be as halaal as possible. Our litmus test was always ‘Would we be ashamed if the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) were to walk into our house right now? Is there anything we would want to hide?’.”
The result of this family’s “test” was a tidy, simply furnished home where the television set was absent and books lined the shelves. Flowers bloomed outside every window, intricate Islamic calligraphy adorned the walls, and healthful food was served with generosity and enthusiasm to all who entered. The sense of serenity in the air was something tangible.
I’ll never forget what one daughter of a highly respected elder in the community told me when I asked her how her siblings remained so close to their parents despite being raised in a small town with only a handful of Muslims. Didn’t they ever rebel? How did they resist the siren song of the un-Islamic peer culture around them? “If you feel love in your home, you don’t look for it anywhere else.”
5.) Our parents didn’t just “talk the talk”, they “walked the walk”.
In other words, they practiced what they preached.
“I don’t get it when I hear mothers telling their kids ‘Don’t tell lies’ and then in the next breath smoothly tell phone callers, ‘Oh, he’s not home right now’ when the husband is sitting right there in front of them,” says a medical school resident who is spending time learning Hanafi fiqh as well. “Or how about when parents teach their kids ‘It’s wrong to backbite’ and then complain about the in-laws to anyone who will listen? It’s just beyond me!”
When pressed for examples of not succumbing to hypocrisy in his own family life, he says that his parents taught him and his siblings the importance of prayer and then never allowed them to miss any, even if it meant praying in the middle of Disneyland. “Our dad taught us that while there might be a time for fun and play, it never comes at the expense of giving up our duties to Allah. And since he was always the first to stand up for prayer, we just naturally followed.”
Another experienced mother gave me this age-old advice, “You can teach your kids the rules of prayer all you want, but if you’re not going to pray, they’re not going to pray. Children learn from what their parents do, not just what they say.”
“But it’s not enough to just teach your children to pray,” interjects another mother who was raised a secular Jew but is now Muslim. “What about how you pray? Do you have presence in your prayer? Are you sad if you ever miss a prayer? Those lessons are all just as important as learning to pray.”
I was once working with an African-American convert friend when the time for Maghrib prayer came in. I had been busy taking care of some tasks, but I stopped and said, “Well, I guess I better go get my prayer out of the way.”
Startled, she looked up and then chuckled. “In our house, we say we’re going to get prayer ‘in the way’.”
SubhanAllah, what a difference one word makes! What a difference in attitude!
“I was sitting in my room reciting my morning dhikr while the kids were completing an art project in the family room,” an Egyptian friend shared with me the other day. “It suddenly struck me that I always recite my litanies in private, so I got up and joined them in their area of the house. They continued to paint while I continued with my prayers. They need to see me doing this…and they need to see me doing this happily.”
The other day one of my sons became frustrated while searching for an elusive pencil in the writing desk. He shoved papers aside and slammed the drawer shut when no pencil materialized, grumbling the entire time. I began to lecture him about the merits of patience when I realized that I had behaved in the exact same manner while looking for my keys a few days earlier. Children really are like sponges; they soak in everything around them. “Garbage in, garbage out,” cautions one teacher.
“Children need to see that Islam ‘worked’ in our home,” says another scholar. “Islam isn’t just about praying and fasting and charity. Islam is an attitude that must be infused in the mundane day-to-day dealings with life. Do parents treat each other with respect? How do they react to the ups and downs of life? Do they have a sense of civic responsibility? Children are constantly learning from their parents, even when the parents don’t think they have anything to teach.”
6.) I wasn’t afraid to be the Bad Guy, but I never behaved badly.
I know more than one mother who doesn’t feel comfortable telling her child to pray or maybe to dress more modestly, thinking that her kid will be “mad” at her if she starts holding him/her to higher standards. I know of a couple of fathers who have turned a blind eye to certain immoral behaviors witnessed in their teenagers, never once speaking out, telling their exasperated wives, “I don’t want to judge our kids. It’s a tough age and they have to fit in.”
The adults I’ve asked for parenting advice had no qualms about upsetting their children from time to time.
