Part of the Teaching Your Child Salat series
Don’t start unless you won’t stop?
Another sister had just finished telling me how she had discouraged her teenage daughter from wearing the hijab. “She asked me to wear it,” she said, “but I didn’t want her to put it on and then take it off again.” In my head, I reacted with astonishment. Isn’t any step closer to God a good step? Why would you discourage this? I mentally resolved that I would never do such a thing with my own child or future children. Outside my head, I said nothing, still trying to form tentative bonds and understand this woman’s struggles, but having difficulty. She had told me several stories of the difficult of raising her children and the backlash from her non-muslim family, and it was obviously a strain on her, so I was sympathetic, but at the same time the side of me which attempted to immediately solve everyone’s problems rared to make suggestions, while the side of me that tries very very hard to get along with people squelched it.
I don’t want to pray
The call to prayer sounded over a crackly loudspeaker and the collection of women and children in the room lined up, some mothers calling rowdy kids to order. I invited my son to stand with me. While he rarely joined in salat at home (though he had more often as a toddler), he usually followed along willingly when we were at some type of group event. But this time, he balked and whined quietly, did he have to? I hesitated, but as the other kids tore around the room noisily misbehaving, I decided he was going to have to stand with me, and told him to do so. He reluctantly did. I was troubled, both at myself at making him join me when he didn’t want to, and when it was not obligatory for him to do so, and at his new reluctance. I did not want to instill dislike in him for salat before it was even required for him. Perhaps the other rowdy and crying children were a bad example. One mother was loudly and harshly shushing her kids to sit down in the back and be quiet; they were not joining the prayer, even the older ones. Perhaps I should not have come, I thought, recalling other negative masjid experiences which had turned me off from other locations. It was rare to see another child than my own even following along, and now, he was complaining too. My heart sank, as we prayed, punctuated by the cries of another child who was even more demonstratively unhappy with the situation. Whatever my expectations of the new masjid had been, which were already quite low considering other previous experiences, they were being reset even lower. My main goal in attempting to connect with a new community, I told myself, had been to find connections for my son… I no longer expected to be welcomed with open arms and introduced to family members. But even benefiting him looked like a lost cause.
Prayer is not for me
Such was my ability to spin doom quite rapidly, perhaps increased by a long drive and exhaustion. On the way home, I decided to stop by another masjid in the area, but as usual got a bit turned around in my driving directions. As I tooled up and down the same road for the 3rd time, I mentioned that we might, if we could find this other masjid, be able to stop there for the late afternoon, or Asr, prayer. My son mumbled something from the backseat about how he did not think prayer was for him. I countered that nothing would benefit him more in the course of his life. After a moment, he said in a frustrated voice that he just didn’t know how to do it. I was slightly surprised at this. As my son was only 5, I had not instructed him on the specifics of how to pray salat, due to a hadith recommending that such instruction begin at age 7. Prayer is not even considered obligatory until one reaches puberty and becomes responsible for one’s own actions, so while I often invited him to join me, with the exception of today’s event in the masjid I had not pressed him to do so. However, he had observed me praying all his life, and occasionally imitated it, and seemed to have no difficulty “following along” in the motions when he decided to do so beside me. My son was aware, as I had mentioned it before to him, that I wasn’t planning to teach him until he was 7, though I privately hoped that it would happen that he would be interested in learning at some point and not have it be a chore. This was one reason I’d never done more than ask if he would like to join before. I didn’t want him to view it negatively as something he “had” to do.
