Raising children is never easy. It involves long days, sleepless nights, thankless tasks and the constant, unanswerable question of “am I being a good parent?” The already difficult task of child-rearing becomes even more complicated when your cultural or religious practices differ from those around you.
While America has always been a melting pot with citizens from diverse backgrounds, balancing both an inherited cultural identity and an American identity is not always easy. Those around you will not always understand your traditions or be familiar with your beliefs. This disconnect between you and your neighbors, however innocent it may be, can make it tempting to surrender one part of your identity. You may decide that your cultural heritage is not worth the trouble it takes to explain your traditions to well-meaning, but confused, coworkers. You might also decide that your American identity is not valuable enough to deal with the hassle of finding traditional foods in the local supermarket and begin to isolate yourself in a small community that shares your cultural background. Neither of these options are fulfilling in the long-run especially if you have children. Isolating yourself and your children can negatively impact both your child’s future job and educational opportunities, but throwing away your heritage keeps your children from learning about their background and cultural inheritance.
Teaching children about both sides of their identity is a delicate balancing act and has become even more difficult for Muslims in recent years. Islam has suddenly found itself under the microscope and every American has an opinion or a question about the religion. For as much as American Muslims have found themselves shoved reluctantly into the spotlight, few of their neighbors truly understand Islam. This leads to confusion, frustration, misunderstandings and, sometimes, bigotry. Add a child to that volatile mixture, and the situation becomes more tense. So, what is a Muslim parent to do? Sadly, there is no perfect formula for child-rearing. If there were, it would have been discovered and shared long ago. That said, plenty of advice exists on how to raise children in a variety of situations. Here are seven tips for raising Muslim youth in America.
Model Good Behavior at Home
You are your child’s first teacher. “Do as I say, not as I do,” can be an attractive idea, but is not the best way to raise a child who is already struggling to balance two parts of their identity. If you want your child to grow up to be a good Muslim and a good American citizen, you need to show them how to be both. Take the time to pray as a family and read the Quran together. If you choose to read the text in Arabic, help your child learn the language if they are not already familiar with it. If they are reluctant to learn the language, remind them of the importance of the Arabic language. Arabic is the language the Quran was originally revealed in, and translations of the Quran are in and of themselves an interpretation of the text. For a child or teen who is unwilling to learn another language, remind them that the ability to speak Arabic is a highly valued skill in the modern world. In fact, three of the most desirable traits in employees are the ability to read and speak English, Mandarin Chinese or Arabic.
When it comes to modeling good behavior, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. Avoid mass media that encourages values that are not in line with the values of Islam. You may be able to watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” without feeling tempted toward their un-Islamic lifestyle, but your child may not be able to separate what they see on TV from real life. They may think that what they see in mass media is a desirable way to live. Until you feel confident your child can face those temptations without succumbing to them, you will need to avoid those temptations as well.
Be Prepared For Tough Conversations
Part of being a good role model and a good parent is making sure that your child understands why they must do or cannot do certain things. At some point, your child will ask why he is not allowed to watch the same TV shows as his friend or why she has to be awake for the dawn prayer when her friends can all sleep in on the weekend. If you want your child to embrace and understand both the Islamic side and the American side of their identity, you will have to be prepared to have tough and unpleasant conversations. Your teenage son may not want to fast during Ramadan this year or your daughter may want to know why she is being teased for wearing the hijab. Every parent has to have difficult conversations with their children, but there is an extra level of dread that comes with having to defend or explain deeply important spiritual beliefs. Be prepared to listen to your child’s concerns or confusion and to explain you position to the best of you ability. You might not see eye-to-eye on everything as your child ages, but that is normal. Be there for your child and help support them as they discover what being an American Muslim means to them.
Emphasize Muslim Holidays
Plenty of Muslim families prefer not to have their children take part in secularized versions of Judeo-Christian holidays. While this is understandable, your child might not understand what is un-Islamic about hunting for hidden eggs in the spring or putting presents under a decorated pine tree in the winter. Explaining that your family does not take part in egg hunts or visit Santa in the mall because Easter and Christmas are not based in the Islamic faith will be easier for a child to accept if you emphasize the holidays that are part of Islam. Fill the house with lights at Eid al-Fitr and eat a specific type of sweet only during the festival. If you have specific “Eid al-Fitr” cookies, candy or jellies, the holiday will stand out as more in a child’s mind. Similarly, create a specific set of celebratory traditions that you only do on Eid al-Adha. Let your child stay home from school or stay up extra late. Find ways to make the holy days stand out in their mind so that they are not distracted by Christian festivities or feel that they are “missing out” on secular holidays.