“There were times when I knew that I shouldn’t go to this place or go out with that person, but I would ask Ammi anyway, wanting her to be the one to put her foot down…and she always did,” remembers my brother. “Kids want their parents to set limits and be authority figures, even if they won’t admit it.”
“I enjoy my children’s company; we laugh together, we read the same books, we even share each other’s clothes,” chuckles one mother of two teenage daughters who race to give up their seats for her. “But at the end of the day, they know that I am their Mother. I am friendly with them, but they cannot treat me like a girlfriend.”
“Weakness in those who are supposed to be in a position of authority only invites contempt,” contends a mother of two. “It’s important to know who’s boss.”
One father of four and former high school valedictorian looks back on his youth and laughs appreciatively, “My mother didn’t worry about not ‘rocking the boat’ when we were in high school. She was willing to capsize the boat if she found us doing something that wasn’t okay with her!”
Other parents impressed upon me the importance of having high expectations of their children. “We have to gently push kids out of their comfort zones,” an Afghan father says. “If you expect more, your kids will often pleasantly surprise you, but it’s important to communicate those expectations.”
A single mother I know always assumed that her children would eventually begin praying simply because they saw that prayer was a priority for her. When a friend asked her why her ten-year-old daughter didn’t join the other girls for prayer, this mom realized that she had never communicated her hopes to her own daughter. “It was only a matter of discussing it!” she exclaims with genuine surprise. “I sat her down for a serious ‘grown-up’ talk. I said, ‘Honey, you’re older now and prayer needs to be a regular part of your routine.’ She listened so attentively! When Asr came in, she ran to get her prayer rug and misbaha (prayer beads) and joined me for salaah. She’s the one who wakes me for Fajr now. It’s almost as if she was just waiting for me to tell her, ‘This is what I expect of you’.”
While these parents were quick to lay down the law with their children, there was one “old world law” that nearly all of them shied away from — corporal punishment. “We did not hit our children,” most of them say adamantly.
“Well, there might be a place for a good old-fashioned spanking every now and then,” argues a mother of four college students. “When my daughter was four years old, she ran out in public without her underwear on for the umpteenth time. In my opinion, it was too dangerous to let her keep getting away with that kind of behavior, so I finally let her have it. She got the message and never forgot it…and I never had to spank her again.”
Physically beating your children for the simplest infractions seemed to be an acceptable mode of discipline a generation or so ago. The parents I spoke with are loath to raise their hands on their kids. “Every time you hit your kids, you have to keep upping the levels,” a financial analyst tells me. “I knew of a parent who used to twist her kids’ ears. After a while, that had no effect, so she started smacking them on their hands. When the desired behaviors were no longer obtained using that method, she resorted to swatting them on their bottoms and shaking them in frustration. I mean, where does it end?”
I spent a good portion of the afternoon just yesterday baking banana crumb muffins from scratch. I offered one to a son of mine and sent him out on the back deck to enjoy his snack. As I watched in horror from the kitchen window, I saw him breaking off big chunks of the fresh muffin and forcefully slamming them down on to the floorboards outside. I rushed out the door and surveyed the crumbs all over the deck, the same deck I had washed just that morning. “What are you doing?!” I screeched.
He looked up in surprise. “Oh.”
“WHAT are you doing?!”
“I’m trying to kill a spider that’s bothering me.”
I clenched my hands at my side and whispered through gritted teeth, “Son, please walk away from me right now. I’m very upset and I am sure that I will spank you if you are near me and this mess. I need time to cool off, so you better run.”
His eyes grew wide and he scampered off.
I’m so grateful that Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala allowed me to restrain myself in that moment of anger. The crumbs were easily swept up, there were still plenty of muffins left, my son learned his lesson about not wasting food (and not killing innocent spiders in their natural habitat), and I was eventually able to laugh at his logic for dealing with arachnids…but only after an hour had passed. Letting out my frustration on him by hitting him might have felt good in that moment, but the resulting misery would have lasted much longer…for the both of us.
7.) I always kept them close by.
