By Dr. Parisa S. Popalzai
It’s the ancient wisdom that our actions speak louder than our words—or when it comes to our children, our screaming. As parents, most of us are seeking advice on best parenting tips so that our children listen to us and follow our values and ideals. However, time and again we are telling our children one thing and doing the opposite ourselves. For example, we shout to our daughter “be quiet!” We tell our son to “play nicely” as we snatch the toy out of his hand and slap him in the rear. We ask our children “why are you not listening?” but when they want to say something, we say “shush, I am talking”. No doubt parenting is one of the hardest things we’ll have to do in our lives, but for sure it is not easy being a child receiving such mixed messages either. There are ample good parenting books out there with all sorts of parenting advice. Some are easy to follow and others are not so instinctive. Yet, in all those books, none claim that there are any shortcuts to parenting. On the other hand, taking shortcuts to raise young children can have detrimental effects when they are older. Our children are sponges learning from their environment, thus it is important that we also let our actions, more than our words, be their teacher.
As a parent of two young boys, I have sought out the advice of the experts through interviews, books, research studies as well as reflecting on parenting advice from the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him). Based on experience and research, I now have no doubt that our children learn everything from us, whether good or bad. Thus, if we scream, hit, and belittle our children or even other people such as our spouses, parents, teachers, or waiters right in front of them, we are modeling and reinforcing to them that those behaviors are acceptable. But how will children learn to be patient, loving, and kind when the only thing they experience is the opposite of that from those whom they love the most?
One major form of learning is through imitation. From the beginning, humans have discovered and progressed through imitation of their environment. As such, one can simply define a “culture” as a group of people who have decided to use the same words, etiquette, norms, and rules to relate to each other and the world. In essence, what people in any culture are doing is imitating each other. Imitation is also the most common tool for teaching others. For example, a math teacher first explains a concept and then must demonstrate it in practice before the students learn it fully. Then these students imitate their teacher by implementing the math rules they learned.
Unfortunately, what people learn at a young age, especially from their parents, is very difficult to unlearn as an adult. We are reminded about this in the Qur’an when it mentions the difficulty the Prophets of Allah `alayhum assalatu wassalam (peace be upon them) experienced in extolling their societies to worship the one and true God. Their people balked at the message, using as one of their excuses that they would not leave the religion they found their parents following. The influence parents have on their child is so strong and at such a deep subconscious level that even the most logical of arguments will not persuade even the most seemingly rational adults. Isn’t this true for our own selves? Don’t we unconsciously use the same parenting techniques our parents used, even if we know it may not have been the best form?
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ understood human motivation and learning styles very well. At his farewell khutbah (sermon) on Mount Arafat, he reminded the believers that he has left behind him the Qur’an and his Sunnah, and anyone who adheres to them would not err. Thus the Prophet’s Sunnah is the demonstration of the Qur’an which he has modeled to his Ummah, as the Qur’an by itself may not be fully understood by all. Recognizing that people will do exactly what he did in his life for generations to come, even to the level of imitating how he dressed and ate, he was very careful about each and every one of his actions and words. With all his actions, the Prophet ﷺ not only considered his current generation, but also the future ones. For example, at Ta’if, he not only refused to seek revenge against those who hurt him out of his kindness and mercy with the hope for the progeny of the townsfolk but also because he did not want to make it a precedence for Muslims in the future to take revenge on towns that did not accept the message of Islam. Also, when requested by his daughter Fatima to be given a slave to help her around the house, he replaced the slave with words of dhikr because he did not want any part of his sunnah to indicate a sanction for slavery in Islam.
As such, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was very mindful of his relationships, especially with children. Rather than tell children what to do, he would show them through his own actions. When teaching his young helper, Anas Ibn Malik Radi Allahu ‘anhum (may Allah be pleased with them), the value of giving “salaam” (greeting of peace), the Prophet ﷺ made sure he was the first to give the “salaam” to Anas. When he wanted to teach a young man to lower his gaze around a pretty girl, the Prophet ﷺ moved the boy’s head away from the view of the girl with his hand rather than say anything reprimanding or embarrassing. When he wanted to teach children to be loving and kind, he would rub and kiss their heads and say a kind word to them. When he wanted to teach respect, he would stand up and give his seat to his daughter Fatima when she would visit him. He actually said very little to the children around him. He let them learn through his example as he knew that made a much greater impression on children than complicated words they may not quite understand or appreciate at their age. The Prophetic model of guidance had a tremendous effect on the children around him. Until the age of 103, Anas ibn Malik would still recall his time with the Prophet ﷺ and made sure he practiced those lessons himself.
These are some anecdotes from the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ which highlight the importance of modeling the behavior we want our children to follow. While it sounds difficult to be on our best behavior all the time around our children, it is much easier than the constant battles and frustrations we normally experience with them. Thus when we do or say something, we must first ask ourselves whether we would like our child doing or saying something similar. If not, then we should not do it ourselves, or at least not in front of them.
We sometimes forget that children’s needs are not much different than the adults’ needs. As Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) indicates in the Qur’an, the difference between any one of us is the knowledge and wisdom we have gained. Prophet Isa (as) was wiser at infancy than all of the people of his time due to the knowledge he was given. Hence we have to think of our children as people who just started their jobs as humans. Whenever we start a new job, we would appreciate someone giving us an orientation to the work. I think we would agree that most of us desire and appreciate a kind and understanding boss over a strict and stern one. While we will eventually learn the job, the difference will be how we feel about the work, our boss, and the company. We are much more likely to try our best and stay longer at a company that has a kind and caring supervisor than a callous and authoritarian boss. Similarly, our children will eventually learn as they grow up, but how they feel about us will be based on our treatment of them.
