The Spiritually Alive Parent or Teacher

Published January 30, 2014

By Leslie Schaffer

On the website, London-based writer Umm Salihah described the authoritarian upbringing she experienced:

“My parents and grandparents grew up in Pakistan where it was the norm to be smacked by your parents, extended relations and anyone else that happened to be around and in a bad mood. It was also okay to be given a smack ’round the head for doing something you shouldn’t have, for watching someone else doing it, maybe for not stopping them or maybe again because someone was in a bad mood…

“There is also the traditional South Asian thinking that a good child is an obedient child, smacked and yelled into submission by a parent who knows best. How do you tell such parents about feeling left out because you dress different, weighing up the way you feel about clothes, boys, life in general as a teenager with the need to please your parents and be a good Muslim? Who do you talk to about peer pressure, bullying or all the other things that confuse kids?”

The Prophet (pbuh) was the most responsive to the people, exhibiting flexibility and willingness to make adjustments and accommodations according to the conditions and needs of people individually and/or collectively

Umm Salihah states that it is not her intention to denigrate those parents who approach parenting the way their own parents did. Her intention is to reflect and reconsider our approach to parenting, and so she asks: “What we have to examine is whether the new generation of parents who are disinclined to smack their children are leaving a vacuum with respect to managing the behavior of children. If we don’t smack, how do we get our children to listen to and respect us? Have we gone from physically abusing our children to setting no parental boundaries for them at all?”

The rest of her article details an Islamic approach to parenting that eschews both “physically abusing our children” and “setting no parental boundaries for them at all.” What she then describes is authoritative parenting, in between authoritarian and permissive.

Permissive and Authoritative Styles

Authoritarian parenting involves the following elements:

  • Parents’ role comes across to the children as despotic (absolute and dictatorial power over the child)
  • Strict rules and expectations which tend to be rigid and inflexible
  • Children are expected to be unconditionally obedient and unquestioning of parental demands
  • Parents feel it is their right to be respected by the child regardless of their own behavior; little or no consideration is given to the right of the child to be respected by the parent
  • High expectations are placed on children with regard to their performance academically and in reaching any other goals set in place by parents
  • Little expression of warmth or nurturing
  • Punishments are meted out with little or no explanation and with the aim of making the child “pay” for his/her mistake or non-compliance; punishments can be harsh, unrelated to the infraction, and inconsistent
  • Children are not given choices or options; complete control is exercised over the child

Permissive parenting involves the following elements:

  • Parent(s) often seem more like a friend than a parent
  • Few rules or standards of behavior are put in place and when there are rules, they are often very inconsistent
  • Bribery such as toys, gifts, and food are used as a means to get child to behave
  • Abundant love and nurturing of the children is expressed
  • Few expectations are placed on children with regard to academic performance or other goals

Authoritarian and permissive parenting styles are seen as being opposite extremes. In between the two is the authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parenting involves the following elements:

  • Parent comes across to the children as role model, teacher, and guide
  • Rules are established and limits are put in place; expectations about children’s behavior and goals are expressed and discussed; flexibility and willingness to make adjustments are utilized as needed or appropriate
  • Children are expected to be obedient but parent(s) are willing to listen to the children and allow their expression of opinion as a way to encourage good communication skills, independence, responsibility, and self-direction
  • Parents feel it is their right to be respected by the child but also believe that the respect must be deserved based on their own proper and fair behavior toward the child; commensurate consideration is given to the right of the child to be respected by the parent(s)
  • High expectations are placed on children with regard to their performance academically and in reaching any other goals set in place by parents and children collaboratively
  • Warmth, caring, and nurturance are freely and frequently expressed
  • Consequences are used as a means to teach greater self-discipline and responsibility rather than as a rote punishment of the child; parents administer fair and consistent discipline and are willing to explain the natural connection between the infraction and the consequence
  • Children are encouraged to discuss options, make choices, and develop the capacity for decision-making and self-regulation in daily living

We can gain further insight into the difference between authoritarian and authoritative approaches by looking at teaching styles. According to PENT (Positive Environments, Network of Trainers) of the California Department of Education, the authoritarian teacher “places firm limits and controls on the students “and they know that they “…should not interrupt the teacher. Since verbal exchange and discussion are discouraged, the authoritarian’s students do not have the opportunity to learn and/or practice communication skills. This teacher prefers vigorous discipline and expects swift obedience. Failure to obey the teacher usually results in detention or a trip to the principal’s office. In this classroom, students need to follow directions and not ask why. At the extreme, the authoritarian teacher gives no indication that heshe cares for the students.”

