by Shahid Athar , M. D.
The purpose of this article is to evaluate the factors influencing the behavior of children and how to modify them so that they grow as model citizens practicing Islam in their community, become a source of joy and comfort to their parents, and maintain family harmony.
The behavior of growing children is influenced by many factors that include their parents and other close relatives, teachers, peers at school, community and the media. Lack of discipline and civilized behavior at school is a major problem in the U.S., the fallout of which is also seen at home! With broken families and the absence of a father at home, this becomes a major problem for single mothers raising a teenager.
Muslim children, although distinct in their value system, still are exposed to and affected by what they see and learn. In Islamic teachings, great emphasis has been placed on moral conduct and behavior.
The Quran says, “Lo, the noblest of you, in the sight of God, is (the one) best in conduct. Lo, God is knower, Aware” (49:13).
“By the soul, and the proportion and order given to it, and its enlightenment as to its wrong, and its right. Truly he succeeds that purifies it (the soul), and he fails that corrupts it” (91:7-10).
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), has said, “I have been sent to perfect your conduct” (Bukhari and Muslim). “A fathers’ teaching his child good manners is better than giving a bushel of grain (in charity)” (Bukhari).
Children are very susceptible to any and every influence. It has been said, “They are like molten cement. Anything that falls on them makes a lasting impression.” Their minds are like virgin soil, ready to accept any seed. As they grow, their organs of reception start working and accept new ideas and influences. It is up to us to screen the experiential factors that influence a child’s development so that they can learn to accept the right ideas and behaviors and reject the wrong influences.
The parents (and close relatives living with them like uncles and grandparents) have only 25% influence in a 6-16 year old child. 50% is by peers at school or in the community. 25% is from the teachers and other sources of education outside home i.e. media, mainly TV (and magazines for older youths). The influence of parents is high during early age (0-8 years, up to 80%), but as the child discovers new friends and ideas, he or she grows independent from the influence of parents.
The American scene
The American scene of the behavior of children and adults is changing. While it is difficult to qualify the behavior at home, the same at school has been published. What is happening in our homes is reflective of what’s happening outside homes and vice versa According to a study conducted by Fullerton California Police Department of Education,l the leading school discipline problem in 1940 was talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the hallways, getting out of place in line, wearing improper clothing and not putting paper in the wastebasket, etc. In 1980 the major problems were drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, arson, and bombing. The Indianapolis public schools conducted a behavior discipline survey.2 It reported the following activities in the hall: Grabbing 69%, pushing 84%, hitting 82%, kicking 48%, slapping 57%, pinching 66%, fighting 78% and tripping 62%. There is also a high percentage of physical violence by teacher against student (22%) and by student against teacher (42%). We leave our children at school in such an environment for 30-40 hours per week and then expect them to develop into angels.
While the parents can do little to affect other influences, some suggestions can be made in this regard.
Keep children in the company of good Muslim children after school and during weekends to dilute the unavoidable influence of undesirable elements at school.
Choose a school in a good location (neighborhood) irrespective of it being private or public. Get to know the teachers personally and interact with them. Only the neglected children create wrong impression at school and expose themselves to various abuses. Supervise their homework.
Watch TV with your children, and select good educational and entertainment programs. Comment on the negative aspects of the program. Cut down the TV hour to less than 1 1/2 hours on weekdays and 2 1/2 hours on weekends. Do not buy rock music tapes (out of love for your child) nor allow him/her to listen to any hard rock. Encourage outdoor activity in preference to indoor (e.g. TV/music). Encourage them to read newspapers, good magazines (National Geographic) and Islamic periodicals.
Role of parents in influencing the behaviour of their children
As I have said many times, “Children will become what we want them to be if we are what we want them to be.” Children cannot be expected to practice Islam by sending them to Sunday school if we are not doing that ourselves in our day to day life. If we want them to get up early in the morning to perform the prescribed prayer, we have to do it ourselves and ask them to join us. If we want them to read the Quran, we should read with them and so on.
Growing children may not take an order, but will do things out of love and respect for their parents. So love and respect on a mutual basis is our best weapon against all the negative influences on them. Parental love should be unconditional and on biological grounds rather than on their achievements at school or in sports. Love should not be confused with unlimited permissiveness or with closed eyes towards a child’s faults. Criticizing certain faults of the child should not diminish the love by the parents.
Children are not bom knowing everything right or wrong in social norms. They need clear guidelines about good and bad behavior, Islamic and un-Islamic way of life. The greatest effect is of the parent’s attitude and example rather than the words in a book. If children see their parents not practicing what they themselves are told to practice they become rebellious and non-believers (in the value system). A typical example is of alcoholism in the American scene. Children are told it is bad for you until you are 18, while it is not bad for the parents. Therefore children seeing this as hypocrisy, rebel and get alcohol, not from a liquor store, but from their own home or from a friend at parties. Therefore, parents should set the same standards for themselves as they set for their children, and share with them information of all kinds whether related to the outside world or inside the family. It is not the knowledge which hurts, but the lack of it or misuse of it which causes problems.
Parents should help children make appropriate decisions and be responsible for their decisions. Younger children can only make decisions about the present (i.e. what clothes to wear that day), but grown-ups can make decisions that may affect their future, under parental guidance (i.e. selection of career, school and hobbies). Children left to grow on their own, will regret a lack of direction they had in their childhood. Children should be taught how to be responsible by being given the chance to share household work, keep their desk and room clean and how to handle their “own” money. Let them spend all their money and suffer from the lack of it. A sense of deprivation once in awhile is good for them as long as the reason for deprivation is explained well.