We also should be aware that children start learning from the day they form their senses in the womb. So we should not underestimate their learning abilities even as infants, and keep in mind that the younger our children are, the easier it is to teach them correct behaviors and manners as there is less “unlearning” to do.
While this model of parenting has been around since the time of the Prophet ﷺ, in recent times it has been coined by child development experts as “positive discipline”. Similar to the Prophetic tradition, experts now recommend that parents and teachers should guide and model the positive behaviors for their children. When a child says something inappropriate, rather than telling them not to say such a thing, we should model the appropriate way to say it. For instance, when my son says, “Yuck! I hate bananas!” I simply say to him, “it is better to say, “no thank you, I do not want any bananas. I prefer to eat apples.” Then I don’t force him to eat the banana if he expresses himself so nicely, but give him what he asks for so that he learns to communicate his wants and desires in a more appropriate way. Furthermore, rather than shouting commandments at children, we should actually use and model the words we want them to use. For example, when I tell my son to get down from a chair, I can either threaten, “Get down from the chair now or else!” or nicely say “Please get down from the chair, you will hurt yourself. Thank you for listening to your mommy who loves you.” It is not astonishing that I get a positive result from using the latter. Also by thanking my sons before they do something makes it much harder for them to keep doing what they were doing, and simultaneously they learn to say please and thank you when asking for something. Similarly, by adding facts to why you are asking them to do a task, they will recognize and appreciate that you are trying to help them and not just boss them around. For instance, when asking them to do something they don’t like such as brushing their teeth, you can simply tell them “Please brush your teeth. Your mommy doesn’t want those sugar bunnies (germs) to eat your teeth at night and have you lose all your teeth.” This argument works well with my three years old who really detests brushing his teeth.
On the flip side, a typical discipline program of “do not” has less of affect as it is a common human reaction to act opposite of that which we are not allowed to do. The best illustration of this is when Allah (SWT) told Adam (as) ”not” to eat the fruit of the tree and the first thing he did was eat it. Therefore, we should try to formulate our statements to our children around what we would like them to do rather than what “not” to do. For example, a child should be praised for all the good they are doing so they are encouraged to keep doing it. Even if they are not doing it often or well, we should praise them for being the child we would like them to be by setting that as a goal for them to try to achieve. For instance, I often tell my young boys “I am thankful to Allah (SWT) for giving me such a wonderful child who listens to his mommy and daddy and is nice to his brother.” By doing so, they are more hesitant to do something that will make me think less of them after I have just praised them so highly. However, if I constantly reminded them of their mistakes, they are more apt to just ignore my degrading comments and think it’s useless to do any better, particularly if I already have such a poor view of them in the first place. This will put in their minds an easy excuse to keep disobeying or being defiant.
In the case of our children, love does conquer all. The amazing thing is that no matter how many hugs and kisses and “ love you’s” we give our children, we cannot spoil them with it. Quite the contrary, it makes them more trusting and loving to us and others. And the best part is that we are also getting rewards by following the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ who told a father who never kissed his ten children, “whoever does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.”
Of course in Islam, everything is done in moderation. We must still be the parents and there are times when we have to shout if it prevents them from hurting themselves such as running across the street or sticking their finger in the electric socket. There also times we are tired or having a bad day, so we take it out on our children. We are humans too. But these are the opportunities when we teach our child the value and importance of saying “I am sorry”. By apologizing to our child when we make a mistake, again we are modeling the behavior we want to see in them. Surprisingly this increases their love and respect for us because we have shown our love and respect to them enough to say I am sorry and made them feel like a valued part of the family.
One last important note regarding children is to never promise anything to them we cannot fulfill, or to lie about anything to them or about them, including little white lies (i.e. their age to get a free Disneyland ticket). If we lie to our children or in front of children about small things, they are less likely to believe us on more significant matters such as the importance of prayer. Thus, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ warned a mother to fulfill her promise to her child to whom she promised a sweet, otherwise, she would be seen as a liar in her child’s eyes. Building a relationship of trust with our child is crucial, especially as they get older and their problems get more complicated. InshaAllah (God willing), our children will find console in us rather than their friends when they need advice or help with their problems, but we must build that space for them to open up and it’s hard to do that when they cannot trust us to tell them the truth.
In summary, if we catch our child mirroring one of our actions or sayings, it is a good reminder that our actions are our child’s teacher, whether we want them to be or not. If we use our actions as teaching tools by consistently modeling and demonstrating behaviors we want our children to follow, it will not only benefit them, but it will also benefit our own personality and spirituality as well.
Parisa S. Popalzai is an education consultant and author. She has earned her BS in Management Science at UC San Diego with highest honors, her MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and her Ph.D. from the UCLA Center of Near East Studies, focusing on Islamic Studies, public policy, and education. She has over 20 years of working experience with large and small companies, non-profits and schools. She helped with the development of the non-profit organization called Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) and worked on statewide initiatives for preschool education. She was a principal of a large Islamic school in Southern California, helped start a university in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and a school for disabled children in Kabul, Afghanistan. Currently, she resides in Riverside, CA with her husband and two boys and Is working on a few book projects.
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