Kids are little adults. In spiritual terms, the same diseases of the heart that we see in adults, begin to manifest at an early age. At age five, one can already identify leaders and followers. One can already see racism (learned at home), and manipulative behavior. There are also positive traits, like generosity and compassion. When a child falls down, why do some children stop and ask “Are you OK?” while others run and play? Why does one child share cookies while another hoards them to himself?
As I embark on my second stint teaching in an Islamic school, I am compelled to recollect the methods and lessons learned when I accidentally became an Islamic school kindergarten teacher last year. As someone who had no children and had never even babysat prior to the job, my introduction to children was a baptism by fire. This forced me to learn in a very short timespan, what many teachers were taught over years of methods courses and teaching practicums. I make no pretension to knowing the names of these techniques. These are the time-tested methods that got this amateur through a year of kindergarten madness, and turned me into someone who is now confident in her ability to handle children.
Attention is Itself a Reward
Sometimes keeping silent about bad behavior is the best way of censuring it. Attention is a reward to be given to those who deserve it. Sapping all our energy on zeroing in on bad behavior is not only counterproductive but unfair to other kids who do behave and who see all the attention go towards the misbehaving.
At storytime, some children will continue to talk and squirm while others sat attentive and ready for the story. One by one I zero in on the positive, “I see Abdallah sitting nicely. Wow, I see Aisha quiet and ready to hear the book, thank you Aisha. Muhammad is ready. Who else?”
Like magic, the offenders straighten up and copy those who got the positive attention. One could say this is manipulative, because I purposefully ignore the other children, however, what is discipline other than the careful manipulation of human responses to create a better human being? This is also a way of avoiding embarrassment of the offending children, who are given attention but only when they do something positive.
This method takes time and practice. It is almost counterintuitive and you may find yourself reverting to calling out the negative behavior. But stick to the method as much as possible. The tone of the classroom will change to one of harsh scolding to constant praise.
Explain Things Simply, And Use a Logical Order
Many of us lecture children with complex themes and difficult words. We are not talking to them at their level. They are so caught up in their simple object of desire (a toy) that sometimes all we need to do is remind them what they just did, and appeal to their human compassion.
For example, a boy takes another boy’s toy. I say,
“Ahmed was happy with his toy and you took it from him. How do you think he feels now?”
“If I take your toy how will you feel?”
“How can you make Ahmed happy?”
“Give him the toy.”
You are also teaching compassion. When we say, “It’s his, give it back,” we are teaching simplistic property rights, not the essential quality of sharing.
Humans like to turn their heads away from the shameful things they do. Most of the time, the toy-stealer will be involved in explaining to you why they are right. They don’t look at the crying child at all. I tell the toy-stealer to look at the other child (usually crying.) This by itself can have an effect.
Go Beyond Scolding and Use “Instead”
Sometimes we are a “Don’t Factory.” Don’t do this, don’t do that. We give children (especially Muslim children) a long list of don’t and “harams.” “Don’t run in the musalla,” we say, but we don’t give them an “Instead” such as “Sit down and ask Allah for good things. Pray for me, your parents, friends, etc.”
We tell a child, “Don’t take things from others.” But we don’t give them the social skills of how to get what they want. Nine times out of ten, when I ask the child, “Did you ask to use it?” they say No.
I teach them the 3 Sharing Steps.
2) (If they say no) “Can I Use it When You’re Done?” (most of the time the kid says yes)
3) Wait (if you wait a long time, go to the teacher)
Most of the time the first kid will eventually hand the toy to the kid who wants it. Or the kid who wants it goes on to play and forgets his request for the toy. If the kid comes to me after significant time waiting, I then tell the other child to give him the toy.
Sometimes they do step 1 and not 2. I ask them, and they recall step 2. Or they do step 2 and fail to wait. I make them recall what they should have done next. Without the 3 Step Rule, kids don’t know how to get what they want.
One boy was an only son and spoiled by his family. He was very bossy at home and at school. When playing a game, if something went wrong he exclaimed, “Cheater!” This obviously put the other child on the defensive and paved the way for yet another argument.
