Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Mad Fence

A Folktale rewritten

Once there was and once there wasn't, a long time ago, a young boy named Tariq with a VERY bad temper. When his mother called him to get up for school in the morning he would yell at her, "I'm up, leave me alone!" even though he had just opened his eyes. If he wanted spaghetti when his mother made macaroni and cheese, he would get mad at her for not asking him before cooking. When his little sister accidentally touched his toys he would yell at her. Always. He HATED it when someone touched HIS stuff, especially his sister. When his friend missed the ball in a soccer game and their team lost, he yelled really bad words and his friend decided not to be friends with him anymore. Well, it WAS all his friend's fault anyway, and who needs friends!

His father was a sailor and left home often to sail on ships around the world. He wasn't home a lot. One day, his father came home from a long trip while Tariq was working on a model ship on the table. His father roared out "Asalaam alaikum, I'm home!" and his mother and little sister came running happily from the back rooms to greet him.

A gust of wind from the open door blew down the newly glued mast of Tariq's model ship. Tariq screamed in rage. "Shut that door! You just ruined my model!"

Tariq's father, mother, and little sister stared at him in shock. Everyone stayed away from Tariq for a while, while Tariq's father had coffee and talked with his wife and daughter. There was lots of news of the family to catch up on. Then, when Tariq's mother went to start supper, Tariq's father called him out to the storage shed in the back yard.

"Tariq, see these nails? See this hammer? I want you to take a nail to the back fence and hammer it in, for getting mad about the breeze disturbing your model earlier today. And from now on, I want you to pound in a nail each time you get angry."

Tariq didn't understand why he should hammer a nail, but he did as his father ordered. It was hard to hit the nail square on the head, and once he hit his finger instead of the nail. He got mad at the hammer and threw it across the yard. Tariq's father made him nail in another nail, for throwing the hammer in rage.

The next morning, Tariq was almost late to school because he had to hammer in 5 nails for yelling at his mother, father, and sister for 5 different reasons before breakfast. By the end of the day he had hammered in 37 nails, and he was pretty tired of hammering. He was getting better about not hitting his fingers though.

Day by day Tariq hammered nails. Why did his father insist on it? Looking at the fence, with its many nails, Tariq was embarrassed by all the proof of his bad deeds. Some of the kids from school knew about the fence, because he accidentally told them. They called it the "Mad Fence". They asked many times to come and see it but Tariq wouldn't show it to them.

But little by little, he found that the thought of the fence made it easier to hold his tongue and he gradually began to yell less often, and when he yelled, he was able to stop more quickly. Then, one evening, he was building a block castle and his sister, who had come over to watch, dropped her stuffed bunny on the blocks, making the whole thing come down. Tariq stood up quickly, took a big breath to yell, and, instead of saying something mad, suddenly burst out, "OK, I'll get a nail!"

His father came out to the fence as Tariq pounded in the new nail. They talked about how he was pounding in fewer nails now. He had made great progress. He was even starting to have some friends again. Friends were nice to have! That was slow going though, because they remembered how mad he used to get and didn't trust him yet.

"I'm glad I don't have to pound so many nails anymore, Dad. Seeing all the nails in the fence is ugly."

Then his father suggested that Tariq could remove a nail each day that he went all day without losing his temper. Day by day Tariq looked forward to removing a nail from the fence before Isha prayer. It was often difficult to pull them out and he had to struggle, but it felt good to remove the signs of his bad deeds.

Finally, the day came when he removed the last nail. He called his family to witness the great event. He felt very proud. His mother was so happy, she kissed him and promised to make his favorite dessert for after supper.

His father, however, said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many times you say, "I'm sorry". The wound is still there. A verbal wound is as bad as a physical one."

The family stared at the fence solemnly. It was a witness of Tariq's battle with himself.

Then his father hugged him and said, "May you grow to be a strong man, Son. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, "The strong is not the one who overcomes people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger." (Bukhari)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Marwa's Daughter

A Muslim woman I will call ‘Marwa’, came to the States from overseas to attend college. Over here she met a man from back home, also studying. They got married and life looked perfectly wonderful. Instead of going back home, her husband got a good job here after finishing his degree, and when she finished hers they decided to start their family. Things fell apart when her daughter was born.

