Boys and Media: The Internet

Sometimes I wish I’d had the internet years ago. I could have kept in touch easily with my friends from high school and college, I could have asked for advice as a new mother, and I could have talked with my family here in the U.S. while we were living in Thailand. But in other ways I’m very glad that the internet didn’t come around sooner.

My oldest has always been technologically inclined. When he was three I enrolled him in a preschool program that involved mothers and children working together and he always enjoyed the time he spent on the computer–this was the mid-80s so the technology was simple then. Later, as a teen, he started working on computers, and to this day he likes to repair computers and cell phones for extra income. He’s also the one who introduced me to the internet.

It was late 2000, I think, and I was very wary of getting online. I’d heard horror stories about online porn and other nasty things. But Ahmad set up an email account for me and showed me how to find my way around. With his urging, I began to explore. After 9/11, when I wanted to find more information about the attacks, I was hooked.

In those days we had a single desktop computer we kept in the living room. None of the boys could use it without being seen and we were very careful about keeping it that way. There was a time when the older boys asked to have it in their bedroom, but it stayed in the living room.

At first we had only the one desktop for the family. But, as a writer, I wanted to have a little more freedom, so I invested in a laptop. I had the freedom to write wherever I wanted, and the boys still had the desktop out in the open.

Back in 2006 my laptop was stolen. We were living in Milwaukee then and apparently someone broke through a bathroom window in the middle of the night and took both my laptop and my cell phone. My second son saw how crushed I was and took me out to buy me another laptop with his own earnings. My husband later insisted on reimbursing him, but that gesture still means so much.

When we moved to Lexington the boys still had the desktop and I had my laptop. But when I’d had it for two years it started to wear down a little, and acting quirky, and I began thinking about getting a new one. At the same time, our fifth son (we had only two at home by then) was frustrated because he had trouble getting all of his homework done while sharing the desktop with his little brother. So I gave him my old laptop and got a new one.

Now we had a boy alone in his room with a computer. But I made him keep his door open and I checked at random times. He’s always been honest with me and in the two years he’s had the laptop we’ve never had any problems. It was a leap of faith, though. And along the way he discovered Facebook, and convinced me I should have my own Facebook page. He’s the one who made it for me.

Last fall I was facing the same situation with our youngest. The desktop had died so he was left sharing whatever computer he could get, and meanwhile I thought it might be time, after two years, for me to get an upgrade. So I gave him my laptop. He does keep his door open and he knows I’m watching. The worst I’ve found is that sometimes he’s playing a game when he should be doing his homework. But his grades are good.

The biggest danger is that we can each get caught up in our separate computing and forget to interact. But that rarely happens. Salat times are the best times for talking, especially salatul asr after the boys come home from school. We discuss various issues and catch up on our individual concerns. And we do talk face to face rather than sending messages online.

I strongly agree that parents need to establish age limits for certain computer privileges. For instance, Facebook requires that someone be 13 in order to have an account, and I would actually go with 14. When our youngest got his first email and Facebook accounts, I did know his user names and passwords.

I also think, though, that somewhere around the ages of 17 or 18 it has to become a matter of trust. We always need to keep communications open with our kids, and we can even peek in on them once in a while, but as they get older we should also let them know that we trust them and respect their judgment. With my first, I had no choice because I barely knew what a computer was when he was that age. And I know my current 18-year old doesn’t lie to me. He never has. Building that relationship of trust and respect is so very important.






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Boys and Media: Music (Part 2)

As I said in Part 1, my husband and I provided a mostly music-free household for our boys because we wanted them to concentrate on learning the Qur’an. In addition to lullabies and wind-up toys, I also began letting them listen to nasheed, though there wasn’t much available yet in the ’90s.

In spite of our best intentions, though, our boys still found a way to learn about music. By the time my oldest started listening to stuff, he was 17 or 18. At that point I told him that he was old enough to make his own decisions. And when our second and third sons followed in his footsteps, I could live with it. (Though one of them, I think it was our second son, liked heavy metal for a while. I told my kids that I really didn’t like heavy metal–I couldn’t even stand it when I was a teenager.)

A year after our oldest graduated from high school and set out to explore the world, I decided to quit teaching so I could concentrate on writing. Once I was at home, away from the daily pressures of school, I began to relax. I don’t remember why I started listening to music. It could have been because I found writing to be difficult and I needed something to help me focus. Music did that. In fact, I now develop a playlist for every book I write and sometimes just listening to the music helps me forget the distractions and get the words down.

I became a Muslim in 1980 so I decided to only listen to music that was made before 1980, the songs that still make me feel younger. (Though I have added Owl City and a couple of other things from later times.) These soundtracks have worked well for me and helped clarify my ideas.

There was a problem though. Our Islamic school had a very conservative group of parents and teachers who were also judgmental. I drove over to the school to pick up the kids, with the oldies station on, but I shut off the radio before pulling into the parking lot. It felt hypocritical, but I knew the danger of the tongues and had already fallen victim in the past. I didn’t want to risk another incident.

Our three younger kids have grown up with a much more liberal attitude toward music, though they haven’t really taken advantage of it. Two of them like classical music and songs from other countries. But I do have a rapper–my fifth son, whom some of you probably know as Sheeplocks.