If I can’t do it well, I don’t want to do it
His frustrated voice reminded me of his frustration with doing some writing exercises recently. I then recollected that when he was not good at something or could not master it easily, and became frustrated, it sometimes turned into dislike and he wanted to abandon the whole project. Perhaps he had inherited a little perfectionism, expressed in a different avenue than my own (I didn’t remember giving up on writing a sentence because of being afraid of misspelling a word!). “You know that I wasn’t going to teach you salat until you turn 7,” I began said slowly and tentatively, “but would you feel better doing salat if I taught you how to do it properly?” His response was immediate and enthusiastic, “Yes, please teach me now! I want to learn how to do it properly! Mommy, I really want to learn!” I was taken aback and delighted. Such a simple thing, that he only wanted to know how to do it properly and he disliked to make a mistake. I felt amazed and grateful that he was so enthusiastic about learning salat, before he even needed to, and what a turnaround from his previous attitude when I asked him to join in. I thought to myself, “What a benefit going to this new group has been, even if this is the only thing that comes out of it,” and the feelings of doom and gloom vanished away.
With my new knowledge, there’s no limit to what I can do!
I set about right away to teach my son salat, while his enthusiasm was fresh. And it stayed fresh. He was very excited. He already knew the basic movements, but I went over them anyway. I told him that I was going to start out with him praying along with me, and he could follow along, but I would recite aloud and teach him the words and meanings of each step as we continued. Later, as we started talking about the 5 daily prayers, I realized that there might be a little TOO much enthusiasm. He planned to stay up for Isha (past his bedtime) and get up for Fajr (considerably before his normal rising time) along with me. And if I knew him, he wouldn’t be going back to sleep after Fajr, and would be extremely cranky on such a restricted sleep schedule, which would become even more restricted as the summer came. The prophet Mohammed (pbuh) had more than one thing in mind, I think, when advising of the general guidelines around teaching children. My son has always been a pretty good sleeper, and those nights when it is altered are not generally fun for anyone. I was also reminded of his extreme enthusiasm at the outset of the Ramadan 2 years ago when he had insisted that he was not only going to get up for suhoor (the pre-dawn, pre-fasting meal), but he was going to fast too! Needless to say, the plan to fast did not last, there is a reason small children are not required to do so :). I did end up allowing him to get up for suhoor on days when he would be able to sleep in afterwards.
Never say never…
However, I did not want him to start learning salat and then get burned out on it being too difficult by attempting too much at once at such a young age. It was all very well to abandon fasting after such a first attempt, as I reassured him that it was not necessary for him to fast all day yet, but learning the salat was a more involved process, and abandoning it due to difficulty would not help in later years when it became required. I feared he would remember the difficulty and view it as being too hard and the enthusiasm would disappear…. so I did not want him to start, and then give it up. And another thing surfaced. I remembered, uncomfortably, my objection to this same argument presented by the other sister about her daughter wanting to wear hijab. Suddenly, I began to understand what she meant. I who had promised myself only the day before that I would never discourage my child from pursuing an act of worship, began to question my reasoning. At the same time, though I felt renewed compassion for this sister’s struggles, I still did not feel comfortable with the idea of telling someone not to do something obligatory. I settled on the fact that for my son, the 5 salat was not obligatory, in fact none of it was obligatory yet. So I would start him out with fewer salat, and when the time came that it was obligatory, it would seem easy. Perhaps, I reflected, I would be able to handle an imaginary daughter’s hijab the same way… let her try it if she wished before it was obligatory, to become comfortable, and show her how to wear it. I had imagined that reaching the age of 7 and being allowed to learn salat would be something of a privilege… perhaps like reaching the age of hijab and being “allowed” to wear it, as I had heard some people describe the transition. But I realized, as I had many times before with my son, that people are different: for some, being able to try something, master it, and feel comfortable in it is worth much more.
I love to do what I’m good at!
So, I started my son out with 3 salat per day, and I explained this to him… there was a bit of complaining about wanting to stay up for all 5, but after a day or two we realized that actually 2 was a lot more manageable, and there were no complaints that time :P. We are sticking with 2 per day for now. I think with him at least this has proved to be the right balance where he can quickly master and feel confident in it, without wearing himself out or trying to be too extreme. I reminded him of the hadith about not trying to go to extremes in worship, like fasting all the time or standing all night in prayer, and compared this to him starting gradually until he had learned how to do it. This satisfied, and his enthusiasm has stayed strong!