Parents and teachers are challenged to help children/students understand that the deen is not simply a set of rules that one applies in his/her life, but rather a path that one embarks on, using the rules as compass and map along the way

As to the authoritative style of teaching, PENT says, “The authoritative teacher places limits and controls on the students but simultaneously encourages independence. This teacher often explains the reasons behind the rules and decisions. If a student is disruptive, the teacher offers a polite, but firm, reprimand. This teacher sometimes metes out discipline, but only after careful consideration of the circumstances. The authoritative teacher is also open to considerable verbal interaction, including critical debates. The students know that they can interrupt the teacher if they have a relevant question or comment. This environment offers the students the opportunity to learn and practice communication skills.” This type of teacher “exhibits a warm and nurturing attitude toward the students and expresses genuine interest and affection. Her classroom abounds with praise and encouragement.”

Responsiveness to Children

While both authoritarian and authoritative parenting place high expectations on children regarding their behavior and their attaining of goals, a critical difference between the two styles is the element of responsiveness. Authoritarian parents and teachers put greater emphasis on themselves, their perceived role and authority, their right to be in charge and in control. Authoritative parents and teachers put greater emphasis on the children, and are highly attuned to and responsive to their needs.

We must devote our energies to teaching children and modeling for them a lifelong devotion of growth and self-development

The dictionary defines “responsive” as “responding especially readily and sympathetically to appeals, efforts, influences, etc.” To be responsive is to care, to have compassion and empathy, to attend to people according to their needs. It is to be receptive, understanding, and sympathetic. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was the best example of this. In an article “The Prophet Muhammad — Gentle, Caring and Loving” by Professor Tariq Ramadan, the author says, “In his daily life, while he was preoccupied by attacks, treachery and his enemies’ thirst for revenge, he remained mindful of the details of life and of the expectations of those around him…” Ramadan points out that the Prophet spent much time in prayer and worship but was quick to advise his companions that while he himself adhered to a rigorous spiritual regimen, this was not demanded of believers, that in fact Allah SWT wanted to ease their burdens and that Islam is a way of life given to moderation. Ramadan supports this by citing the time the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Woe to those who exaggerate [who are too strict]!” (Bukhari). The Prophet repeated this three times. He (pbuh) also said: “Moderation, moderation! For only with moderation will you succeed” (Muslim).

Prof. Ramadan also mentions the time a companion asked about being rewarded for having lawful intercourse. And the Prophet (pbuh) answered him, “Tell me, if one of you had had illicit intercourse, would he not have committed a sin?” Ramadan comments, “He thus invited them to deny or despise nothing in their humanity and taught them that the core of the matter was achieving self-control.” Ramadan also cites the hadith, “If you hear about your brother something of which you disapprove, seek from one to seventy excuses for him. If you cannot find any, convince yourselves that it is an excuse you do not know” (Al-Bayhaqi).

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Make [things] easy, not difficult…” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari) He (pbuh) was the greatest exemplar of facilitating the way for people to submit to Allah SWT of their own volition, according to their individual capacities, state of development both in character and in spiritual understanding. It is reported that “A Bedouin once urinated in the masjid (mosque.) The people rushed to punish him, but the Prophet ordered them to ‘leave him alone until he finishes and then pour a bucket of water (over the place where he had urinated.)’ ‘Your mission is to make things easy and not to make them difficult.’ Then the Prophet called the man over and explained to him that the masjid is a pure place, a place of worship, and that urination there is inappropriate.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

So while the Prophet (pbuh) demonstrated through his example the divine principles and guidelines as foundation for a disciplined and orderly life, he was also the most responsive to the people, exhibiting flexibility and willingness to make adjustments and accommodations according to the conditions and needs of people individually and/or collectively. He was the greatest listener and made each and every person feel dignified and respected in his interaction with him or her. His teachings encouraged independence, responsibility, and self-direction. He freely expressed his caring and concern for the people and encouraged the believers to express their love for one another. The Prophet (pbuh) was a guide, guardian, mentor, motivator, and an inspirer of the people. He was not a despot.

