Nine year old Ahmed is hunched over the kitchen table tears streaming from his eyes. Its 8.30 in the evening and his homework is still far from complete, his mothers repeated admonishments "Get on with it!, Won't you ever listen?" falls on deaf ears. Ahmed responds in a frustrated tone "Stop bugging me..." he quickly finds his angry father standing over him, hand raised, yelling: "I've told you 100 times… stop speaking to your mother this way. You play around every night!"
Should parenting be so difficult, was it always this way? Quite often we hear the older generation complaining about the young being less respectful these days with much less discipline and drive. Many parents today know instinctively that something is amiss. Children are not the same we remember ourselves to be. They seem to be less innocent, more bothered, they don't seem to have a positive sense of who they are. Many are prone to self-destructive habits and are finding it very difficult to maintain relationships. They don't seem to listen or embrace our values as their own.
Listening to a lot of the frustrations younger parents are having, there is a sense that parenting has also changed. It seems a lot more difficult than it should, more tense and not as natural. Because of these frustrations we find ourselves lecturing our children in tones that seem harsh even to ourselves, in many cases we have become cold and resort quickly to punishment in times that require compassion.
The situation seems ironic considering the increase that we know more today about children's psychology then we ever did, thousands of books and courses on how to parent, what to do down to the very week in the child's development, something that the older generation would laugh at.
So what's gone so wrong? If purely loving our kids and having the best intention is not enough then what is it that is needed?
Parenting is not all about what the parent does for the child or what the parent provides but it is everything about who the parent is to the child. When our children have a desire to be close to us then we will have the ability to guide and nurture them. But as long as that closeness is not present, we will tire ourselves endlessly with no result. All the parenting skills learnt in the world, all best intentions we have in our heart will be of no avail.
It is for this reason there is one constituent that is absolutely necessary and without it there is no hope. That is what developmental psychologists call 'the attachment relationship'. That is for the child to be open to the parent he must be actively attached to the parent, he must be wanting that connection and closeness to the parent. Children without this attachment are extremely difficult to parent and even teach. Instead of asking the question on how do I get my son to do this or do that, the question we need to be asking is how attached is my child to me and is there a sense of mutual closeness.
What is the basis of this attachment relationship? It is not an attachment of physical or financial dependency or an attachment based on lineage. Apart from the need for food and physical shelter, children have other emotional needs. The need of receiving attention, being seen for who they are, and being approved of for who they are and not for what they do. Being accepted, being valued, and being esteemed all forms the basis of a healthy attachment relationship.
One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents is when we don't have this type of attachment relationship, emotional closeness and our children start to distance themselves, then to have an influence we start to threaten the physical dependency attachment and use our authority and the relationship as a ransom. "as long as you live under my roof." "I will take away your toys if you don't" " you won't come with us if you don't" and the worst of all "I will give you a hiding if you don't". All these threats and admonishments only deepen and emphasise the lack of connection that has already been lost, but the parent feels it is the only power they have left. Unfortunately, that power will be short lived until the child is independent.
Attention & Validation
If as parents we lack this attachment it will not only make parenting impossible but will have a tremendously negative effect on the child's life. As humans we need this type of attachment and if we don't get it at home from the very people who are responsible for giving it, we will tire ourselves out in life looking for it in every crack and corner and allow our authenticity to slip away just to get that attention. We will want to attract attention all the time in any way we can.
If you didn't get the approval you needed, you will become obsessed with winning it. Maybe it will be your looks that get you that attention, that's why we have a billion dollar cosmetic industry. Or maybe it will be your work that drives you to work tirelessly just to be approved of. Maybe you will be trapped in abusive dysfunctional relationships just to feel some love. Or maybe you will become the super nice guy that says yes to everyone at the expense of himself and family. Maybe the 'tough guy' or the drug dealer so people need you. Or maybe just to escape the void that is missing inside you will just fill it with drugs that give you some relief. . As long as you are measuring up to people's expectations of you and it gives you some sort of sense of value, deep down you know you are a phony because you are giving them what they want, not who you are.
This is not about blaming the parents but it is about understanding the important role and responsibility we have in shaping the child's life. A medical journal "paediatrics" published from the Harvard Center of the Developing Child it states, "The architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth, continues into adulthood, and establishes either a sturdy or a fragile foundation, for all the health, learning, and behaviour that follows."
Rusul Allah has indicated to us in hadith clearly just how important and influential the parent is in shaping the child's mind, life and Imaan "No child is born but that he is upon fitrah (natural instinct). Then his parents make him a Jew, or a Christian, or Magian.
In simple terms, the most important influence on the heart and Imaan of a child as well physiological development of the child's brain and the personality as well future behaviour is contingent upon the quality of adult-child relationships, and the mutual responsiveness of that relationship, 'emotional attachment'. So how can we build a positive attachment relationship with our children?
It is every Muslims desire that their children grow up, with Imaan with a closeness to Allah but also with a sense of self and that they don't endure unnecessary physical and emotional harm in their life. To help them achieve this our children need to be open to us parenting them and guiding them. This will only come when our children are emotionally attached to us.
