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Raising Children with Strong Faith

By: Prof. Shahid Athar
One of the most precious gifts that God has given us is the gift of our children. Like any other valuable gifts, this gift also has to be cherished, protected and preserved. I and my wife of nearly 30 years have been blessed with 4 such gifts and we have tried our best to raise them as children of faith. In a society where sometimes secular schools and media trivialize religion, it is not easy these days for parents to raise children with a strong faith. Many of us, even gown ups, sometimes have difficulty in identifying themselves with their faith, but not my children. My eldest daughter who is now married and gave me my first grandchild, always wore hijab (head cover) from middle school to college years and never dated. My eldest son, when he entered high school, noted that the restrooms for boys had no doors thus no privacy. He walked straight to the Principal's office and said "I am a Muslim and I need privacy, therefore, at least one restroom should have a door. The Principal was so impressed with his modesty that he ordered doors for each of the restrooms. My second son, when he was in Middle School, was in the cafeteria line and bought some snacks. The cashier gave him more change by mistake than he deserved. He immediately returned the extra change to her. The cashier was impressed and said "you are a good Muslim." My 14 year old daughter's best friends are not only Muslim, but Christian and Jewish girls as well. I am proud of all of my children, as any parent of faith should be.
Children are like moulds. Whatever falls on them leaves a permanent impression. Therefore, we should be careful what falls on them to become that impression. If we become what we want our children to become, they may become what we want them to. The parents who let their children grow without faith get a "wake up call" when their kids are in trouble in the teenage years. Sometimes I get phone calls from parents saying they need a Muslim counsellor, but I am not a counsellor, I am a physician. Calls involving such requests as "my daughter is in trouble" or "we found out my son is on drugs". Such unfortunate things are happening to all of our children irrespective of the faith they are born into. Parents must teach faith by examples they set rather than lectures of morality they give.
Our children are not perfect but neither are we adults. There has always been a generation gap and parents have complained about their children. In 400 B.C. Socrates wrote "Children now love luxury. They show disrespect for their elders. They are monsters and not obedient. Children in the house, contradict their parents, chatter unnecessarily, gobble up their food at the table, cross their legs and terrorize their teachers. However, what could be considered innocent behaviour by children in school in the 1940s, such as talking during class, chewing gum, running in the hallway, wearing improper clothing, not putting paper in the wastepaper basket etc., has now been replaced by drug abuse, alcohol abuse, suicide, pregnancy, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, arson, carrying guns to school and blowing up fellow students and teachers. We leave our children in this society under these circumstances in schools and expect them grow as children with faith without our help.
We must recognize the pressures that are children are exposed to. According to statistics available, the average drinking age starts at age 12. By the Senior year in high school, 1 out of every 20 students has been drinking alcohol regularly. Nearly half of teens who have committed suicide, were intoxicated at the time. Nearly every teen who has an accident as a passenger has a teenage driver who was intoxicated with alcohol. Ninety-three percent of children in grades 4-5 consider cocaine as a drug but only twenty-one percent of the same say alcohol is a drug too. In our society, 2,000 children are physically abused each day, over 3,000 children run away from home and around the same number see their parents being divorced every day. Some 2,000 pre-teen girls become pregnant every day. A child watching only 2-3 hours per day watches about 9,000 violent scenes and around 3,500 sexually suggestive scenes every year. We parents have different set of rules for ourselves and our children. Why is it that drinking alcohol after age 21 is O.K. but not before 21? Does the liver get better after age 21?
We must set examples for our children for the rules that we want them to follow. A certain woman took her son to Prophet Mohammad and requested him to tell the child not to eat too many sweets because she was afraid sweets would ruin his health and his teeth. The Prophet asked her to bring him back after one week and she did. Then he told the child about the dangers of taking too many sweets and the boy understood and made a promise not to eat them. The companions of the Prophet asked after the mother and child left, why did he wait one week to tell the child. He said " I wanted to practice giving up sweets myself first". Now, before we tell our youth to give up TV for a week, can we first practice the same for ourselves? Many parents buy their children expensive clothes, shoes, toys and other gifts. However, the best gift is the gift of good manners.
Prophet Mohammad has said " a father (or mother) teaching his child good manners is better than giving a bushel of grain in charity." We parents have no control with whom our children socialize in school but we can find a better social outlet for them after school hours. That is why it is so important for communities of faith to organize programs for youth of their own. Muslim youth of North America, a national organization with a chapter in every city, now has brought Muslim youth together, not only to learn about faith but to socialize with each other in permissible settings to include camping, debates and sports activities.
It may not be possible in this day in age to get rid of TV from every home, but we can help children select programs that are conducive to their growth in faith. We should watch those programs with them if possible. In the same context, the internet is a double edged sword. While it is a tool of learning and information for our children, sometimes it can give wrong messages or lure our children with sexually oriented material. Every family must use certain parental control on what the children can or can not watch. One recommendation is to have the computer in a common place where the child would hesitate to watch such programs offered by the wrong web sites. It is not enough just to tell the youth that they shouldn't do this and that but we must give reasoning about right and wrong from the faith prospective. We must teach them the values from their faith, whether it is Christianity, Judaism or Islam so that they start thinking why should they behave differently than those without faith based values.
Faith empowers children with their rights. They have a right to learn and practice their faith even if one of their parents is not practicing religion. They have a right to receive love, care, discipline and care from their parents but they must give the parents the same rights as well. Parents have a right to know about their children and the factors which influence them. The rights of God are above the rights of parents and children. God, who created us, has a right to be worshiped, to be believed in and to have His injunctions followed. Muslim children are told in Quran "your Lord has commanded that you worship no one but Him and be kind to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age, do not say a word of contempt nor repulse them but speak to them with kindness and honour and lower to them your wings of submission and say "my Lord have mercy on them as they cared for me when I was an infant" (17:23). If both parents and children submit to the will of God, there will be love and peace in the family.
We must teach our children the value of life and hate for violence. From the very beginning, they should be taught to respect others who look differently than themselves. They must also be taught to control their anger when provoked and to remain calm and cool. Access to the tools of anger should be discouraged whether it is guns or any other weapons at the same level as use of drugs and alcohol. We should help our children grow in peace and love and in faith, not only in God also in themselves and their country.
Modified from a Friday sermon given at Al-Fajr Mosque in Indianapolis.

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