Being a Guardian, Mentor and Motivator

As parents and teachers, we should bring a depth of conviction and inspiration to our raising and teaching of the children. And we will do that if we live according to the principle that “Each day a man is a vendor of his soul – either freeing it or bringing it to ruin” (Muslim).The parent or teacher has to convey that choosing to embark on the journey, the traveling of the path toward excellence and freedom of the soul, is the most profound and exciting manner of living, and that Islam is not just a set of rules to follow and a duty to discharge. The authoritative parent or teacher helps the child to internalize self-discipline and responsibility.

A survey was done some years ago with the students at the weekend Islamic school in a local community in Pennsylvania. When asked what they liked most about attending the school, too many answered that the only good thing was eating pizza at lunchtime! Their answers on the survey revealed that none of them perceived or experienced the acquiring of Islamic knowledge through their attendance at the school as anything other than boring and monotonous, and they looked at it as being imposed upon them by their parents as a duty.

It’s sad because the only way they could experience it that way is if the teachers experienced it that way! If the teachers had experienced the seeking of knowledge as Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali described the understanding of Qur’anic verses — as a diving “into their depths so that you might obtain their jewels…” — if adults experience the seeking of knowledge as a path toward understanding and insight, a quest for self-transformation, an obtaining of precious gems of wisdom, as something exciting, enriching, and joyful, that is how it would come across to the students. Some of you may be saying to yourselves – “oh come on… who said we have to be stimulating, enriching and joyful in how we teach our kids.” If you think that is has to be all duty and seriousness, then what do you say about the following hadeeth:

“If you pass by the garden of paradise, indulge freely. The companions asked him ‘what is the garden of paradise?’ He answered, ‘the halaqa’”(Al –Tirmidhi). Paradise is not dull, formalistic, and routine. It is joyful, rich, and exciting and that is what a halaqa (study circle) is being compared to. And in another hadeeth we are told, “Indeed Allah SWT created angels who travel throughout the land, and if they see any study circles they call one another, ‘come to what you have been looking for’” (Bukhari, Muslim and Al-Tirmidhi). In Arabic, the phrase “what you have been looking for” connotes something, that when you find it, you are very happy and excited. So not only are those human beings who are gathered in the halaqa having a joyful, rich, and exciting experience, also the angels come and experience that same happiness and excitement that is inherent in the seeking of knowledge.

At the same Sunday school where the survey was done, one weekend the teacher of the eighth grade Islamic Studies class was sick and the principal was unable to find any of the usual substitutes available to teach that class. He finally called one sister who had never substituted before. When the students saw that they had a substitute, they expected that she would just babysit them or bore them just as their regular teacher did. But she shocked them, engaging them in a way that got them curious and really involved in the topics they covered. The irony is that the mother of one of the students had decided to stay and help out in the class that day. She was a certified teacher in the public schools. After the class she approached this sister and asked her, “where did you learn to teach that way – it was amazing. The kids were not only attentive, they actually appeared excited to participate and were competing to answer questions and get involved.” The substitute teacher told her that she had no training. She thought for a moment and then said, “I’m sure the reason the kids were excited is that they could feel my own love and excitement about learning and wonder and reflection.”

Being curious about life and nature and the world, its meaning and purpose; being fascinated about how things work; figuring out how to increase one’s focus and concentration or how to improve one’s motivation to achieve goals; loving the etymology of words, their root meanings and subtle shades of connotation; asking questions which stimulate thought, spark the imagination, and fire up the yearning to know and understand —this is how the sister experienced the seeking of knowledge and reflecting upon what she learned…like she was gaining access to treasures. In fact, the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Knowledge contains treasures and their key is the question” (Al-Heliah by Abu Na’eem). Hunting for and finding treasures — that is what came across to the students in class that day, inspired to learn by a sister who had never formally taught before.

