Boys and Compassion

The popular image of a household of boys is a household in turmoil, with odd creatures brought inside and strange antics taking place everywhere you look. But like most popular images, it’s a myth.

Part of the myth is that boys like to pick on each other and even strangers and of course hapless parents. But boys can be as compassionate as girls are, and much of it does not have to be taught.

I’ve already mentioned how my oldest son treated his baby brother at first. There was a period of adjustment. But once my second son could walk and they began interacting more, they became best friends. And as my oldest grew he took on his role of protector for his brothers. He’s still protective of those he loves, and caring for all.

My second son has always been especially compassionate. I remember when he was little, not more than two, and I was upset about something. He patted me and let me know it would be okay. He still has a very gentle nature and is willing to go out of his way to help a friend.

My third son was quiet when he was little, much quieter than the other two, and mischievous when he got older. But as he’s matured he has become fiercely compassionate and caring. He won’t stand for hypocrisy or injustice and he’s not afraid to speak up or take action when needed.

My fourth son is a scholar and always has been. He spoke his first word when he was six months old. When he was little he used his intellect to study dinosaurs. Now he studies social concepts and works on solutions to help others. He’s also ready with a helping hand.

My fifth is quiet and you would think he would blend into the background. But he never does. He also stands strong against what he sees what’s wrong. His poetry and his rap are full of awareness. On a personal level, he will do everything he can to make someone comfortable.

My youngest is very involved in the life of the family and those around him. He’ll gladly wash the dishes, carry a load, or speak out against a wrong. He wants to know more about the world around him and find solutions, big or small.

I’m not writing about my boys to brag about them. The point is that they are strong men who aren’t afraid to care, to show empathy and compassion. Too often, even now in the 21st century, there is sometimes the idea that a strong man can’t show any softness. But the truly strong man doesn’t care how others see him. He only cares about making a positive difference in the lives of others.




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Boys. . .And Girls

As I mentioned, I grew up in an all-girl household. And when I was in high school and had a boyfriend (years before I became a Muslim) I used to wonder if he talked about me with his family or his guy friends. I talked about him, but was it the same with guys?

As far as I know, it isn’t. Guys have a very rich life outside of thinking about girls. Of course, I know that my boys haven’t told me everything, and they always manage to have secrets between them and among them. But, in general, boys simply aren’t as caught up in thinking about the opposite sex as girls are–not the in dreamy way anyway, though maybe in the way they would never discuss with their mother.

Boys do think about girls, I know that, whether or not they obsess over them. And while we Muslim parents don’t allow dating, there are ways to deal with this:

The first is fasting. I’ve recommended this to each of my boys at various times, and it’s the Sunnah. When they’re focused on worship, they’ll be thinking less about that cute girl. Worship can also include praying more and going to the masjid more.

The second is hard work. Having a job helps. Physical labor helps even more. If they’re spending part of their weekends hauling stuff or putting stuff together, they won’t have the energy to think too much about cute girls.

The third is hanging out with the guys. They can play football, watch videos, eat, whatever. Hanging with other guys helps them all get out some of that energy. And building the ties of brotherhood is very important, even if they’re just eating pizza together. When my three oldest were teens, our house was almost always full of boys.

As my boys grew into adolescence and adulthood I began to think more about my future daughters-in-law. Like most mothers, Muslim mothers anyway, I always had one or two girls in mind. But one thing I’ve learned is that my boys don’t want a match arranged by their mother. They’ll let their brothers help out, and maybe even their father, but for some reason they want their mother to refrain from meddling.

So I haven’t played the matchmaker yet and I’m not likely to in the future. But as they grew I did advise them to lower their gaze, to be respectful, to talk without flirting. That’s the best I can do.

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Foul Language

As I mentioned earlier, my oldest had (probably still has) a mind like a tape recorder. He has a great talent for repeating what he hears. This is why he has been able to pick up at least two other languages which he speaks fluently, and he’s also working to become hafiz.

But when he was little I saw the danger in his tape-recorder mind. I knew that he would repeat whatever he heard, whether it was good or bad. That’s why I set out early on to shield him and his brothers from foul language.

My husband doesn’t curse. He just doesn’t. I do let an occasional ‘hell’ or ‘damn’ fly when I get really frustrated, and I’m not proud of this, but it happens only a few times a year. So, for the most part, my kids were protected from foul language in the home.

I also closely monitored books and movies for foul language. In our house, nobody saw an R-rated movie until he was at least 17 (with the exception of movies such as Amistad, which shouldn’t have been rated R to begin with). I watched what they watched, read what they read, and tried to keep that foul language out of my sons’ minds.

But once the oldest boys were firmly in their teens that became almost impossible. Even though their friends were all Muslims, I’m sure some of them cursed. And once the boys started working I had no more control over their environment. And the curse words started creeping in.

