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?!”
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.
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 (SWT) 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.
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 wit (companionship) will make you or break you. h 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.”
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.
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.”
“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. “When you sit with People of the Dunya, you become a drop in their ocean, but when you sit with People of the Akhirah (Hereafter), the dunya becomes a drop in your ocean.”
The Prophet (pbuh) must be 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 (pbuh)?” 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.”
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 (pbuh) 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.
Having fun wasn’t “haraam” (prohibited) 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!”
“It’s important to replace every haraam you stop your child from with at least two halaals (permissibles) 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, inshaAllah.
Walk the Talk
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.
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.”
“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.”
Do the Right Thing
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.”
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.”
Be Close By
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.”
“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 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.
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.”
Talk to Them
Talk to your kids…with love. “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!”
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.
Tip # 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 (global community of Muslims) 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 Juma’ah 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.
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 (pbuh), was initially 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 (SWT) Himself. All we can do is try to lay out a safe framework in hopes of trying to reach what he (pbuh) 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 (SWT) 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.
We pray that Allah (SWT) 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.