Sandy and Aisha went to visit the home of one of their students, Tamer. He greeted them at the door and ushered them into the living room. His younger sister came in, welcomed them, and asked to take their coats. Tamer helped her carry the coats to the entry closet and hang them up. While they were engaged in that chore, their mother entered smiling and greeted them. Shortly after, Tamer's grandfather came in to join the group. Then a little brother poked his head into the room from the hallway and his mother called to him. He came in too, said hi and sat down politely. Tamer and his sister came in and sat down . After a little talk, Tamer's mother gave a sign to his sister, who rose quietly and left the room. A few minutes later she returned with a tray of juice and cookies. She set them on a table and Tamer joined her to serve their guests.
Aisha talked with all of the children and especially engaged the grandfather in talking about school and his aspirations for Tamer. She spoke about how happy she was with her class this year and mentioned one requirement she expected from all of her students. Sandy directed her attention at the mother almost exclusively, except for one question to Tamer about homework. Her talk was all about the school expectations and her classroom, how she teaches and her expectations from her students. When the visit was over, everyone accompanied the guests to the door, helping them with their coats as goodbyes were said.
Sandy came away with a very concerned view of the family. She was upset that the children had been acting like servants (from her perspective) in the house with the mother and grandfather watching. How could that woman make her children do that? She should have been greeting the teachers, handling the coats, and serving the refreshments. The children should have been off playing. The girl had been sent to get the refreshments. She did more of the serving than her brothers. This was sexist. There were no toys in view. How could someone raise children without toys? It was weird seeing the children act so politely, unnatural. The mother must really apply heavy discipline to make the children behave like that. And what's the deal with that grandfather getting involved? He kept talking so much. What a waste of time! The visit was for Tamer and his mother alone.
Aisha had a very different view. She thought the visit showed what a good family Tamer had. It was great to see how interested Tamer's grandfather was in his schoolwork. The children had very good manners managing hosting chores. They were polite and respectful. They had all joined the conversation nicely. Of course there were no toys out. Company was present. Tamer's sister had gotten the refreshments because it was more important for Tamer and his mother to speak with the guests. They were his teachers. Aisha assumed that if the sister's teacher had come, Tamer might have gotten the refreshments. The younger boy was too small. Aisha felt it was natural for Tamer's family to be interested in the guests and want to be involved in the conversation. It also gave her a better understanding of Tamer.
One of the most fundamental cultural differences between Muslim and typical American cultures is the view of the individual's relationship with family and community.
Generally, Americans admire the individual who 'becomes all that he/she can be.' Each child should be encouraged to grow and explore interests and talents, develop thinking and social skills. This is good, but as a top priority and overemphasized, this has led to neglect of family and community ties and moral education. Parents provide everything for their child and form a cheering team encouraging him on, milestone after milestone, expecting the child to gradually go off and leave them. Children as young as middle school can now be seen shopping alone or with age-mates at the mall. Children are on line and on cell phones without supervision at younger and younger ages. They are out exploring the world and finding themselves.
American society has become stratified into age groups because the individual prefers people like himself, with common interests. Little effort is made to have children of mixed ages socialize. Adults socialize at adults only activities. Young adults have their groups. Married with young children form a group. Single parents are a separate group. Older people have their own groups. Each has different music tastes and different styles of entertaining. Parents have careers and work their children's lives around their careers. When the children are gone, the parents have many other concerns to occupy their time.
The Quran is not a book encouraging a self-centered lifestyle. It's about working toward personal self control and submitting to something greater than yourself, Allah, who placed you in this family and this community. If we become obsessed with becoming a great athlete or financial adviser, or whatever, seeing our own friends and focusing on our own amusement, but neglect our family and our community, then we may lose Paradise.
And worship Allah and do not make anything a partner to Him. And do good to parents and relatives and orphans and the needy, and the neighbor who is of kid and the neighbor who is not of kin, and the companion at your side and the wayfarer and those whom your right hands possess. Truly, Allah does not love the one who is proud, boastful. (4:36)
Then, would you, if you were put in authority, make corruption in the land and cut your ties of relationship? (47:22)
The one who would like to have an expansion of his provision and a prolonging of his footsteps (on earth), let him keep good relations with his relatives. (Bukhari)
If you greet all whom you meet, feed the hungry, care for the well-being of your relatives, and pray at night when people are asleep, you will enter Paradise in peace. (Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Darimi)
A man asked, "Messenger of Allah, to whom should I show kindness?" He replied, "Your mother, then your mother, then your mother, and then your father, and then your relatives in order of relationship." (Abu Dawud)
Do you keep strong ties with your relatives? With your community? Define community. How will your children learn to have these ties? Do you expect children to play with others not their age? How do you prioritize homework, after-school activities, Quranic studies, learning moral lessons, learning manners, general play time, and household chores for your children? How young could you start teaching manners and morals and developing family ties? If you converted with older children, how can you start making changes for your family?
Tamer's family has one cultural system for balancing. Yours may be different.