“Don’t touch those!” the father commands as his child plays with the dishes on a shelf at his host’s house. A few seconds later, the father looks up from his conversation with his host, and his child is still playing with the dishes. “I told you not to touch those!” the child’s father repeats. A few seconds later, the father looks up and sees his child still playing with the dishes. The father says nothing and continues his conversation with the host.
It happens all the time. Children are given orders, and when they don’t obey, the parent simply goes back to his conversation and forgets.
What should parents do in this situation? Some parents would say that we should stop the child, others that we should punish him, and others that he is “just a child,” and we should not expect too much from him.
As Muslim parents, we have an obligation to bring up our children in the best manner—to teach them right from wrong and to show them what we and society expect from them.
Those who give opinions on this matter usually support their positions, and it may be difficult to establish, without a doubt, who is more correct. However, as parents, we either have to find the correct method to teach and discipline our children, or we at least have to come up with a valid method for teaching and disciplining our children. Definitely, we should not just “figure it out as we go” — one time using this method and another time that one.
The following principles should be useful in establishing a childrearing method which is not too extreme.
1. Start early
Although many parents believe that very small children are too young to understand, their early years are probably the most important opportunity for parents to start them in the right direction. Once good patterns are established, they will be easy to maintain. Once bad patterns are established, they will be difficult to change.
2. Have your Emotions under Control while Instructing Children
Don’t discipline your child because you are angry with him, but rather because you want to teach him. Motive is important here. As a Muslim parent, your motive should be to help your child.
3. Present should Present a United Front
Parents should discuss their strategy for training and disciplining their children and agree to work together as a team. If children realize that one parent is strict and the other is easy, they will play the parents against each other. When the strict parent stops them from doing something, they will go ask the easy parent for permission. Both parents need to tell the child the same thing. If parents sometimes disagree on how to discipline the child, they should discuss it privately, not in front of the children.
4. Be consistent
Most experts on children agree that parents should be consistent. Constantly changing the rules and expectations will only confuse your child. If you stop him from writing on the walls today, and you allow him to write on the walls tomorrow, he will not understand when you get angry the next time he writes on the walls. If you inconsistently apply the rules, he will also test you at times to see whether you are going to be tough this time or easy. If, however, he knows from experience that you always stop him the first time, he will quickly learn it does no good to try to get away with something. Although consistency is essential, it does not mean that parents cannot change their minds about the rules. If you do change the rules, however, you must inform your child in advance so that he will know what to expect. This failure to be consistent is at the root of many parents’ inability to control their children.
5. Never lie to your children
If you lie to them “every now and then,” they may not believe you when you tell them the truth. This also applies to those situations when you tell your child to stop doing something, or you will put him in his room, spank him, or take away his toys. If you make that kind of a threat, you must stick with it. Otherwise, you have lied, and your child will not know when you are serious and when you are not. He will then be forced to test you again and again to see.
6. Don’t reward crying
If children realize that everytime they cry, they get what they want, crying will become like money for them. Everytime they want something, they will cry. On the other hand, if you teach them that crying doesn’t get them anything, they will stop crying for things. Let them cry and cry and cry, but don’t give in. In the beginning, it will be difficult, but be patient. Once they learn the lesson and stop crying for everything, you will be happy that you were firm. You can either listen to crying for a few days or for the rest of your life. It’s your choice.
7. Teach your child to apologize when he does something wrong
This is important so that he will learn what is expected of him from others and from Allah (SWT). If he does something wrong, he should ask forgiveness from Allah (SWT) and apologize to any people who were hurt by his words or actions. This will be useful in developing his conscience.
8. Accept Child’s Apology
Be quick to excuse your child when he apologizes and shows that he is sorry for his disobedience or bad actions. When we do wrong, we seek forgiveness from Allah (SWT) and want to be excused. Likewise, we should excuse others. This will develop in your child a sense of mercy and prepare him for an understanding of the forgiveness of Allah (SWT). Always make it clear to the child that you love him, especially after he has been in trouble and apologized. Let him understand that no bad feelings remain.
9. Apologize For Your Mistakes
Don’t be too proud to apologize to your child when you make mistakes. This will establish in him a belief in your sense of justice and prevent him from viewing you as nothing but a tyrant.
10. Teach Islam From an Early Age
Teach your child from an early age about Allah, the Prophets, the Sahaba, and the great heroes of Islam. If we develop in them a love for Islam and provide them with righteous examples for their heroes, they will be much less likely to go astray. A person wants to be like his heroes. If he admires Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and Ali, he will try to follow their example. If he admires a rock star or a gang leader, he will want to be like them. If we inspire our children with good examples, when they are tempted to do wrong, they will, InshaAllah, remember these examples and remain steadfast.
Although I was raised as a Christian and didn’t embrace Islam until I was in my 20s, I was greatly influenced by the Biblical stories of Prophets like Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa (peace be upon them all). Although the Biblical stories were not in their pure form, they still inculcated in me a love and respect for the way of the Prophets. Although I fell into many of the temptations of youth, Alhamdulillah, I always felt something within me holding me back from going too far. While many of my friends went headlong into a highly destructive way of life, I believe that my knowledge of, and affection for, the Prophets helped me to return to a better path.