I never knew the name of her daughter’s health problem, but she did not develop properly. The child remained a baby, unable to walk or talk. She did respond to her mother who was able to understand her emotions and communicate to some degree with her. I first saw her when she was around two years old. She had to be fed through a feeding tube and would always need diapers. Doctors told the parents she would not live more than 2 years.

Marwa’s husband couldn’t handle it. He left her and their daughter. He went underground economically to hide himself from court ordered child support. Part of his desertion was his lack of moral character. Another part was the cold logic of American’s health care system. The child required so much specialized expensive care that the debt would cripple the young family for years to pay for it. Alone and destitute, Marwa had access to free health care for her daughter. But she didn’t despair or complain. She asked Allah for help.

No one makes a du’a without one of three things happening. Either it is answered, or it is stored up for him, or wrong actions are atoned for by it. (Muwatta)

Prayers of all of you are granted provided you do not get impatient and start grumbling that, “I prayer to my Lord but He did not grant me.” (Bukhari & Muslim)

When I met Marwa, she was enrolled in a graduate program in college. She hadn’t been able to get a job and care for her daughter, because she couldn’t find a daycare that would accept the burden of her daughter’s care while she worked. All her family was overseas, unable to help her financially or otherwise. She couldn’t return home because the medical care her daughter needed was not available there. However, she could get care for her daughter at the university child care service while she was in classes, and she was able to get scholarship aid and student loans to pay her living expenses, barely. The doctors said her daughter had not long to live, so she would get an advanced degree while she cared for her daughter. Actually, it was a well thought out plan to manage through these few years.

Marwa impressed me so much. She turned to Quran and prayer for help and strength in each difficulty. There was the pain of losing her husband and feeling cast off by many former friends. It is sad how many people shy away from a handicap or disability, like it is contagious! There was the feeling of loneliness at 2 am when she would wake up and care for her sick child night after night, month after month, by herself. Marwa didn't have time for normal relations with friends and a social life. Between her studies and her daughter, and all the work of daily life, she was too busy for an afternoon at the mall or a party. She often seemed self absorbed, unable to listen to what others were doing or interested in, most likely because she was so busy processing her own problems by herself. That increased her isolation. People tend to search out friends with common circumstances, and no one had a situation like Marwa.

She was a tireless worker and the kind of person who rarely asks for help. She came to the mosque once in a while to find someone to help out for a specific need she couldn’t manage otherwise. She struggled on, showing patience in adversity. The laundry, the cleaning, the classes, car problems from parking issues to the mechanical issues of cheep wheels, the special care for her daughter, the doctor visits, just the daily physical lifting and carrying the child who’s body grew, even as her mind did not, all this burden was on the young woman. How different her life was before her daughter's birth. How different her life was from what most of us experience. I tried to support her and link her with others who had more free time. I never heard her complain about her situation. And you could hear the love she had for her child in everything she said or did. Most of my conversations with her were about a specific problem at that moment and how she might solve it.

She finished her master’s degree slowly, but continually looking for a job situation with appropriate childcare. Her daughter continued to thrive with her mother’s tender care, in her own way, in spite of the medical prognosis. Finally Marwa was able to change her situation for a place where she could work in her career field and get the daycare help she needed. This child that was expected to die before the age of three was still alive and reasonably healthy at the age of 6, when I last heard from them.

We live in an age when many people would say this child should have been aborted before she was born. Do a test on the fetus and end things before the pain and the expense and the waste of time dealing. Others refuse to take the child home from the hospital.

But Allah created this child for a reason and He is All Knowing, All Wise, All Compassionate. Refusing the tests He sends us is taking a path away from Him. I witnessed Marwa rejoice in each milestone her daughter attained. She spoke to me of her reliance on Allah to help her, and I saw the help that she received. Allah knows best about our deeds, but from what I saw and heard, she overcame every difficulty with strength, grace, and good manners.