I wasn’t surprised to see that nearly all of the families I spoke with had the mother at home caring for the children, but I was shocked by how many of the families shared the same steadfast rule — “No sleepovers.”
“Every night I know which bed my kid is sleeping in,” says a homeschooling mom of two and wife of a university professor. “And that bed is one I can check on whenever I want.”
“Friends were always welcome to come to our home for sleepovers,” reminisces a young woman who grew up with a twin brother. “My mom went all out — popcorn during midnight games of Monopoly, pancakes for breakfast, privacy for chatting and giggling late into the night. But we could never sleep in anyone else’s home unless our parents were there with us.”
“I saw too many weird things in other friends’ homes when I was younger…and that was just during the daytime,” remembers an attorney and father of three. “The first time my best friend saw a dirty magazine was when he spent the night at his neighbor’s house. I might have resented their strictness a bit when I was younger, but in my heart I knew that my parents were right to keep us in our clean, safe, and cozy home.”
“I never let them go far from me when they were little,” explains a mother of two when asked by me how to raise a dutiful son like hers. “My kids could have gone on camping trips and overnight field trips with other parents as chaperones, but unless my husband or I were there, they didn’t go. My husband was once willing to consider a prestigious boarding school for one of our ‘gifted’ children, but I said, ‘No way.’ I just couldn’t let my family be split in different directions; the time we had with them was already short enough.”
“No nannies or day-cares for our family,” says a grandmother of five. “And don’t think that I wasn’t tempted! I raised three babies on my own without any help; I didn’t have parents or in-laws nearby. A one-income-family meant that we only took local vacations and drove second-hand cars. We lived in a small home. I went back to work only after the kids were in school, but I was always at home in time to greet them with a smile, a hug, and an after-school snack. Even now, my grown children tell me that the smell of peanut butter and jelly gives them a feeling of security.”
Another mother of four, who is able to afford live-in help, made an agreement with her husband long ago that while the maid would be available to help with laundry, cleaning, and grocery shopping, all of the actual food preparation and childcare would be done exclusively by the parents. “My husband thinks dinner comes together by ‘magic’,” laughs this stay-at-home mom with a master’s degree in business. “But, masha’Allah, he is very helpful with the children, so I get my fair share of ‘breaks’. When we need a night out for ourselves, we rely on the grandparents or my sister…but never strangers.”
8.) We didn’t spoil our kids nor did we praise them too much.
“It’s important to me that my kids don’t grow up ingrained in this Sibling Society,” a college professor and father of three tells me.
When asked the definition of a “sibling society”, he explains that it’s the environment where grown adults behave and are treated like children. “We’ve extended adolescence where we excuse bad behavior by saying, ‘Oh, he’s just going through that rebellious phase. He’s only sixteen; he’ll outgrow it.’ Outgrow it when? Throughout history, puberty has been considered the onset of adulthood; nowadays we have university graduates who behave like babies — tantrums, irresponsible behavior, no sense of accountability.”
This father celebrates his children’s birthdays every year by giving them a new toy…and a new duty. “When my son turns seven, he’ll get that monster truck he’s been craving, but he’ll also get a new responsibility for the year — he has to make sure that all the doors in the house are locked before going to bed.”
He and his wife believe that having responsibilities, even small ones, inculcates in children a sense of contribution and chivalry.
I was recently given cause to reflect when a friend of mine politely refused an invitation for her daughter to recite her award-winning poem at a masjid event. “Masha’Allah, she has received a lot attention and praise this past week for that poem,” she sighed. “The other day she just happened to be interviewed for a local science program on television too. I just don’t think it’s beneficial for her nafs (ego) to be in the spotlight too much, so I’m going to have to say ‘no’.”
This mother believes that praise becomes “cheap” when it is given for that which children have no control over; she feels that kids should have to “earn” the praise that comes their way. “What’s the point in telling a child who always gets A’s, ‘You’re so smart’? Or telling a pretty child, ‘You’re so beautiful’? Telling a child who’s struggled through an assignment, ‘I’m proud of how hard you worked on that difficult worksheet’ is so much more meaningful.”