I always stopped them. And often I talked with them about what the word actually meant. There is one word in particular that is quite popular but so vile I don’t even want to think it, much less say it. I don’t think I’ve ever caught my boys using this word, and I hope they never have, but I still made them think about it. Consider the meaning. It’s not just a string of letters.

Every word we speak means something, and we’re accountable for every word. This is the main message I tried to give to my sons. As far as I know, my three youngest don’t curse–though mothers do not know everything. At this point they are all, all six of them, individually accountable for their actions. I’ve done my job. And I hope they’ve learned well.

All of us need to think about what these words mean. Then stop using them.


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Double Standards?

One concern I’ve heard from parents with daughters is the need to protect their girls. Sometimes the girls are limited in their activities. Often they’re required to go to college in their hometown. The parents may even play a very active role in the daughter’s choice of a husband and, unfortunately, too many girls are told to marry men they haven’t chosen.

The same concern, however, doesn’t usually extend to sons. Boys are generally allowed to go around freely, travel without worry, and be less accountable to their parents. The parents may still try to have a hand in arranging the son’s marriage, but more often sons seem to make their own decisions on that issue too.

As the mother of only sons, and a feminist in my own way, this whole system of double standards has bothered me. What bothers me the most, really, is that in the Muslim communities men even have greater sexual freedom. As a college student I cringed at the thought of some of the guys I knew going back home to marry virgins. Those poor girls.

This is addressed very clearly in the Qur’an:  “Impure women are for impure men and impure men are for impure women. Pure women are for pure men and pure men are for pure women.” (Quran, 24:26) Because of this verse, I knew early on that my future daughters-in-law deserved to have husbands who were only for them.

So I have been stricter than probably most mothers of sons, and sometimes they may have resented me for it. But I hope they’ve understood as they’ve grown older. I wanted the best wives for them. But in order to have that, they needed to learn to be the best husbands.

I often wondered what I would do if I had a daughter and she wanted to go away to school. Would I let her go, or would I hold on to her? I’ll never have a daughter, but I do better understand the need for a girl to be with her mahrem based on the experience of my oldest son. He met his wife at an Islamic college in France. Her brother was also studying at that same school. When I knew that, I felt relieved that my son had someone to remind him and keep him in line, along with the girl herself. I’m not sure how much my daughter-in-law’s brother protected her, but I know I felt my son was more protected from his “nafs” by having her brother there. (If my daughter-in-law reads this, I hope you understand what I mean. It’s all good.)

Non-Muslims wonder why Muslim men have so much more freedom than Muslim women do. But do they? Should they? Don’t Muslim men have a dress code? Don’t Muslim men have a code of conduct? I’ve tried to raise my sons to go out into the world with proper behavior in all situations. How can we do otherwise?


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Teaching Financial Responsibility

I can honestly say that my oldest four were never spoiled, especially not in the material sense. When our second son was born I was still in graduate school and we didn’t even own a car. We scraped by and never went hungry, but there was no money left over for even the smallest of luxuries.

I’ve often heard people say that they’re reluctant to have more children because it will cost more. But my husband and I have found the opposite to be true. The more children we had, the more our financial resources grew. Don’t ask me to explain it, but that’s how it was.

So there came  a time when we could afford small treats, but we still wanted to be careful with our money. More importantly, we didn’t want our kids to grow up thinking they were entitled to have whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. Before I took them shopping I laid out the rules clearly. Sometimes they were allowed to buy nothing special. We were going only for groceries and that was it. Sometimes I would allow a small treat, but I specified what that meant ahead of time. I found that it always helped my kids when they knew what to expect. Sometimes I told them they could look at a toy, but they would have to put it back. That worked. At the same time, I made a mental note about what to get them for Eid.

Our three oldest each began working while in high school, and they bought their own cell phones and other things. We’ve helped with college expenses, but it hasn’t been possible to pay for them fully. Each of the first four has had to work through school. (And we don’t take out college loans either. I’d rather they graduate debt-free, even if they graduate a little later.) Our fourth began working in college and also takes care of many of his expenses now, including a trip to Egypt last summer.

The two youngest haven’t worked yet–it’s harder for a teenager to find a job these days–and they have each received a little more than their brothers did (cell phones, my old laptops) because they are the last two. But our 18-year old knows he needs to work in order to go to college and he’s putting out the applications.

Another aspect of teaching financial responsibility is teaching about debt. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but my husband and I have done our best to stay away from debt and we’ve taught our sons to do the same. No credit cards. No interest. Deferred gratification isn’t such a bad thing.