Parents and teachers are challenged to help children/students understand that the deen is not simply a set of rules that one applies in his/her life, but rather a path that one embarks on, using the rules as compass and map along the way. It is a process of mind and heart, of observing and thinking deeply about the Signs of beauty and of order and proportion all around us; of reaching inward to the core of our humanness, and there in the center of our beings we can look at ourselves honestly…we can look at others compassionately. Through reflection we internalize the best of whatever we learn, embodying principles which guide and heal, inspire and empower.

To reiterate, the teacher has to convey that the journey, the traveling of the path toward excellence and freedom of the soul, is the most profound and exciting manner of living — indeed a way of life that brings fulfillment and reward in this life and in the hereafter.

Disciplining Children Without Intimidation

First it is important to mention is that there must be a foundation of organization and structure, whether in the home or in school, in order for children to feel secure and relaxed, open to learning and open to correction when necessary.

Studies have found that children thrive in an environment that is organized. One of the most compelling changes made in a household that is “out of control” is the instituting of a daily schedule that all family members follow when at home, caregiver(s) and children alike. When young children know exactly what to expect every day, when play time is, when snacks are enjoyed, when nap time comes, when they are expected to help with chores, this organized schedule immediately puts them at ease. Children, who are whiny, bored, prone to tantrums and misbehavior, suddenly perk up with more positive attitude and behavior, and often look like completely different children. Of course it can take some time to institute this schedule and make it routine, and consistency is essential on the part of the care-giving parent(s); as are other fundamental aspects of good parenting as shown in studies: consistent calm assertiveness on the part of the parents as team leaders, complete respect between parents and children and between spouses, and the family seeing itself as a team, following the same rules, and cooperating for the good of the individuals and the whole, and the facilitation of social harmony in their family unit.

This also applies to the school setting. Teacher must, like parents, create an environment in which the children not only can learn academically, but also can learn behaviors that will serve them well throughout life. When parents/teachers are consistent in applying the rules of the home or the classroom, children tend to respond. If the caregiver is inconsistent, either because rules have not been established or because the caregiver himself/herself is undisciplined or disorganized, how can we expect children to be disciplined and organized?

The second important thing to keep in mind is that in most instances it helps to stop thinking in terms of punishment altogether and think in terms of learning opportunities. Is not childhood a time for the young human being to learn the rules of life including how to speak and how to behave with good manners, how to interact with others, how to share, how to resolve conflicts, and so on? Humans are not born with these competencies and have to learn them. We should look with excitement at the opportunity to teach our children the joy of self-governance and mastering their desires and impulses. At the same time we want to ensure that their youthful optimism and happiness and self-esteem remain intact. Studies have shown that children who are punished rather than corrected and guided to improve themselves are more susceptible to anger and depression. “That’s because authoritarian child raising makes it clear to kids that part of them is not acceptable, and that parents aren’t there to help them learn to cope and manage those difficult feelings that drive them to act out. They’re left lonely, trying to sort out for themselves how to overcome their ‘lesser’ impulses,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham.

It is important to point out that when a parent or teacher gets easily frustrated or angry at a child, they are forgetting what their relationship with the child is all about. If we want the child to grow and develop their capabilities in a healthy and successful way, then we have to devote our energies to teaching them and modeling for them what a lifelong devotion to growth and self-development looks like. That devotion includes cultivating traits that support growth such as integrity, patience, tolerance, and empathic understanding.

The Islamic teachings with regard to disciplining/teaching children make it clear that physical punishment such as hitting or spanking is not the preferred choice. Indeed, there are quite a few qualifications about physically disciplining a child. If you really ponder the following points, it becomes clear that most instances of using this method are ruled out. Consider the following:

  • we have to make sure that we are a good model for the child first and foremost
  • we must warn the child verbally before resorting to physical punishment
  • we are not to deliver a punishment such as spanking if angry; Prophet Muhammad even advised judges not to judge if they are upset or angry
  • the physical punishment cannot be carried out as a way for the adult to vent frustration or to retaliate against the child
  • Khalif Umar RAA advised that parents shall not raise the arm higher than the point where the armpit would become visible to another person; also the arm should not be taken away from the body (meaning that there should be no force in the spanking)
  • the face, head, or any sensitive place on the body shall not be touched
  • if child asks you to stop, you need to stop, especially if he/she mentions the name of Allah SWT (such as the child uttering “I ask you in the name of Allah to stop”) and dialogue with him or her.

