Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Fountain Mirage

Eight year old Zayed was so thirsty. He could think of nothing else. He’d fasted all day yesterday and felt really strong, but today all he could think of was the water fountain out in the hall. He’d hit a home run in the 2nd grade baseball tournament game while outside for sports today. He’d felt so great when his team won. But everyone else had gone to drink at the drinking fountain afterwards and he hadn’t because he was Muslim and fasting for Ramadan. And now in class all he could think of was the fountain of icy cold water down the hall.

It became too much for him as he pictured himself dying of thirst. What would that be like? Do you see spots before your eyes? Zayed checked himself to see if he could see spots before his eyes yet. Maybe – just starting. One little sip of water would save him. He raised his hand and asked to be excused to the restroom.

Once outside in the hall, he dashed down to the fountain, looked around quickly to see that no one was watching, and drank. He drank and drank and drank. Then he pulled away in disgust. The water hadn’t satisfied his thirst. He still felt thirsty. He drank some more. Never had the water seemed less satisfying.

Fed up, Zayed returned to class. He’d broken his fast and didn’t feel like he’d gotten anything for it.

Coming home from school later brought the incident back to his mind. He’d been really active in class to forget it in the afternoon. Now he had to face Aunt Bedriyah, who watched him, his older brother Zuhair, and his two sisters, until their parents came home from work in the evening. He didn’t feel hungry at all but he wasn’t fasting now, was he? Should he pretend to be fasting or should he eat something? He sure didn’t want his brother and sisters to know. They would tease him.

Watching the children come in from school, Aunt Bedriyah immediately sensed that Zayed wasn’t feeling right. The three other children were their noisy selves as they stowed their shoes and books and went to do salat (prayer). After salat the others took off to play, but Zayed sat quietly on the couch staring at a page in his reading book.

“What kind of soup do you want for iftar (evening meal in Ramadan), Zayed? I could make mushroom or French onion,” asked Aunt Bedriyah.

Zayed was silent for a minute and then asked slowly, staring at his book, “What do you do if you forget and drink when you’re fasting?”

“You stop as soon as you remember, ask Allah for forgiveness, and continue fasting.” Aunt Bedriyah sat down on the sofa near him and eyed him seriously. Obviously he had something on his mind.

“What if you do it – accidentally – on purpose?” he asked very slowly again.

Aunt Bedriyah sat silently for a minute, thinking of what to say.

“I felt so thirsty – I thought I was sick, and you don’t fast if you’re sick – right?” Zayed continued suddenly rushing his words. “Then I drank water, but I didn’t feel better – only – stupid. I guess I’m not sick, but now Zuhair is going to be better than me because he fasted all month when he was eight and Daddy gave him twenty five dollars for Eid, extra!”

“Fasting is for Allah, Zayed, not for Daddy or Zuhair. If you fast, Allah rewards you, and makes you strong, but you are small still and you don’t have to fast yet.”

She saw he still looked downcast. “Do you want to fast till Magrib (sundown)?”

“Can I?”

“That would be two half days instead of a whole day, like you did so well last year. It’s not an adult fasting day but it is an effort with intention. You’re learning to fast.”

“Do we have to tell everybody?” asked Zayed.

“Of course not. It’s between you and Allah if you fast. But He knows and your parents need to know because they are responsible for you. If you feel sick at school you can phone your mom at work or phone me.”

“Do you want to fast tomorrow?” she asked after a pause.

“Yeah! I’m strong, strong as Zuhair!”

“I know you’re strong. I bet you can fast the rest of the month, Inshallah (Allah willing). Say Inshallah Zayed.”

“Inshallah! And I want mushroom soup tonight. Can we have fruit salad too?”

“Sure. Come and help me make it. I’ll peel the apples and you slice the bananas.


How do we teach our children to fast? Gently. There are years for children to learn about fasting and how to fast before they become adult and accountable for their fasting. But any effort they make toward fasting, like fasting half days and fasting only on the weekends of Ramadan, count for them as good deeds, something to be encouraged.

Two issues are important in considering a child's potential to fast; the child's health and will power. Children in many Muslim countries start fasting the whole month from around 7 or 8 years of age, when the average child usually has a much slower growth rate than a younger child or a teen and also has the maturity to exert the self control necessary. In these countries the climate can be very hot, yet children may have an easier time fasting than adults, who may be troubled by withdrawal from their addiction to cigarettes or caffeine. But the whole lifestyle if often different there, with school starting earlier and out at noon and everyone taking an afternoon nap. We may have much more to do during the fasting hours and the further north we are, the longer our fasting day.

Each individual child is different and has different issues to deal with, so knowing the averages isn't all we need to take into account. One mother I knew took her children to the doctor for a general check up before Ramadan. It was as much for her own peace of mind as for them. Mothers spend so much time getting their children to eat enough, drink enough, and stay healthy, that watching their children fast can be harder on them than on the children.

