Lead by Example: Islamic Parenting Principles
The most difficult thing about being a parent is being the person you want your child to become.
Your child is going to do what you do. Your every move is being watched by a miniature sponge-like creature. She will roll her eyes the way that you do. Her tone of disappointment will mimic yours. The same words of discipline you use on her, she will eventually use on you.
Anas (ra) (when mentioning his childhood) said: “I served the Prophet (saw) for ten years, and he never said to me, ‘Uf’ (a minor harsh word denoting impatience) and never blamed me by saying, ‘Why did you do so or why didn’t you do so?’”
It’s quite difficult to imagine refraining from uttering these sounds of exasperation when my daughter does one of the many mischievous things in her repertoire. The point here isn’t to abstain from making expectations clear to your child or to somehow be a perfect parent who never becomes frustrated (that parent doesn’t exist.) Rather, the point is to understand that the Prophet (saw) was a man whose character spoke for itself. He did not need a plethora of words for those around him to understand his expectations and fulfil them because of their high regard for him. He acted in the way that he wished for others to act – his character was the Quran. And those around him responded in kind by imitating his good character (or by at least trying to imitate it). Due to their respect and reverence for the Prophet (saw), those close to him stayed away from that which displeased him.
Many times I have worried about how to teach my daughter to be kind and charitable, to share, to ask for forgiveness when she makes a mistake, etc. I used to lose sleep over it, looking at her napping cherub face and wondering: how can I help her become a good person? I was in a constant state of apprehension, searching for good Islamic books and resources to help me convey to her the beauty of good character.
While I still scour Islamic conference bazaars for kids’ resources, I have come to understand that the answer is actually quite simple – I must be who I want her to be. I should speak to her the way I expect her to speak to others. I should pray the way I expect her to eventually pray. I should dress the way I wish for her to dress, etc. In me, my daughter has her first role model. In me, she has the person who she will – without her consciously understanding it – imitate. And while verbal instruction is important, actions are overwhelmingly what will determine how we teach our children.
It’s beneficial to note that sometimes a parent will need to exaggerate something so that a child can pick up on it (e.g. instead of uttering “Bismillah” under your breath as you normally do before eating, you say it out loud so that your child picks up on the habit).
The Prophet Muhammad (saw) changed people’s hearts and minds with Allah’s words of truth and guidance. But he attracted them to the beautiful message through his beautiful character. In the words of his wife Aisha, his character was the Quran.
Allah (swt) also says in the Quran: “So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you” (3:159).
The people would have fled from the Prophet (saw) had he been harsh – even though he still would have been conveying the absolute truth and the guidance from Allah (swt), which is beautiful. So, too, will your children disband and flee from you if you are constantly harsh and rude and miserly while simultaneously attempting to teach them to be kind and polite and generous. Children are intelligent – they can spot the inconsistencies and contradictions in an adult’s behavior from a mile away. The method of teaching is as important as the content.
We acknowledge that respect is earned, and not always immediately or freely given. Likewise, when your child looks at you, she has to see someone who is deserving of her respect – someone whose words and actions are complementary to one another, and not someone who says one thing but contradicts it with harmful actions. Our children are watching our every move, listening to our every word, and absorbing our every emotion. If you want children to share, you must share. If you want them to be generous, you must be generous. If you want them to have courage, you must be courageous. If you really want to teach them something lasting, stop talking about it and start practicing it.