According to the contemporary scholar, Muhammad Ibn Ismail, “Hitting is very limited to very few children’s types of personalities. But it is better that it should not be used at all. The practical sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) is that he never hit anybody even though it was allowed.” He further states that “The majority of scholars have agreed that hitting should be eliminated and (verbal) warnings are sufficient.

The third important point concerns how we can most effectively teach our children to behave well and what to do when they misbehave despite our efforts. It makes perfect sense to use the method of applying natural and logical consequences as a way of teaching children and correcting their mistakes. Using this method of disciplining and teaching children involves making the child feel that he/she is sharing control and involved in decision-making, allowing the natural consequences for the child’s behavior to do the teaching while making sure that the parent/teacher deals empathically with the child, and finding every available opportunity to enhance the self-concept and self-esteem of the child.

Just as children respond so positively to structure and organization, they respond likewise to limits being set by the adult and knowing exactly what the limits are and that there are consistent consequences when the limits are breached. It is important to stress again and again that setting and enforcing limits must be done in a calm, caring way. It’s been said, “Notice something you don’t like about your child, show some emotion, and the problem is guaranteed to get worse.” Showing anger, frustration, or any out-of-control behavior by the caregiver will not bring about the desired results. The caregiver is modeling the best behavior, and thus is to avoid over-reacting, showing hostility, provoking, threatening, lecturing, or in any way antagonizing the child.

Using this method ensures that during and after the discipline, the child feels respected and cared for. It is conveyed to the child, even when he/she is too young to understand in a conceptual or cognizant way, that their misbehaviors and their mistakes are opportunities to learn and find a better way to operate in daily life. Thus children get a good sense, even at an early age, that they can be responsible, confident, and capable of positive and happy interactions with other children, with adults, and in the world at large.

Being sincerely empathic and understanding with the child throughout the process of discipline, allows the child to focus on the mistake or misbehavior, rather than him/her becoming defensive or resentful toward the parent or teacher. By conveying a calm, empathic, and caring attitude, we are allowing the child to grow in integrity and to avoid the self-denials and self-deceptions that are acquired by those children who feel threatened, abused, or misunderstood and therefore need to defend themselves.

Offering choices to the child whenever possible builds that shared sense of power and decision-making. Examples are “Would you like to spend the half hour before bedtime reading a book with me or doing a puzzle?” In the classroom, a teacher could say to a child who is talking out of turn, “You can choose to come sit in the chair by me or remain in your own seat quietly and paying attention.” When giving a child or a student two choices, make sure that both choices are acceptable to you and that both are workable or enforceable. If the child does not choose within 30 seconds, the parent/teacher chooses. Children quickly realize that they benefit from paying attention when the choices are given or they lose the opportunity and the adult does the choosing.

It is always preferable to use statements that, again, convey a calm assertive caring authority, and are stated in a positive rather than a negative way. Thus it is better to say, “You may come outside to play with us as soon as you complete your work” rather than, “Do your work or you can’t go outside!” Another example is, “We will proceed to the cafeteria when everyone is quiet and lined up” rather than, “We will stand here and we will not move until everyone quiets down!”

Using natural and logical consequences in a calm and empathic way lets the child know that you are not angry at them and this allows them to really think about their behavior, about their choices at hand, and about the consequences for misbehavior or mistakes. For example, if your child failed to do homework, you can say, “I’m really sorry that you have to go to school tomorrow unprepared. And I’m sad that you will miss your computer time tonight.” Another example could be if the child refuses to eat dinner when the family sits down to eat. The parent can say, “You may leave the table but I am sad that you will go to bed hungry tonight.” It is extremely important to enforce that statement and follow through with the consequence even though you feel terrible that your child goes to bed hungry; but you can be sure that he/she will not repeat that mistake again.