Going through a growth spurt during fasting can be a problem, but you will see it quickly in the child's behavior and you can limit fasting efforts. Personally I'm concerned if a child doesn't eat a good suhoor, predawn meal, and if the child shows excessive fatigue in the later part of the day. Remember that it takes a body about 3 days to get into the rhythm of fasting, so one bad day doesn't mean too much. The body gets the idea and starts to change its schedule for when to prepare the stomach to expect food and water. If a child can take a nap in the afternoon, this can help support fasting. Making sure the child gets up for suhoor and drinks sufficiently in the evening and predawn hours also is very important, particularly as we get to longer fasting days in the summer in America.

The other issue, will power, depends on the temperament of the child. Don't expect all of your children to be the same. We develop the ability to control our urges and postpone our rewards. Work with your children. Listen to them and support their efforts to be strong. Challenge them and encourage them. See what they can do while not fussing them if they fail. Like Zayed, they should not have to worry about telling you of their failures, even as they come to you to celebrate their successes.

We live in a society in America where people are encouraged not to develop this control. All the publicity encourages you to buy, whether you need it or not. Credit cards and bank loans, until recently, were given to people even if they didn't have money. Slogans have been things like 'Just Do It', implying that we should follow whatever impulse we might have and act on it. Go out and have fun! If it feels good, why not? Our children are often at sea surrounded by such messages and need to learn to resist them, as we have to resist them ourselves. Testing ourselves with fasting should make us strong. Reading Quran, praying, observing the natural world around us, can show our children that there is more to life, more out there, than just the world of school and the media. Gradually teaching our children to fast, as they are able, has many important lessons our children need to learn. If a young person can learn to control his eating and drinking, he will be able to remember his prayers, to control his tongue, to do his homework when he'd rather talk with friends on the phone or stare out the window.

How do you explain fasting to your child's teacher or after school administrator? Make sure to explain that it is optional if your child has not reached puberty, that the teacher is not required to enforce anything, and that the child won't be punished for breaking the fast. Some parents get so carried away explaining about Ramadan, and then Islam in general, that they don't emphasize these points, which are the most important for the teacher to know.

How do you feel about fasting yourself? How is that impacting your child's experience?

There are many more blessings that come from Ramadan. May your children grow in wisdom and experience with Allah.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jamil and His Friends

Jamil had two friends from school over! They were playing a videogame in the family room. His mother felt warm inside and bustled around to put snacks out on the kitchen table and keep out of the way of her hypersensitive preteen child. She got the younger children to go play out in the backyard and supervised from the porch as she did some paperwork on her laptop.

Jamil had been moody for several months now. He kept to himself in his room or in front of a video game and hardly spoke. Hiba had tried to engage him in conversation and tried to get him to participate in other activities, but he had just grumbled and shrugged and wandered off in an evasive way. Other moms said kids changed and got moody as they started into adolescence, and Hiba supposed that was what was going on, but she was disturbed and worried. It's hard raising children alone, three kids, a condo and a job. Hiba felt she didn't have the time to really spend on Jamil and find out what was wrong.

From time to time she entered the house to fetch something and check on supper cooking in the oven. Her eyes and ears picked up whatever they could as she passed through the family room unobtrusively. Then she quietly started to prepare the evening salad. What was Jamil doing? It was Chris' turn apparently and Jamil and Jake seemed to be. .. was that what you call 'trash talk'? Hiba wasn't sure. They were leaning back looking 'cool' and harassing him in an arrogant manner that she found disturbing. It certainly wasn't polite! It sounded like something those wisecracking teen actors on TV might do, not her polite modest Jamil! But Jamil didn't look like himself at the moment. His facial expression and his voice, his body language, it looked like some act he was playing. Hiba kept quiet, although she was really aching to stop Jamil and make him apologize to Chris. Maybe Jake wasn't someone to invite back. Instead she pretended not to notice and Jamil's friends went home soon after.

Later that evening Hiba tried to have a polite discussion with Jamil about his friends and his behavior. It didn't work. Jamil got all upset, said everyone talked that way at school, and she wouldn't understand. He yelled at her. She found herself raising her voice. She noticed the younger children slip out of the room looking scared. It was really upsetting. Jamil didn't invite any more friends over after that.

So - what would you do if you were Hiba? It is so hard to be a single mom. I caution those who might say she made a fuss over nothing. Such talk among kids is normal. I know that is correct, but it misses the issues.

Jamil is alone at 13, in a middle school environment trying to cope with a social world alien to his home environment. He is trying out social roles with two close friends who are probably good kids also trying to find their way. Most regular American families have problems with their children of this age group. Kids are not following their parents example blindly anymore. They are starting the search for a position in the greater community outside of home. Jamil may act this way with close friends and very differently if confronted in the hall at school by someone or a group from the "in crowd", or by a teacher in class, and he may act very 'normally' from Hiba's perspective when he attends Muslim functions with his family.