One mother who is often asked the secret behind her kids’ contentment with life has this theory to offer: “It’s actually something I’ve discovered by accident. We have never been motivated to buy the latest gadgets and gizmos for our kids. To compensate for the things that we won’t buy, we give them something that’s free yet still very valuable — our time. I bake with them, their dad wrestles. We snuggle on the couch and read together. I think they’re rarely dissatisfied with material goods because they are just so grateful for what little they do get. They don’t have a sense of entitlement. And since whining has never worked anyway, they just don’t bother.”
The father adds, “Well, to be honest, we are spoiling them, except that we’re spoiling them with something that’s lasting, not fleeting — our love.”
9.) Talk to your kids…with love.
I was once singing “Rain, rain, go away; Come again another day; Shaan and Ameen want to play” with my kids when my brother interrupted us.
“Don’t teach them that! Rain is a blessing! You don’t want them rejecting blessings just because they want ‘fun’,” he rebuked me.
After experimenting with the lyrics, we ended up singing, “Rain, rain, pour, pour, pour; You’re a mercy from our Lord; Rain, rain, fall on me; I turn to Allah gratefully.” To this day, whenever dark clouds dampen a day that they had hoped to spend outside, my kids console one another by saying, “It’s okay. California needs the rain. Allah is being Kind to us.”
This suggestion by my brother is a reminder of another piece of advice that families have repeatedly given me — “Never miss out on a teaching moment.”
“When your kids are younger, you should take advantage of every opportunity to guide them, remind them, advise them,” instructs an Iraqi father of two girls. “Of course, there’s a fine line between nagging and teaching, between being judgmental and being perceptive. Nevertheless, I encourage my children to look at everything through ‘the eye of discernment’. What does everything around us mean? Why is that billboard saying that their brand of soda will guarantee a successful party? What was the real reason that car driver honked his horn like that? Why does this movie make parents look like bumbling fools? Is having to wait in a long line ever a reason to lose your temper with a bank teller? Talk, talk, talk to your kids! Even if they don’t say anything, believe me, they’re listening!”
“I want to get my ‘voice’ into my kids’ heads while they’re young,” says one mom. “There are so many forces competing for our kids’ minds; I want to get in while I can. There will come a time when we all have to let go, but I’m hopeful that my children will always remember their root values once they’re out on their own, insha’Allah.”
The families I’ve admired have all made a point of being “present” with their children, answering their questions patiently and respectfully, not getting annoyed with their seemingly random thoughts, laughing appreciatively at their jokes, and maintaining eye contact when the children wanted to chat. The kids feel that they can ask any question and discuss any subject without any judgment on the part of the parents.
“You know that cliche ‘There’s no such thing as a dumb question’?” asks a Persian friend who is also a Fulbright scholar. “Well, that was always true in our family. I could ask my mom anything, and I was always confident that I would get an honest answer. There were times when I was told that I would have to wait a bit before she was ready to teach me certain truths, but I was able to be patient because I knew that the truth was eventually coming.”
Another respected family counselor cautions parents to beware the trap of “over-talking and over-respecting” your sons and daughters. “Children are little people with little hearts and they need to be treated with dignity and respect so that their feelings aren’t hurt,” she admits. “But there’s no need to explain and justify every little thing to your child — ‘Honey, please, you need to let me do this so that then I can do that. And once I do that, I’ll be able to take care of this. And once I do this, then I can read to you. Is that all right?’…No! Sometimes you just need to make it clear to the child: ‘Because I said so’…And they need to be okay with that too.”
An Arab girlfriend once described how her mother would react when she and her siblings misbehaved as children. “May Allah guide you!” she would yell in anger. “May Allah have mercy on all of us!” The inevitable result was that her daughter grew up to be a mother of twins who now prays for her children instead of cursing them when she is at the height of her own frustration.
Just today Shaan told me about how his younger cousin reacted after he watched Ameen splatter a mud ball against a wooden fence. “Mama, he yelled, ‘SubhanAllah! Allahu Akbar!’” my son related with amusement. “He’s just like his dad; he says the same things Khaloo (Uncle) does.”