11. Instruct in Good Morals
Teach your child good morals and good manners. An excellent book for this is Islamic Tahdhib and Akhlaq: Theory and Practice, by B. Aisha Lemu.
12. Discipline Your Child
Discipline should not become the domain of one parent. Mothers and fathers should both participate in the disciplining of their children. Although mothers often threaten their children by telling them that they will get into trouble when their father gets home, this method is not very useful for three reasons. First, discipline should be carried out immediately after the disobedience occurs so that the child will connect the disobedience with its consequences. If parents wait until later, the child may have forgotten why he got into trouble, and feel that the parents are not justified in disciplining him.
Second, sometimes the child must be stopped immediately, and the mother cannot wait until the father gets home. The child must be taught to respond immediately to her commands as well as his father’s. Third, making one parent responsible for disciplining the child may turn that parent into the “bad guy” in the child’s eyes. The child should recognize that both parents agree on their methods of disciplining him. Although the degree to which various parents use them will vary, the following five methods might be used for disciplining your children.
(a) Putting your child in the bedroom. When the child is disobeying, he should first be warned that you are going to put him in the bedroom if he doesn’t obey. If he continues to disobey, take him to the room immediately. Do not keep repeating warnings. For smaller children, you will probably have to sit in the room with them; for older children, they can sit alone. If they are crying or yelling, don’t let them come out until they stop. Also, teach them that they need to apologize before you let them out. If they apologize, show your happiness and quick acceptance.
For those children who whine and cry for everything, it is good to teach them that they will be sent to the bedroom when they whine and cry. They should not be allowed to whine and cry in the living room where they will disturb others. Once children learn that when they whine and cry, they will be sent to the bedroom, the whining and crying should decrease dramatically. Although it may take a long time for some children to stop crying and apologize, the parent must not give in. The child should feel that everytime he persists in disobedience, he will be the loser. This method, if done correctly and consistently, should dramatically affect your child.
(b) Showing your disappointment. If you have established a good relationship with your child, your disappointment with him will have a great impact on him. If he does something you don’t like, and you tell him you are angry with him and show him that you are not going to play and joke with him because of his actions, he will probably feel bad and apologize. This works especially well when several family members show disappointment with the child’s actions.
(c) Withholding privileges. Not letting the child go out to play, ride his bicycle, or use his skates, for example. Threats to do this are useful only if the child believes you.
(d) Giving rewards. These could be compliments, sweets, toys, or anything else that your child likes. When your child is rewarded for doing good, he is likely to do good again. After some time, his habit will be to do good. Two words of caution, however. First, rewards should not become bribes. You should not tell your child, “If you obey me, I will take you for ice cream.” Rewards should be spontaneous on your part to show your appreciation for your child’s actions. They should not be expected by the child. You should say, “Since you have been such a good boy today, I’m going to take you for ice cream.” Second, you should be careful that your relationship with your child does not become a marketplace where he expects to get a reward from you for everything he does. As the child gets older, he will not need to be given material rewards as often, although you should continue to let him know that you appreciate his good behavior. You should, however, teach him that even though he doesn’t always receive a reward from you for his good actions, he might receive one from Allah (SWT).
(e) Spanking. This is the most controversial aspect of discipline. Some parents feel that it is wrong to spank children because it teaches them that violence is the answer or that “might makes right.” Others go too far in the other direction and believe that unbridled beating of their children is okay. Some parents slap their children in the face, beat them on the hand, or twist their ears. These methods should, however, be avoided. Slapping in the face humiliates the child, and beating on the hand or twisting the ear could cause permanent physical damage to the child. Of course, it should also be clear that such things as burning or starving children, making them drink hot sauce, or other such harsh punishments should never be used. I personally use only two physical methods for disciplining my children: light slaps on the hand when the child is using his hands to do something wrong and spanking the child on his buttocks in a way that is not permanently harmful but that only causes some stinging. If the other methods of discipline are used wisely, a parent should rarely have to resort to physical discipline at all. However, sometimes it may be necessary. If done with mercy and justice and in the best interest of the child, it should not be considered as violent or abusive. When children grow up, they will be held accountable for their actions. In some cases, the punishments they face for wrongdoing will be severe. To teach them right from wrong now, even by spanking or lightly slapping their hand, will help them avoid these problems later in life. Hammudah Abd al Ati writes in The Family Structure in Islam:
“. . . [T]he Prophet urged parents to demand that their children begin practicing the regular daily prayers by the age of seven. If the children do not start the practice by the age of ten, they should be disciplined by physical means — without causing them harm or injury, of course — only to show disapproval of their behavior.” (p. 199)
If parents follow these principles consistently, they should see a dramatic improvement in their children in a short time. If, however, the children have been allowed to run the house for a long time, and the parents have given up their authority, it will take longer for the children to get used to the new rules. Although the various methods of discipline are important and will help you to control your children and force them to do what you say, you will not always be with them as they begin to grow, and, thus, the penalties and consequences from you will not concern them. Ideally, as you discipline your children you will also develop their conscience and their knowledge of right and wrong. Teaching them good morals and manners and instilling in them a love for Allah, the Prophets, the Sahaba, and the great heroes of Islam should help them to do good even when you are not around. The attainment of self-discipline and a concern for doing righteousness whether they are with others or alone is the true goal of childrearing. The afore-mentioned techniques are merely means to achieve this end.