However, Mom can't sit down and say, "I know you are trying to find out how to be an adult on your own. Let's discuss different role models." Young people don't have the awareness of self and maturity to understand that kind of discussion. They are reacting instinctively or with a little forethought to specific small events that look enormous in their lives. They have no overview. Most moms don't either. We are usually continuing that mode of action throughout our lives, with continually more experience to self correct from time to time.

Hiba's big problem is being alone raising her children. Yet even if her husband was still present, the situation might not be much different. Too many fathers are so tied up with their work they leave their wives virtually on their own with the kids. And if they are involved, they usually know no more than their wives about what to do, though there is some comfort in working together. Hiba has heard about warning signs to look for that your child might be on drugs (see: www.nida.nih.gov) and Jamil is exhibiting a few of the warning symptoms to her untrained observation. And the behavior is so unexpected and different for her that she feels it is out of her control. The elephant in the room is - what else is going on in Jamil's life that she doesn't know about? She will lie in bed awake at night, when she really needs the sleep for the hectic day ahead, worrying 'what if' to herself.

Stress and worry for both Jamil and Hiba can make roadblocks for any effective communication between the two. From my years of experience in the American Muslim community I cannot overstress the importance of support groups for all of us. I've written about it before. It can be family members, neighbors, or friends who live close by. Internet support groups work up to a point, but the view of a person you get on line can be very different from the view you might get from a real life meeting. People can write about themselves as they want to be. A speaker at the ISNA convention (Islamic Society of North America) this year, addressing the issue of children's use of the internet, declared forcefully that people who are engaged socially with others in their community don't have time to be on the internet. He believed that internet abuse was most common among those who are lonely. Think about your own internet use. I find for myself that my use goes up when not much is going on.

I have seen so many adults select their homes based on the quality of local schools and proximity to work. Rarely have I heard them speak of their need to be close to other Muslims for the social needs of their children and themselves. I've seen many people who have no time for a study group on religion in their busy schedules. They only think of their religion deeply when hit by a crisis. But we respond better to a crisis when we already have a support group in place, and a crisis might be averted or minimized by preventative action, if we develop a support group for both ourselves and our children.

When children grow older, they become more discriminating about who they will play with and select their own friends based on personality and common interests, just like we do. If they are going to live their adult lives in a diverse community, they benefit from experience with a mixed community of children growing up. How can you assist your child and other children in your community? A few concerns I've had observing others:

Often parents arrange their social life for themselves and expect their children to be friends with their friends' children. As the kids grow up they may grow apart and we may need to expand our circle of friends for our children's sakes and manage to tolerate parents we don't particularly enjoy so our children can visit or be in activities with their children.

It is better to view these social experiences as efforts for the sake of Allah (SWT), to assist all of the children in growing up, than to view them as tit for tat, like I invite that family, then they invite us, I drive their child to camp so they should drive up to pick up the children and bring them home. Because we need these activities for our children and other children need these activities. We get reward from Allah for assisting other parents who may be in need but unable to contribute, or who may not appreciate the value of their child's participation.

Listen to the kids. You've arranged a summer program for older girls at the mosque with some other mothers. It's all planned and set up. Then you get the kids together and present the program to them. One of the older girls just wants to go out and play softball like the boys group does. She attracts all the other girls to her idea and in an instant you have the whole group wanting to play softball instead. So modify the plans and take them out (in the 90 degree heat) to play softball! Revise the schedule working with the girls' suggestions, several times if needed over the program time, to accommodate some of your projects and some of theirs. It's a win-win situation because...

Young people can't be left to themselves to organize their own programs. They don't have the skills. They end up 'hanging out' together in a vague random fashion. With adult help they can learn to organize and coordinate together to undertake projects, planning a party or a roller skating event, or conducting their own highway clean-up project. Show them how to elect or select a leader and assign each other to specific tasks. Give them some authority and responsibility, clearly defined and within their capabilities. It's less work for adults and a great learning experience for kids.

How your child will fit as an adult in America is not just a function of going to the right schools to get into an ivy league college. That is about economic success, which has its importance, but the most important success is being at home in a Muslim family and community, within the larger non Muslim population of this country. Do we want our children to be marginalized in a tiny circle of people who treat everything outside their home as a hostile foreign place? Or do we want our children to be so at home with everything 'All American' that they have no Muslim identity? Most Muslims are looking for that middle ground, but don't know how to find it for themselves, let alone guide their children to it. We are doing something new and we need to work together to figure out how that works. Jamil should not be left alone in school trying to figure it out by himself.

Our role changes as our children grow. As they grow older, we need to respect their transformation into adults, responsible for their own decisions. There is no date but a gradual change. And gradually we need to give them more opportunities for testing their judgment and being responsible.

How do you help create good support groups for the children in your community? What responsibility do you have to help other people's children? What talents or abilities do you have to contribute? How might Allah reward you for your effort?