How do we instill Islamic values in our children?

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Dear Hadi,

In this contemporary era, where various challenges and opposing ideologies to Islam prevail, how can Muslims successfully instill values of respect, love, and adherence to their faith in their children?

Specifically, what strategies can be employed to raise sons who embody the principles of proper Muslim manhood and daughters who embrace modesty, willingly don the Hijab, and dress modestly?

Furthermore, how can parents safeguard their children from the influences that may lead to doubt, departure from Islam, and disdain, as observed in the experiences of some ex-Muslims?

Dear Concerned Parent,

Thank you very much for asking what is really the most important question in our lives as American Muslims. 

Obviously, it is a difficult question to grapple with. 

What you are hoping for is a truly big ask – it is the excellence in faith that we all want for ourselves and our children. 

We believe a solid core Islamic identity is necessary for such an achievement. This is a necessary condition but perhaps not a sufficient one. 

If that is established, how does one rise to the level you beautifully characterized? 

Our sincere answer is that we do not know. Still, we believe that this represents a gift from Allah SWT, perhaps as the acceptance of the supplication of righteous parents whom God has decided to bless in their children; for example, He (SWT) accepted the prayer of the mother of Mariam (as) for her daughter in Quran 3:37:
“And thereupon her Sustainer accepted her with goodly acceptance, and caused her to grow up in goodly growth…”

However, the first step, probably of most concern for our readers, is establishing a solid Islamic identity, which can blossom into what you have described. 

We will try our best to give specific and concrete pieces of advice to do that.

The critical point to stress is that childhood and adolescent identity is essentially a function of family and peer groups. 

This has been substantiated by significant research. Those are the two sets of influences that need to be focused on. 

An obvious but difficult-to-achieve corollary is that the odds of success are much higher if the two influences positively reinforce each other rather than work at cross-purposes.

Regarding family, Islamic identity has to be strong in the entire family.

Several suggestions for this include setting aside a specific hour each week, for example, Sunday evenings, to study something about Islam together.

Children can be encouraged to memorize the Quran and given rewards based on that.

As they get older, reading together some Quran or seerah of the Prophet, pbuh, and discussing it can be done in the “Islamics hour.” 

For example, set aside a prayer that will be done together as a family, such as the Maghrib prayer, and make that a habit.  

Additionally, when planning outings or trips, explicit discussions must be had with the children that “we need to say our prayers, so how and when will we do that?” 

We know many families that when they go to Disneyland, they will discuss with their children that “we cannot miss our prayers, and so we will go to the nurse’s station at Disneyland, or we will find an out-of-the-way place and say our prayers together.”

Many have found, and we recommend, the practice of sometimes praying in public, such as at a park or at a place like Disneyland (of course, when the situation is not dangerous or threatening). 

This helps children and adolescents understand that this is their identity and that they should not be shy or embarrassed about it.

Other families have a very strong focus on Ramadan.

We know of a family that actually buys 30 small toys for each of their children and gives them one toy per day during Ramadan to make the month very special.

Conversely, they de-emphasize Christmas and do not engage in putting up a Christmas tree or Christmas lights, etc., while at the same time, of course, being respectful of the faith of others.

This helps cement the notion that “we are different.”

We do not want to get into the issue of whether hijab is mandatory or not, etc. However, we believe it positively influences identity formation for the entire family. It sends a clear message that the family is Muslim, and for the Muslim young woman, it is also a message to her peers.  

All of these “big” practices can be supplemented by small but important habits, such as always trying to say “insha’Allah” regarding any planned activities, building that into the family vocabulary, gently reminding children when they forget, and showing pleasure and pride when they remember.

Similarly, when you start driving the car, say out loud, “Bismillah.” These are small things, but they are consequential.

The second issue is that of peers, which becomes increasingly important as children grow into adolescence.

Once again, social psychology research has repeatedly shown the importance of the peer group in determining identity and influencing behavior.

Children’s peers influence their personality and behavior, affecting their choice of friends. Therefore, a vicious cycle can develop very quickly where peers exert a bad influence, making children choose bad friends, and so forth. This negative influence has been termed “peer contagion” in social psychology.

A link to a well-known technical paper in this field is given below: 
Peer Contagion in Child and Adolescent Social and Emotional Development

This wisdom is well-encapsulated in the Prophet’s well-known hadith:
“The person follows the way (religion) of his friend. Therefore, let each of you be cognizant of whom you befriend.”

Therefore, we suggest that, If at all possible, have your children go to an Islamic school.

This exerts a very significant effect on their identity and provides them with a Muslim peer group. Children pray together, fast together, and identify as Muslims in a way that is very difficult to replicate without this setting.

We have seen, for example, in Islamic schools, the positive peer pressure to fast during Ramadan is so much that children are asked to bring a note from their parents explicitly permitting them to fast.  They want so much to be like their peers who do fast that some of them confabulate and say that their parents have asked them to fast or given permission for them to do so.

This sort of positive peer pressure cannot be easily replicated in another environment.

Also, involvement in your local Islamic community, Muslim youth groups, attending Islamic camps, and Islamic summer programs are all important.

Basically, your child’s peer group should have a very large Muslim component to it.

Finally, we suggest limiting social media, television, and the Internet.

There should be parental controls on what can be watched or what websites can be accessed. 

Current studies show that virtually all teenagers (95%) use social media, with a third of those reporting that they use it almost constantly.

Multiple studies have shown that high levels of social media use among children and adolescents can have many adverse effects on mental health, self-esteem, and body image.

A link from the Mayo Clinic is included below with suggestions about how to protect teenagers:
Tween and Teen Health

What teenagers see online and on television significantly anchors their point of view about what is right and what is wrong. Take, for example, the issue of avoiding promiscuity.

Since we are presuming that you and your family watch television, we pose a simple question: when is the last time that any character on any television show in your memory has stated that they will abstain from sex until marriage? 

In our experience, this does not exist.

The constant and pervasive message is that having sex outside of marriage is as normal as eating, drinking, or simply having friends.

This is a very difficult influence to undo simply because you say it is wrong.

These are a lot of suggestions, and that is because trying to raise children with a genuine Islamic identity in a society where the general ethos goes against this is a truly daunting challenge.

We wish you much success and blessings from God in your efforts to raise your children.

In peace.

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