In fact, natural, logical, and fair consequences have been decreed by Allah SWT for human beings on this earth. These consequences are an integral part of the laws of cause and effect. In this dunya human beings sin, make mistakes, select less than optimal choices — all for us to learn, repent, grow, and increase our self-knowledge and wisdom. It is by suffering the natural consequences here in this life so that we can purify our souls that we might gain positive consequences in the life to come.

Authoritarian vs. Authoritative – The Final Touch

Qin Shi Huang Di, first emperor of China who built the Great Wall, took the throne in 246 B.C. He had 700,000 laborers construct a mausoleum, a city-size burial place for him. Many cultures including the ancient Chinese believed that people and objects were needed by a ruler for the afterlife and should be entombed with him. In those cultures, valued advisors and others attending to the emperor, king, or pharaoh would sometimes be sacrificed at the time of his death so that they could be buried with him. Qin apparently felt he needed his army to protect his tomb and accompany him to the afterlife, but that would be quite impractical. So he had thousands of life-size terra cotta soldiers carved, each with unique facial features, swords and other weapons. The terra cotta soldiers, not all of which have been excavated but are estimated to number as much as 8,000, are lined up in straight rows in underground trenches surrounding the tomb (to see a photo of this amazing archeological site, Google “terra-cotta army protects first emperor’s tomb”).

The Qur’an says, “The blind and the seeing are not alike; nor are the depths of darkness and the light; nor are the shade and the heat of the sun. Nor are alike those who are living and those who are dead. Allah can make any that He wills to hear; but you cannot make those to hear who are in graves” (Qur’an 35:19-22). Ibn Al Qayyim explains that those who “are in graves” are those who are spiritually dead. They are, in fact, like “walking graves.” That is the authoritarian — spiritually dead, a “walking grave.”

Just as Qin had his terra cotta soldiers all lined up around his tomb, the authoritarian is like a person who is slowly dying (a “walking grave”) and lines up subordinates to submit to and obey him, to imitate and parrot him. This is a formalistic, solemn, rigid manner of interaction that demonstrates that the authoritarian never embarked on the earthly journey to “free his [own] soul.” Thus, he has little to nothing of spiritual vigor, passion, and caring within him. The authoritarian parent or teacher might as well have terra cotta children or students, inert, lined up in straight rows without mobility, autonomy, or challenge to the authoritarian.

On the other hand, the parent or teacher who is emulating the way of the Prophet (pbuh), strives for spiritual aliveness. Ahmad bin Hanbal cites in his book, Al-Zuhd, the words of Luqman the sage, advising his son, “O my son, accompany the learned ones…indeed, Allah SWT revives hearts by the light of wisdom as He revives the ground by rain.” Reviving hearts, his own first and then others — in diametric opposition to the authoritarian who is like a “walking grave” and surrounded by inert clay subordinates — is the yearning and aspiration of the spiritually alive individual. He or she strives to follow in the footsteps of the incomparable learned one, he who speaks and guides and teaches with the greatest authoritativeness: Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Professor Ramadan ends his article, “The Prophet Muhammad — Gentle, Caring and Loving,” with the following hadeeth reported by Abu Dawud and an-Nasa’i: “He once took young Mu’adh ibn Jabal by the hand and whispered: ‘O Mu’adh, by God, I love you. And I advise you, O Mu’adh, never to forget to say after each ritual prayer: O God, help me remember You, thank You and perfect my worship of You.’ Thus the young man was offered, in one outburst, both love and spiritual teaching, and the teaching was all the more deeply assimilated as it was wrapped in that love.”

“It is part of the mercy of Allah that you deal gently with them. Had you been severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from you. So pass over [their faults] and ask for forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs. Then, when you have taken a decision, put your trust in Allah. For Allah loves those who put their trust [in Him]” (Qur’an 3:159).

Leslie SchafferAuthor Leslie Schaffer embraced Islam in 1979. She and Br.Kamal Shaarawy provide counseling for Muslim individuals, couples, and families. A full collection of their writings can be found on

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