If we have ever had the opportunity to see a family living in complete harmony and love, in a relaxed environment with emotionally stable well adjusted children, this was not a result of chance, but rather a result of hard work on the parents part to develop good attachment relationships with their children. This attachment provides a safe space that allows for mutual communication and a loving environment in which a child's development can flourish. A successful parent-child relationship is built on good communication and compassion with encouraging positive attitudes.
Unfortunately the main parenting style that our community has chosen is often the opposite of this, an authoritarian style of parenting, where the parent demands obedience and severely punishes disobedience. We often focus on prevention of bad conduct and the behavior itself, instead of focussing on the attachment relationship. Fear and control are used as well as rigid rule enforcement and domination, there is a complete lack of mutual parent-child dialog.
Although control and fear can drive quick results, these results are short lived and are at the expense of the relationship and the child's long term development. This domineering attitude gives birth to many emotional problems within the child and completely severs the attachment relationship.
The Messenger of Allah achieved such a positive change amongst both individuals and society in such a short period of time, yet he did not use a domineering authoritarian approach. The people around him felt a bond and closeness to him, not just because he was the final messenger but because of his character and his care and concern for each of them. It was due to his softness, his gentle nature, his ability to nurture and accept people. He was never harsh hearted or severe with them. He taught love, kindness and compassion to his people, and was seen to be the most loving, kind, and compassionate of all of them.
He gave time to children; he was gentle and soft with them; he treated them with respect and never raised his voice towards them. Anas ibn Malik said: I served the Prophet for ten years. By Allah, he never even said to me, "Uff!" He never said harshly to me, "Why did you do that?" or, "Why did you not do that?" He would play with Hussan and Hussain and carry his granddaughter Umamah on his shoulders, he showed respect and honour to Fatima. As soon as Fatimah, the daughter of the Messenger, entered the room where the Messenger was, he would stand, take her hands, and make her sit where he was sitting". He would ask about her health and family, show his paternal love for her and compliment her. It was this love and kindness that made Zaid ibn Haritha prefer to be a slave and in the company of Rusul Allah over freedom and his own father.
Achieving a strong attachment relationship and positive results with our children will require this same level of care, kindness and concern. "Im your mother" or "im your father" or "Its haram to disobey your parents", will allow you to have control, but won't allow you to parent. Intuitively we all understand this, but the next question that pops into our mind, then how do we get a child to stop undesirable behaviour? Almost as if we have the belief that discipline and training requires harshness. Yes, Imposing order on a child's behaviour is one of the greatest challenges as a parent, and a necessary one in guiding a child, but the way we go about it can make or break our attachments.
We live in a society that focuses on instant gratification so we tend to use disciplinary methods that yield quick results: removal of privileges, ignoring, tough love, impose sanctions, corporal punishment. We think we have been successful because we only focus on stopping the behaviour and we are not considering the relationship and the long term effects. These forms of discipline only create a hardening in our children, they trigger destructive emotional defenses and destroy the attachment relationship.
Parenting is a connection and one that is meant to be enjoyed. It's not only about telling our children what to do and when to do it; It's not just about what we want. Its about enjoying them and sharing in their joys and sorrows, walking with them, playing with them, being attuned to them, smiling and laughing together. Like any relationship if there was only orders from one side, only disappointment, only discipline, no respect or positive affirmation then eventually the attachment breaks.
There are many valuable resources written on parenting and there is not certainly one way of dealing with every unique child. But whatever way we choose its foundations must be love, gentleness and compassion and in every decision or interaction we have with our children we have to consistently question "will this aid in the long term development of the child and their attachment to me?".
When our children are small the problems are small, we have to learn to overlook things and not be obsessed with them doing everything right, allow them to enjoy and explore, to mess to scream, allow them to develop their own unique personality, don't force them to be what you want. The shouting, the screaming, the threats, the shaming, the comparisons, the admonishments will only create destructive beliefs in them that will cripple their future. .
Of course if they do something that is harmful to them then remind them gently and when they don't listen then remind them gently again. Droplets of water hitting a rock over a period of time eventually cracks the rock. When you find yourself getting frustrated then remember your connection with them and your responsibility to them. When they get to an age of understanding and the problems and threats get bigger you will be able to use your attachment in a positive way to guide them.
Above all parenting is a relationship and relationships don't lend themselves to strategies they are based on intuition and parenting intuition we all possess. We do not require skills or strategies, we require compassion, love, principles and insights. If you are finding yourself hard and harsh, not enjoying this gift then understand that our ability to manage a child effectively is very much born out of a capacity to manage ourselves. So we need to find the same compassion for ourselves that we wish to extend to our children. Don't be too hard on yourself, accept that we are all fallible and our darker emotions may get the better of us. Children are forgiving and they want our love, take responsibility for your shortcomings and continue to develop yourself. Remember! your child's future: emotion, physical and mental is dependent on the care you give them and the relationship you have.