This is the second of two columns in which Hesham Hassaballa, father of three daughters and longtime Beliefnet contributor, explores the challenges of raising moral and faith-conscious children of the texting and social networking generation.
Being a parent in the 21st century presents challenges that are unprecedented. The technology available to our children is unlike any our nation has ever seen before. My daughters are making Powerpoint presentations for school--something completely unheard of when I was their age. Through cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, and social networking sites, our children can be connected to an entire world of people. It is simply amazing.
But at the same time, with this tremendous technological advance comes potential danger. Online predators abound on the internet, and who knows how many 11-year-old "friends" on Facebook are actually 41-year-old pedophiles looking for their next victim. Our children do not want to be left out of these social networks--Lord knows how much I hated to feel like an outsider when I was a kid--but at the same time, they may not understand how dangerous our world truly is. And we do not want them to find out the hard way.
Standing in the middle of all this are parents, and we struggle to find the right balance between allowing our children to experience the world around them and protecting them from harm. I know I struggle with this dilemma, and I don't know where to draw the line. But I have to figure this out soon, because, although my daughters are young now, they will soon be asking for their own cell phone, then a computer, then a Facebook account, then car, then ... who knows.
As a Muslim, I naturally try to answer my parenting questions with my faith: What would Islam advise about parenting our children in the age of cell phones, chatrooms, instant messaging,YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace? Well, nothing specifically, but it does lay down principles from which I can base my parenting goals. After reflecting for a long time, for which I am glad that I had to write this column, I have tried to come up with a few basic fundamentals when it comes to raising my kids in this high-tech era. Hopefully these tips will be of use to you:
Teach Kids that God Loves Them
One thing I wish I had been taught growing up was that God loved me. I was taught that God will punish me if I do anything wrong. I admit, it kept me in line as a teenager: I really never got into trouble. But that was also because I had a number of goals I wanted to accomplish in life, and so I made a "deal" of sorts with God: If You give me what I want, I will do what You want.
But this kind of teaching is fraught with danger, because the child can grow up with an image of a God that is cold, distant, and cruel-hearted. That is not the God whom I worship now. The God to whom I bow five times daily is a beautiful, loving, merciful, kind Lord, always ready and willing to embrace me when I come calling. He loves to shower His grace and mercy over his devoted servant, and He does not tire from hearing our incessant begging for more.
Whenever we do make a mistake, His forgiveness is overwhelming and readily accessible. Everything we have in our lives is a direct result of His love and mercy, and I want my children to know that through and through. Because if they know how much God loves them (and Islam teaches us that God loves us 70 times more than our own mother does), then hopefully they will want to do the right thing to honor that love.
Teach Kids to Live in the Light of God’s Love
Once children know and understand that God loves them, the next step is to live in the light of that love. This means that since God loves us so much, it is only right and honorable that we love Him back. And we must show that love for God by doing what God asks of us to the best of our ability. That means staying away from the things that God does not like. So would God like us to avoid Facebook? I don't know the exact answer, but I believe He would not want us to lose ourselves in it. He wants us to be modest in our deeds and actions—in person and online. When couched in the perspective of loving God back for all of His undying love, it is not a burden, but a welcome sacrifice for one's Beloved.
If I can teach my children to love and honor God because He loved us first, that will go a long way toward making them be good, upright children who do not get into trouble. But relying solely on this is horribly naïve, I know. I remember what it was like to be a teenager: So many forces pulling in so many different directions. It is a maddening time of one's life, and truly, you could not pay me enough money to relive those years of my life. So, along with teaching our children that God loves them and to live in that love, we have to inject some practicality when it comes to raising our kids in the 21st century.