10.) They had a pious father who engaged them.
Yes, there are pious mothers who have raised wonderful Muslim kids despite having husbands who not only didn’t support them, but even disapproved of their attempts to teach their kids the basics about the deen. And there are single moms who are doing an incredible service to the Ummah by sacrificing, striving, and successfully raising the next generation of believers. We all are more than aware that the mother is the first madrassa (school). And there are examples after examples of mothers who spend the night on the prayer mat weeping in prostration for the future of their families; their secrets are known only to Allah.
But over and over I have seen lackadaisical mothers with pious husbands…and the kids have turned towards their fathers like flowers to the sun. How many of us know of young adults who roll their eyes at their mothers’ religiosity while holding their “fun-loving”, worldly, secular fathers up as paragons of rationalism and intelligence? There is a power that fathers have over their offspring, the depth of which we can never fully comprehend; the truth manifests itself when we witness which parent the kid most often chooses to emulate.
A majority of the families I spoke with extolled the virtues of the Amir of the House: the man who led his children in congregational prayer, the father who gently but firmly encouraged both his son’s and his daughter’s sense of modesty, the husband who fulfilled his wife’s rights without demanding his own, the responsible breadwinner, the dad who put a stop to gossip the moment it started, the patriarch who was eager to hasten to the masjid to join the jama’ah (congregation), the Muslim who held fast to his principles (whether it was a father who refused to allow his co-workers to shorten his name from “Mohammad” to “Mo” or the dad who wouldn’t travel on Fridays so that his Jumah prayer wouldn’t be jeopardized). The grown children remember their father’s integrity and quiet examples long after they have entered parenthood on their own, voluntarily choosing to mold their own lives in honor of a man who didn’t force his way of life down their throats when they were younger.
“My mother lectured and taught and scolded and reminded us the entire time we were growing up,” one mother of three sons remembers with amusement. “My father told me maybe only five things related to the deen my whole life…and yet I remember every single one; I’ve never forgotten. I only wish he had shared his thoughts with me more often.”
Back in junior high school, I remember repeating the words of an older cousin as I was studying for an exam at the kitchen table. “If only Allah allows me to get an A on this final, I’ll pray a hundred rakaats to Him in gratitude,” I sighed as I turned yet another page.
My father looked up from his newspaper. “Allah doesn’t need your prayers,” he gently chided. “If you want to get an A, study hard and pray for His help at the same time. You don’t need to bribe Allah.”
Years later, I sat in the class of a learned shaykh and took down these notes of instruction: “Don’t be mercantile in your religion. Lose the attitude of ‘Pay me and I’ll worship You.’”
The truth resonated with me because I had already heard it from the lips of my beloved father twenty-five years earlier.
While I have always been a fan of “how to” and “top ten” lists, I have never allowed myself to be deluded into believing that there are any guarantees for raising righteous children. It hasn’t been lost on me that the greatest man in humanity, the Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam), was intially raised by a single mom…and that too after being sent away to live amongst the bedouins in the desert while still an infant. Many of the “rules” here didn’t apply to his blessed life. His was a singular circumstance, having been raised by Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala Himself. All we can do is try to lay out a safe framework in hopes of trying to reach what he (salallaahu alaihi wasallam) reached through Allah’s largesse.
If we want to be successful at something, it behooves us to look at those who have succeeded before us. Each of us has something we can learn from the experiences of another.
There may be some who will read through the list of tips I have collected and think, “We didn’t do any of those things, yet our kids turned out just fine!”
To them, I say, “Alhamdulillah!” It’s true that there are many kids who didn’t have a single one of these “rules” applied to their lives, and, by the Grace and Mercy of Allah, have developed into exemplary Muslims.