And do not kill your children out of fear of poverty. We provide sustenance for them and for you. Truly killing them is a great sin. (Quran 6:151, 17:31)

Abu Hassan said to Abu Hurayrah, "My two children have died. Would you narrate to me anything from the Messenger of Allah, a hadith which would soothe our hearts in our bereavement? He said: "Yes. Small children are the fowls of paradise. If one of them meets his parents he will take hold of his cloth with his hand as I take hold of the hem of your cloth. And the child will not take his hand off it until Allah admits his parents to Paradise." (Muslim)

How do you think you would manage if tested with a child like Marwa’s? We all pray for healthy children. Allah knows each one of us and will only give us what we can bear. What tests is Allah giving you with your children … with your family? How well are you doing to manage through those tests? What are you learning from those tests?

The one for whom Allah intends good encounters afflictions to get it. (Bukhari)

Who do you admire? Do you know another parent who seems to be doing a great job? What is one thing you might learn from watching that person that could give you strength?

While I admire Marwa and pray that Allah give her ease after hardship, I also found strength to be more patient with my own tests. They didn’t seem nearly as difficult as what Marwa was managing. I also felt I should do more to help others. Each person has different strengths and weaknesses. Even if someone appears strong, I want to offer help if I can. We are a community and should not be left to manage alone, in loneliness. Just giving an ear to someone can help them feel part of society, even if we can’t do more.

Prophet Muhammad was outlived by only one of his 7 children, his daughter Fatimah who lived 6 months after his death. Three of his children, his sons, all died before the age of about 2. This description is of the death of his last child, who was about 18 months old.

“We went with the Messenger of Allah to the blacksmith, Abu Sayf, who was the husband of Ibrahim’s wet nurse. The Messenger of Allah took Ibrahim and kissed him and sniffed him. Then after that we came in to him and at that time Ibrahim was breathing his last, and the eyes of the Messenger of Allah began to shed tears. At that, Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf said, “Even you, O Messenger of Allah?” He said, “O Ibn Awf, this is mercy.” Then he wept more and said, “Surely the eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we do not say except what is pleasing to our Lord, and we are grieved by your parting, O Ibrahim.” (Bukhari)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Moral Support

Muzemmal was very concerned about his preteen daughter Sara. She was always so obedient and thoughtful and sweet. But he had attended a lecture at the mosque about raising children in America and the lecturer had told stories about wild parties hosted by children from the mosque. He had said some of the least suspicious children were actually some of the wildest. And Muzemmal had felt like the lecturer had been looking straight at him, personally, when he said that.

Muzemmal had tried to talk to Sara about the stories he'd heard, and she had responded properly, modestly looking down at the ground and denying having heard about any such activity. But he still felt uneasy. So he called Tara's house the next evening, where she had said she was going to work on a project for school. Tara's mom said she wasn't there but Tara was, and he got really worried.

About 8 pm Sara came home. When he confronted her, she said she had gone to the library to do research for the project. Hadn't she told mom her change of plans before leaving? Mom said she hadn't. Sara apologized very sweetly. His daughter was so beautiful. Muzemmal felt very concerned about his preteen daughter. Where could he go for help?

Mariam attended a lecture on how to discipline her children and came home all pumped to implement some new strategies. She'd train her younger child to do 'time out' and her older two to face consequences for their misdeeds. She had the literature passed out at the lecture and felt a glow of optimism.

But she came home to kids used to her usual behavior and she fell right back into the patterns of life she so strongly wanted to change. Bedtime chaos reigned as usual with her 6 year old coming out of his room umteen times, each time with a different excuse, and her older two ignoring her reminders that "It's time for bed" until she screamed, turned off the TV herself, and stood waving her arms wildly at them to get them out of the living room and off to their bedrooms. She tried the time out thing with her 6 year old the next day and he wouldn't stay. He thought it was a game. After she tried it three times she gave up in despair. Where could Mariam go for support?

Everyone needs help in raising their children. A one hour lecture or reading one advise book is not enough. How many people with little cooking experience can read a recipe and make it turn out right the first time? How many people grew up seeing Mom or Dad making that special dish the whole family loves, and could make it themselves perfectly the first time they tried it on their own? Raising children is much harder than cooking. There are more variables. Each child has a unique personality. We often live in very different environments than our parents and we are responding to different pressures. There are different expectations.

Our first step, of course, should be to call on Allah for guidance. His help is the most important. Then we look around and see what comes our way that might be guidance. Look for people, either mentors or supporters. One place to look should be to our spouses, parents and our family members. Our spouses should be working with us on our parenting issues but they usually aren't more expert than we are ourselves, and they may have a very different perspective. Often one parent leaves most of the parenting to the other. Working in consultation, supporting each other, is very important to the well being of the children.