My parents taught me the lesson about working for what I wanted early on. When I was in fourth grade I wanted a softball glove (remember, I was a tomboy). My parents gave me a quarter for allowance each week, and I saved my quarters for that glove. (Though I think one of my aunts pitched in to help me a little.) Meanwhile my mother read the ads and found a glove that was normally $5 but on sale for $3. It felt so good to pay for that softball glove on my own.

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Playing Favorites?

Children can be very jealous of each other when it comes to gaining favor and attention from their parents. If you’re as old as I am you’ll remember the Smothers Brothers, a comedy act with two brothers and one who always said, “Mom loved you best.” In truth, favoritism can destroy sibling bonds.

This was something I set out to avoid from the very start. Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “Fear Allah and treat your children equally.” (Bukhari) This was one of my parenting goals as soon as my second son was born.

One way to treat them equally is to be equal in gift-giving. When I buy my kids presents for Eid, I always set a certain amount that I’m planning to spend. Then I make sure I stay within that amount for each child. When they were younger one may have wanted a skateboard and another may have wanted a board game, but if the skateboard and the board game weren’t of equal cost then I added something else. (I’ll pass on more of my Eid gift money-saving tricks later, insha Allah.)

Things are a bit different now. Only the youngest three still receive gifts–and I am still careful to make them come out equally, whether the gifts are CDs or a webcam. But our fourth wants cash instead, so he receives that instead of the gifts, but at the same value. And our two oldest are independent now and don’t really want Eid presents. I buy a little something for our second son and try to make the rest up to him here and there, and our oldest gets something whenever I can get a package overseas (though the grandkids get more than he does).

Equality is also important when it comes to time. When I had all of my kids at home I often took one out with me shopping on the weekend. That one received a special treat, usually candy, for helping me with the groceries. And we talked in the car as I drove from store to store. I’ve read that talking in the car is an especially good way to communicate with teenagers, and my experience backs that up. Face to face can be too confrontational, but talking in the car is less threatening and more relaxed. My kids took turns going with me to the store so they each had a special time.

Fathers should play an important role here too. As much as we try, we mothers can’t possibly do everything. But fathers can spend time with the older kids while we’re taking care of the younger ones. It’s another way to make sure that no one is ever overlooked even in a large family.

I seriously do not have a favorite child. At one moment or another one may have my special gratitude, and there are times when one is “in the dog house,” but both praise and blame shift regularly and always have. Each one of my boys has a special talent, a special flavor that he brings to my life. And I really do love them all.

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Boys and Communication: Phones

It’s late so I’ll keep this one short, but it’s an important topic and one that applies to girls just as much as it does to boys. Cell phones.

This is something I didn’t have to worry about with my three oldest sons. They each bought their own cell phones, with their own earnings, around the time they each graduated from high school. I think all three had phones before either my husband or I had one. I didn’t know enough to be worried, and I was just grateful that I had an easy way to keep in contact with them.

Times changed, though, as the my three younger sons came into their teens. Our fourth had his first phone when he started college, so his situation was similar to his older brothers’. With the fifth, though, I decided to buy him a phone as soon as he entered high school.

We had just moved to a new city a few months before he started his freshman year and I think that entered into my decision. He would be attending a school none of his brothers had attended, and he would be the first of my sons to attend a public school in 9th grade–the three oldest graduated from an Islamic high school and I homeschooled the fourth until his senior year in a public school. So I bought him a simple, pay-as-you-go phone as part of his back to school supplies.

When our youngest followed his older brother into the public high school two years later, I bought him a phone also. There were times when the boys weren’t together after school and it was convenient to be able to keep in contact. But my youngest son’s phone ran out of minutes months ago and I’ve never gotten around to buying him more. One phone between the two boys seems to be enough for now.

I do have a few guidelines for phone use. First, my younger boys do not have camera phones. I’ve heard the stories and I don’t think my boys would get involved in anything but it’s better to be safe. Also, they have limited minutes for calling and/or texting. I buy 120 minutes and those need to last for three months. At 40 minutes a month, that doesn’t allow too much time for silliness. (And I have refused to replenish a phone that ran out of minutes early.)

I hear stories about parents giving phones to children in elementary school. I can understand the temptation, but I don’t agree. When our children are that young, we should simply stay in close physical contact with them. (Actually, my sisters and I used to walk home from school when we were that age, but those were different times.) I understand that parents have demands from their jobs and so on, but the children should always, always come first.

I do think high school is a good age for a cell phone, as long as there are some basic rules such as no pictures and limited minutes. In my sons’ school the phones must be turned off during school hours, or they will be confiscated. So the possession of a cell phone doesn’t interrupt the learning experience. It has helped, though, when one of my sons wanted to stay after school for an event.

I survived life without a cell phone until I was well into my forties. It would have been nice to have one sometimes, but I got by. I do like having the ability, though, to stay in closer contact with my kids. Assuming, of course, that they actually answer their phones. . .






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