And without going into unnecessary details, I will say that I have also seen the most pious, practicing, loving parents be disappointed by their children at every turn. These parents are in the company of prophets like Prophet Adam and Prophet Nuh (upon whom be peace) who had sons who rejected their teachings — yet these were fathers who were from among the best of humanity, parents who were in a constant state of supplication and prayer, who received guidance from Above. We can only pray that Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala will not test us through our children the way He tested these great men and their wives. It’s interesting to note that many of the men and women in my article have confessed that there were times they felt that they had failed in their duties as parents but took heart knowing that with Allah’s Help all obstacles could be overcome. Eventually, they all came to the conclusion that there was only “so much” they could do; they needed to submit to Allah’s will.
There is great comfort in knowing that parents will be rewarded not for how our children “turn out” but for the intentions we had while raising them, for the steps we took to facilitate their deeni success. All we can do is take the means; the end is up to Allah. “Even if one’s kids go astray,” advises a scholar, “one should always leave a ‘door’ open for them and pray that they will one day ‘come back’. We should never cut off relations; we should never despair of Allah’s Mercy and Guidance.”
“Parenting and living in this dunya is such a struggle,” reflects one friend. “We have aspirations of who we want to be as parents and we strive to achieve them, and then are saddened by seeing our failures. I guess it’s really about the courage to continue to renew one’s intentions and to pray for tawfiq (success).”
None of the parents I interviewed felt “safe” or believed that they had won and were now done with their work. They continued to pray for daily tawfiq long after everyone had started lauding them for the fine job they had done raising their children. “It doesn’t matter how wonderfully we live our lives,” says one local scholar and father of two girls. “What really matters is how we end our lives (husn al-khatima)…we’re not safe until we die with imaan (faith) in our hearts.”
It is with that knowledge that we pray that Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala grants us the dua for “a pure progeny” that He granted Prophet Ibrahim, Prophet Zakariya, and the mother of Maryam (upon them all be peace) in the Holy Quran. We pray that we are able to be worthy teachers for our children who will carry this noble religion on, a precious trust to be handed from one generation to the next. May we not be “the weak link”. Aameen.
“O my Lord! Make me one who establishes regular Prayer, and also (raise such) among my offspring.
O our Lord! And accept Thou my Prayer.
O our Lord! Cover (us) with Thy Forgiveness — me, my parents, and (all) Believers,
On the Day that the Reckoning will be established!”
~ The Holy Quran (14:40)
As far as seerah literature for the young is concerned, I have found that Leila Azzam’s “Life of the Prophet Muhammad (salallaahu alaihi wasallam)” adequately fits all of my family’s needs. A summary of Martin Ling’s excellent adult version of the Prophet’s biography, this book is often used to teach university students, so one can rest assured that it is written with an eye for proper grammar and punctuation, something sadly missing in many of our children’s Islamic textbooks today. Parents of younger kids need not worry that the material might be too sophisticated for their little ones; my friend was able to use this same book to teach my preschool-aged son and his friends about the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam). One can only imagine my delight when my five-year-old repeatedly turned to me in the middle of my adult Seerah class at the mosque to excitedly tug on my arm and whisper, “Hey, I know about Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) saying ‘Ahad, ahad’!…Mama, I learned about Buraq in my class!…Guess what? Auntie just taught us about Ghar-e-Thawr today!”
On the topic of Islamic media, it is my pleasure to introduce readers to a relatively new nasheed artist on the scene known as “Talib al-Habib”. His beautiful nasheed, “Songs of Innocence”, never fails to bring tears to my eyes. The lyrics of that one song contain all of the advice any parent would want to pass on to his/her child, speaking to the hearts of mothers and fathers everywhere, a beautiful summation of all of our hopes and desires for our children. Time and time again, I have found continuous benefit in his music set only to a daff (hand drum). I was recently reviewing some of the basic points of aqueedah (Islamic creed) with my children, encouraging them to memorize a list of points, when they suddenly began singing the words to Talib al-Habib’s “Iman: Articles of Faith”. I realized then that I didn’t need to teach them anything on that subject; they had already unwittingly memorized the articles of faith set to a sweetly melodic tune. I know I speak on behalf of all parents when I emphasize how rewarding it is to discover so-called “entertainment” which ends up being an instrument for instruction as well.