Who might be a mentor, an experienced wise person to give advice? If you have someone, great. That is a blessing. Our mentors in the States are usually incomplete. We need someone who has experience in this country, in this environment where we live, where our children live and we need someone knowledgeable about Islam. Finding one person to guide you with both is difficult. Don't give up on any source of help. They may well be the answer to your prayers. But be aware of the possible limitations of your source and keep your options open to combine advise from more than one source.

"Let there arise out of you a group enjoining what is good and forbidding what is wrong." Start a support group, or join one. Americans have a tradition for doing this. The new frontier nature of creating this country separated families and communities, and people had to find new ways of getting the neighborly help most of us need. This system works in places where mature stable communities don't exist.

Talk to some other people of similar situation, family members, friends, or people who look like they might be interested in your project. Three is probably the minimum number and you don't want so many that hosting becomes difficult. The smaller the group, the more informal and less structured you can be. Invite them over for an evening to discuss structure and agree on how to organize. Meet once a month or once a week? It depends on people's schedule. You're not an expert on parenting? You aren't supposed to be. But you will become an expert over time.

In a support group, everyone is admitting in advance that they aren't perfect but they want to do better. And everyone is accepting to help each other do better. Each person in the group will have some strengths and some weaknesses. As a whole the group should have enough variety that the sum of the group's strengths helps everyone benefit. When you meet with the sincere intention to please Allah in raising your children, you can avoid being judgmental of others in your group. Accept that you will have disagreements so do that respectfully. Listen to each person and be thoughtful of each other. Within the limits imposed by Allah there are many ways to raise a child. Each person will have some suggestions for at least one practical method that will work for someone else. Brainstorming together gives all participants more options of things to do. But don't just rely on your own knowledge.

There is a great deal of scientific material available that can be used to focus the group on normal child development. There is as much or more information on how to teach your children. And there is some inspirational work available about the Islamic perspective. Some groups arrange to have guest speakers come, from time to time.

If you know how to organize a house and keep your family on schedule, you can organize a support group. Get someone to volunteer to keep a few notes for the group and send reminders to everyone before meetings. Lead a discussion about what topics people want to work on. Get volunteers to find material on each topic and write up a schedule. Or get one book that focuses on most of what people are interested in, have everyone buy a copy, (or borrow from the library) and then schedule discussions on the different chapters. People will add their own personal observations and ideas during the discussion.

One possible structure: every other Friday meet at 7:00 at a different person's house. Open with dua, asking for guidance. Read a selection from the Quran, then a hadith. Ask someone to summarize the evening topic in about 10-15 minutes. (This isn't rocket science or a doctoral thesis. Keep topics short and simple.) Open up group discussion. What does this mean for me? How do I implement this in my situation? After about 30 minutes the hostess or host starts serving refreshments and someone closes with a dua. Discussion becomes more informal. By 8:30-9:00 pm it's done and people go home, think about things, try things with their kids, and prepare for the next meeting. Before starting the evening topic you might add a few minutes to ask people for follow up on the last meeting's topic. Does it need more study? Any success stories from anyone?

If you can't find supporting people in your community, perhaps you need to think about where you live. A child's fitra (basic nature from Allah (SWT)) is to model himself after his parents, but as the child grows and starts to observe people outside of home, he starts to observe the differences between home and the rest of the world. Another aspect of the child's fitra is a desire to fit in with the community around him. We need a community around us that reflects our values.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Controlling Anger

Nikki came from a dysfunctional family. Her father threw her out of the house when she was in her teens. But Subhanallah! She discovered Islam and converted after a man married her for a green card. Always looking for answers to her problems she developed her relationship with Allah. It wasn't what someone raised by two good Muslim parents would have, but it is a true relationship. With His help, she fought against adversity in many different ways. She's known food pantries and homelessness. She survived and put behind her two failed marriages. She's struggled to raise three kids. She got herself through college and into a good career track. Her growing up was tough. But Allah (SWT) doesn't give someone something harder than they can bear. Nikki cried and floundered many times, but she ended up beating so many odds.