I wrote these bossy statements on the board alongside better statements:
“Cheater!” becomes, “I think you made a mistake.”
“Gimme!” becomes, “Can I have that?”
“Move!” becomes, “Excuse me.”
Everytime he used a bossy statement, I pointed to the better one and read it for him. After a while his speech became less bossy. He had a better way to say what he wanted to say, and the others responded better to him. He seemed noticeably happier using these statements instead of the old ones. He must have felt relieved to not have to fight tooth and nail anymore, and I felt the same!
Don’t Make Allah an Extension of Yourself
If you are accustomed to zeroing in on negative things, you may attribute the same behavior to God. You think that by invoking someone higher than yourself, the kid will listen even if they don’t listen to you. You are actually using the same faulty method, just trying to up the stakes.
When kids do positive things, do we say, “Allah likes it that you do that,” or “I bet Allah is very proud of you,” or “Wow, the angels must be really busy writing down your good deeds!”
Or do we only mention Allah for negative behaviors, “ Allah doesn’t like that,” “Allah will be angry with you,” etc. You can use this, but do justice to reality: Allah notices good and bad.
Don’t reduce Allah to a big parent who only sides with mom and dad. If you do something wrong, be honest. “Mommy did something wrong. Now I have to tell Allah I’m sorry.” Now the child realizes that Allah is above sides; he is al Haqq (the Truth!), and he sides with whatever is truthful and good. You are also modeling repentance, not some unrealistic ideal.
Problems Unique to Islamic School
Most Islamic Schools are diverse, and all of them place a heavy emphasis on learning Arabic. This of course, is because we want to empower all Muslims to be able to read the Quran in its original language. But for children who speak Arabic at home, they see other students who can’t and feel superior.
I saw two Arabic-speaking boys tell a Somali boy, “We speak Arabic. Do you?” The answer, of course, was no. The boys then asked him what various words in Arabic meant (they knew he would not be able to answer). The other boy did his best to guess, but naturally, he didn’t know. The intended effect of excluding him was achieved and the other boys felt proud of their Arabic (language of the Quran after all). I stepped in,
“Abdul raheem, can you teach me a Somali word? Whisper it in my ear.”
He then whispered the Somali word for ‘food’ in my ear.
I pronounced the Somali word to the Arab boys and asked, “What does it mean?”
They didn’t know.
I said, “Why not? Me and Abdul raheem know what it means.”
Abdulraheem then told them what it meant. I told them that Allah made all kinds of people and languages. In this way I signified to the other boys that there were things they didn’t know either. As the teacher I also lent some importance to the Somali language by showing an interest in it. This boosted Abdulraheem’s confidence and opened the other boys minds to how they had treated Abdulraheem and how it must have felt for him.
Immigrant parents, especially, pride themselves on creating docile girls. One parent had a problem with how much his daughter laughed and spoke loudly, by his standards. Parents need to understand that in the American context a girl who is docile can be considered weak and a pushover. I don’t think anyone wants their daughter to grow up and model vulnerability, especially if she eventually ends up in a co-ed middle or high school. We need to probe the deeper meanings of modesty, and not just be satisfied with its supposed outward signs. Also, we know that the Prophet was so modest he was chided for being feminine. But do we require this same modesty from our sons? If we applied this standard of modesty from our sons then maybe we would have an argument for demanding so much of it from our girls. For now, I am not seeing much logic in creating a nation of soft-spoken girls, while the boys brag about who “owned” who in the latest videogame. Male modesty seems theoretical, at best!
Also, little girls see that it is the boys who lead the prayer. We are shy to say that little boys will be expected to be leaders of their homes and that we even have this concept in Islam. This responsibility includes the opportunity to “mess up” and be held accountable, so this perceived advantage is a double-edged sword. We are also shy as women to lead the other girls in prayer, even though this is something girls should know is permissible by most schools.
Which of these methods are new to you? What will you apply? Happy parenting/teaching!