Problems with parents
- If the parents are authoritarian, the child becomes fearful of making mistakes, starts lying for the fear of being punished and feels insecure. Unfortunately, abused children become abusers when they grow up. The parent should remember that the only absolute authority in the house is the Will of God, and everyone has to submit to His Will, in order to expect submission from a younger person.
- If the parents are emotionally disturbed and depressed themselves they will not have time for the children, leading them to withdraw, become depressed or develop anti-social activities.
- If the parents are perfectionists and expect the child to be perfect all the time, the child will have two options. Either he or she will live up to the expectations, or will develop opposite tendencies, i.e. a teenager keeping his or her room messy to get back at the “ever cleaning” mom. Parents should not make “all” the choices for their children, but help in their individual growth.
- The over-protective, anxious parent cannot raise a confident child ready to deal with the real life. This child will feel danger everywhere. While the child has to be supervised, he or she does not need the physical presence of the parent at all time. They should raise a strong child, strong enough to carry on their work if they meet a sudden death themselves.
- The parent who cannot say no to a child, spoils him or her by providing him or her with every wish every time. This child will demand whatever he or she wants immediately and put on a manipulative show to get it. One parent complained how their five year old will stop breathing until she got what she wanted. The parents have to learn to control their love and discipline themselves in order to discipline their children The child’s necessary desires should be met according to the means of the family, but a time may come when a firm no should be put into practice.
- Parents who take sides in sibling rivalry encourage jealousy and hate. They should not prefer boys over girls or the reverse and fair complexion over dark ones, bright ones over less bright, but try to be fair to all of them and neutral in their fights.
How parents can communicate with their children
Neither party can influence the other unless they communicate. This is a serious problem in American families. One father told me that at best all his teenage daughter would say to him would be “Hi” one or two times a day. This can be substituted by a “peace be upon you,” (as-salam alaykum) in a Muslim family in which parents and teenagers are not getting along well. One should avoid getting into this stage of strained communication.
- Find a time and place to talk to your children. Children are sometimes in a “bad mood” upon returning from school, loaded with home work, as are parents in the afternoon with a busy day at work. The best time to have a chat is during breakfast and evening dinner together. Better than this is allotting ten minutes after either the evening or night prescribed prayer or even better, after the dawn prescribed prayer, if time pemits. During this session, the parent can inform the children of all the good things they did that day and ask the children the same and share their problems.
- When you do argue, do it patiently, one person speaking at a time. Be specific and separate emotions from facts. Speak in a low voice. Screaming decreases the intake of the message. Finding fault may make you look like a winner, but remember, just as we want God to forget and forgive our faults, we should do the same for others.
- Practice active listening to each other’s view, even if you don’t agree. For religious issues consult the Quran or the Traditions together, rather than quoting from your memory.
- Refrain from sarcasm, name calling, humiliation, pointing your finger, etc. Read God’s injunction about these again and again in Surah Al-Hujurat (49th Surah).
- Encourage each other even in areas of shortcomings, rather than making fun or making a negative remark. If your child brings a B report, then instead of, “I doubt you will ever improve or pass your exam,” say “A ‘B’ is better than a ‘C’, and I am sure you are talented enough to do better. Perhaps I can help you in the areas that you have difficulties at school?”
Influencing the behaviour through daily household chores
The purpose of giving them some chores, is to keep them busy as well as teach them some responsibility. Initially it may be boring, but it will eventually become routine. The assignment should be according to age (and not the sex of the child) and should include setting the table to begin with, then washing dishes, laundry, taking out the garbage or just helping in the garden. However, children should not be forced into doing things, otherwise they will rebel. By the same token, they should not be penalized for mistakes. The best payment for a job is a smile, hug, thank you or praising the child to others, rather than money. While it may be all right to give an allowance, it should not be tied to the job. Otherwise the child will want money for everything. An eleven year old told his mom, “You need to know only three things about kids. Don’t hit them too much, don’t yell at them too much, and don’t do too much for them.”
How about infants and pre-schoolers?
While studies mainly refer to children ages 6-16 years, the small ones should not be neglected. In fact, in the first year of life, it is the behavior of the parent (especially the mother) which is so crucial and has nearly 90 percent influence. Then, as the child grows, identification with the parent of the same sex may make the influence of that parent more important. The boys watch their father more closely doing mechanical work and girls observe moms carefully doing household work. Sometimes it may be reversed. It is at this time that parents can inject love and respect into children by their example of mutual love and respect for each other and for the children. It is also at this age that doing things together including playing, watching TV, reading, etc. will help establish the foundations (trust, self-confidence, ability, etc.) of open communication. In terms of practice of religion, it comes from observing their parents and doing the practices together. If nice manners are programmed into them before they are introduced to the general population, it is doubtful they would get the infection of misbehavior.
Bill of rights for Muslim children
- Muslim children have the right to learn and practice Islam even if one of their parents is a non-Muslim, or non-practicing Muslim.
- They have a right to be treated as a person, in an environment that is conducive to their growth and maturity and to become useful citizens.
- They have a right to receive love, care, discipline, and protection from their parents.
- They have a right to receive education, and financial protection for the future.
Bill of rights for Muslim parents
- Parents have a right to receive love, respect and affection from their children as mentioned in the Quran.
- Parents have a right to educate and discipline their children as men- tioned in the Quran and shown by the example of Prophet Muhammad [PBUH]
- Parents have a right to know more about their children, and moni- tor other influences affecting them.
- Parents have a right to say no to unusual financial and other demands of children.
Finally, I end this article with a verse from the Quran.
“Your Lord has commanded that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, do not say to them any word of contempt, nor repulse them, but address them in terms of honor, and out of kindness lower to them your wings of submission, and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy on them as they cared for me in my childhood”‘ (17:23-24).