Where appropriate, you can also have your children invite their friends to celebrate with you and your family. Many Americans are happy to learn about other cultures and religions but are unsure if they would be welcome at festivals or ceremonies. For many children, a celebration that involves friends is more memorable and special than one that just involves family members. Reaching out to your children’s peers will also help your child avoid questions about why they were “left out” of Christmas. Your child’s friends will see that Muslims don’t skip holidays but celebrate different holidays. This helps both educate your community and give your child something that they and their friends can speak proudly about at school. “We celebrated Eid al-Fitr this weekend” becomes a much more interesting and exciting statement at school when your child has friends who are happy to join your child in gushing about the lights you set up or the unique foods you cooked.
Help Children Be Proud of Both Sides of Their Identity
Your child may feel uncomfortable about being different from their peers or feel as if they always have one foot in two worlds. A young woman may be self-conscious about being the only one in her public school class who wears the hijab. A young man may be embarrassed at his imperfect Arabic when he speaks to Muslims who attend Islamic schools. Help your child see that losing either side of their identity is a tragedy. It will not necessarily be easy for them to grow up balancing both sides of their identity, but to give up either their faith or their connection to American culture is to throw away half of themselves. Help your children find outside role models who are both Muslim and American. Show them that it is possible to be deeply proud of both your faith and your nation.
It will not be pleasant to discuss, but prepare your child to deal with the challenges that come with being of a different faith than most of their peers. Let them know that they will meet ignorant people who will lash out in anger or fear, but teach your children that they cannot let those who are ignorant drive them into hiding. Anger can lead to isolation, isolation then leads to more anger which leads to further isolation in a vicious downward spiral. In addition to preparing your child for the unpleasant side of life, teach your children that there will be people who celebrate your child’s differences, and then help your child bring those people into their lives.
The odds are good that Muslims will be a minority in your area, so help your children learn how to handle innocent confusion or curiosity from you neighbors. Your child might get frustrated that they are asked the same questions over and over again, or they may come home from school angry at a thoughtless comment made by a classmate. Most people will not be looking to offend or insult your child, but your child may not understand that most of their peers come from a different background. Help your child learn to differentiate between deliberate cruelty and accidental offense. Then, teach them that they always have a choice to educate those around them. It may be tiring to explain religious practices over and over, but each person you or your child educates helps clear away the confusion and sense of “otherness” that surrounds Islam.
Find Common Ground With Non-Muslims
It is extremely unwise to limit your children’s interactions to only other Muslims. This causes your children to grow up in a bubble and does not prepare them for interaction with the wider world. That said, it is understandable that you would prefer your child to not befriend those who have completely un-Islamic values. So, teach your child to find common ground with non-Muslims. Peers who are devout Catholics will understand why your child follows a specific ritual when they pray. Practicing Jews will empathize with your child refusing to eat foods that are haram. Seeking common ground will help your child make friends that share similar basic values, such as sexual morality and the importance of religion in daily life. Having friends who are of different backgrounds but share common morals will also help your child feel less isolated. They will feel less alone because they have found friends who are like them.
Connect With Other Muslims
While having friends from other faiths and backgrounds is important, your child will benefit from having friends who grew up practicing their religion. Encourage your child to join their school’s Muslim Student Association or to study the Quran with other Muslims in your community. Help your children meet their peers from the mosque your family attends or send them to Muslim-specific summer camps.
The explosion of social media makes connecting with other people much easier. While there are dangers of your child getting involved in un-Islamic activities on Facebook or Twitter, the internet can help your child meet other Muslims their age. Be sure, however, to keep an eye on their social media usage. If you are not careful, young children can be exposed to images or idea that are not age appropriate, and teens can find themselves swept up into sexually immoral activities or cyberbullying.
It is never easy to raise a child, and it is even more difficult to raise a son or daughter who will be different from their peers. That said, there is no reason you child cannot embrace both the American and the Muslim side of their identity. Raising a child who chooses to embrace what makes them different requires patience and the ability to have difficult conversations. It will involve teaching your child not just about their faith, but why it is worth the struggles they may face. Rearing a child who is both Muslim and American will also force your child to learn patience, perseverance and how to get along with those of different backgrounds. All of which are useful skills in and of themselves for any Muslim and for any American.