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)?”
“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.