Nikki knows what Islam says about anger. But she admits that when the going gets tough, she still screams bad words at her children. She's proud of how she doesn't hit them, as her parents and ex husbands hit her. But she is embarrassed and defensive about the language she uses when she yells.

While she works on self control she compensates for her lapses by talking with her children about her anger problem to reduce the role model effect for them. She doesn't want them to think her anger behavior is correct and copy it, and she wants them to know she is trying to improve. She is also working to reduce the situations that trigger her anger, and generally just trying to be the most thoughtful caring mother she can be.

Alhamdullilah, most of us don't come from such difficult backgrounds as Nikki. But everyone has trouble controlling their anger, and their tongues from time to time. Nikki is working to improve. What is your excuse, or my excuse for yelling or using abusive language?

There are many hadith where the Prophet told the people not to be angry. Among them are:

The strong one is not the one who throws (people) down, but the strong one is the one who controls himself in the face of anger. (Bukhari and Muwatta)

No one swallows anything more excellent in the sight of Allah, the Great and Glorious, than anger which he restrains, seeking to please Allah Most High. (Ahmad).

He gave lessons on how to exert self control:

If the Prophet was angry and he was standing, he would sit down. If he was seated, he would lie down, and the anger would go away. (Abu Dawud and ibn Abi Dunya)

If you are angry, keep silent. (Ahmad)

Anger comes from Satan. Satan was created of fire and fire is extinguished by water; so when one of you becomes angry, he should make wudu. (Abu Dawud)

And of course there is advise in Quran: And if an evil suggestion from Satan incites you, seek refuge in Allah. Truly, He is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (Qur'an 7:200)

So see if it works for you. We are not always in a position where we can leave to cool down with water, or to sit down, but sometimes we are and it really can help us. It's like counting to 10 or taking a walk, only it is how the prophet dealt with anger. Just thinking about whether to do one of these things can divert the mind somewhat from anger and start a person toward self control.

Try to change the words you say when angry. This is what the Quran is telling us to do, in saying the dua' "I seek refuge in Allah". (In transliteration: aAAoothu biAllah). Sometimes you may not be able to recite dua' in Arabic out loud (like in an airport) and you may want to recite it to yourself quietly. But it is good to recite it out loud when you can so your children can hear you.

This is not a novel concept. Words like 'fiddlesticks' and 'shucks' exist as expletives in English because of people in the past trying to be polite when yelling. Instead of 'taking the name of the Lord in vain', Christians have yelled 'Gosh!'

From my years of observation and experience, words seem easier to gain control over than tone and volume of voice. So the dua' can come out in a very loud or threatening tone. Over time and practice, the tone and volume can get under better control. This is a slow learning process. You might want to explain yourself sometimes so people (particularly young children) know what you are doing. Otherwise they might think you are saying bad words just from the tone.

So how does this work? Imagine that you see your child spill juice on the carpet and your temper flares. Let's say you respond by calling out to Allah for help and then going to wash in the bathroom, or sitting down absolutely quiet on the sofa, working to control your temper. What does the child think, or do?

Your child may either feel really horrible, or may not realize that you are upset. Children can be either sensitive or oblivious to the adults around them, or somewhere in between. Could you tell your child how you feel? "I'm so upset about having the carpet look bad and having to clean spots again, that I'm not going to talk right now so my tongue won't get out of control," is one thing you might say. What else could you do so your child doesn't get away with bad behavior because you are trying to get control of yourself?

Because that is often what it boils down to. Parents are so busy being responsible for their child's behavior immediately, and trying to get that under control, that they lose sight of their own behavior, or feel they can't control it because they feel forced into it by the need to respond to their child. "Yes I know I yell but this kid drives me nuts."

Aside from emergency steps to keep children from injury and objects from disaster, nothing needs to be handled immediately. And those steps can be taken without bad words and/or hitting on the part of the parent. Name something else that can't wait? When we are back in control of ourselves we can start doing something about the problem of the child's behavior, thoughtfully. There are many options - when we are in control of ourselves.

What kinds of situations push your anger button? Your own fatigue? Your child acting like someone you don't like? Your fear of someone criticizing your child's less than perfect behavior? Having to multitask more tasks than you feel comfortable with? Your child's forgetfulness? ??? Thinking these issues through can help you in your quest for self control.