Rap has been a whole other hurdle. At first I hated it. But Sheeplocks, or Salahuddin as he’s known here at home, took pains to introduce it to me. He determined what rap styles bothered me (those with the really heavy beats) and what I could live with, and then pulled out the ones he thought I would like. We listened to a lot of rap as I drove with him through Lexington when he had his permit and was preparing to get his license. And I’ve come to appreciate some of it. Not all, but some. (Don’t ask me to name any artists. Salahuddin could tell you which ones I like and which ones I still can’t stand.) My favorite rappers are still Native Deen. And Sheeplocks, of course. His raps are intelligent and socially-conscious so I do enjoy them when I can understand the words.

Music has been a huge issue in the ummah. There are two reasons, really, for allowing it back into our lives: first, music is natural to children; and second, the world is full of music, and I don’t mean the commercial kind. When my youngest was little he used to go around the house making up little songs. I remember one of them: Drink water, drink water. Over and over again. And it was sweet. In terms of the world being full of music, just close your eyes on a spring morning and listen to the birds. You can add the loud claps of thunder, the howling of the wind, the sound of sleet on the windows.

I could add that I studied the history of music back in high school and I know that our modern day instruments–most of them, anyway–had not yet been invented at the time of Prophet Muhammad (S). But I’ll leave you with the images of the birds. It’s almost spring. They’ll be here soon, insha Allah.




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Boys and Media: Music (Part One)

I’ll start this post with a disclaimer. I am not qualified to issue a scholarly opinion on this topic and that’s not what this is meant to be. I simply want to share my experiences and my own insights based on those experiences. Please do not debate the issue of music in Islam on this blog.

Music was always a part of my life while I was growing up. My mother often kept the radio on–sometimes for the music and sometimes to listen to a discussion or even (rarely by those days) a drama. In addition, during the Christmas season we played Christmas albums (you know, the vinyl stuff). When I got older I was in the parochial school choir, always as a soprano even when the other girls’ voices changed. I also remember going caroling at a nursing home for those who were both needy and elderly. And I started buying albums (vinyl) about the time I began attending high school. (My favorite artists were Simon and Garfunkel.) Oh, and I almost forgot–two of my sisters and I took piano lessons for five or six years. One of my sisters now gives piano lessons, and so does her oldest daughter. (I tried to play the flute but that was before I got braces and it wouldn’t work with buck teeth. I also tried to guitar, but never really got the hang of it.)

So by the time I came into Islam, at the age of twenty-three, I had a very full musical background. I know the lyrics to probably thousands of songs and I know the precise notes and rhythms of many classical pieces.

But not too long after my conversion someone told me that music was not allowed. So I gave it up, right there. Instead of listening to the radio or cassette tapes I tried to learn the Qur’an instead. In the first year after my conversion I memorized fifteen short surahs.

After I was married and had children, my husband and I continued to run a music-free household. The boys did have a couple of wind-up musical toys, and I sometimes sang them to sleep, but that’s as far as it went. We wanted our sons to learn the Qur’an instead.

This approach was reinforced as our oldest son’s personality developed and we saw that he had an amazing memory. I used to call him a tape recorder because he truly could repeat everything he heard. (He’s now fluent in Spanish and Arabic, and probably French, and he knows quite a bit of Urdu.) Of course, we wanted him to repeat the Qur’an rather than the lyrics of songs. (That’s also why we became involved in Islamic education, but I’ll save that for another post.) Alhamdulillah, he is now studying to become a hafiz.

Each of our sons started learning the Qur’an when they were three or four. They also learned to read Arabic at the same time they were learning to read English. We worked hard to keep the spirit of Islam in their hearts and keep other things out.

But as they grew older, things changed. . .






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Boys and Media: Movies

I grew up going to the movie theater on special occasions and watching old black-and-white movies on TV with my mom. When I was growing up, movies were usually what we consider “family friendly.” In fact, I remember when the movie rating system was started, back in the late ’60s.

It’s more complicated now, of course. Not only is it harder to find a “family friendly” movie, but movies are much more available now than they were then. I used to stay up until 2 a.m. sometimes just to watch a movie I’d wanted to see. Now I can rent the video or simply watch the movie on my laptop.

When my kids were little this whole movie thing wasn’t too hard to negotiate. We didn’t have much money in those days so we didn’t go see movies often. When we did, we always saw movies about animals or children, those “family friendly” movies.

But as my boys got older, the whole business became more challenging. They would hear about movies from their friends, movies with excessive violence or sexual connotations. When my older boys entered their teens I routinely read the weekly movie reviews in our local paper so I could be prepared in case one of them wanted to see something, or even if I heard my students–their friends–talking about a certain movie. I tried hard to stay on top of it.

And, for the most part, I think I’ve succeeded. After they left home, I’m sure they saw some junk I would totally disapprove of, but if they’re old enough to live on their own, they’re old enough to make those kinds of decisions. While they lived at home, we often discussed the pros and cons of various movies and why we, as Muslims, should or shouldn’t see them.

And this is part of the solution. My husband and I set the example and never saw a movie we wouldn’t allow our kids to see. Actually, my husband, who grew up in rural Thailand, has never been a big fan of watching movies. And I’m no fan of blood and guts or sexual innuendo (or worse!). In fact, even now, when we have only two kids at home and only one of those kids is under the age of 17, I still can’t bring myself to watch an R-rated movie, at least not a comedy. (Though I do strongly recommend movies such as Amistad, which was rated R.)

When we do go see movies, we arrange our plans around the prayer times. If we need to make the midday prayer at 12:30 and the afternoon prayer at 4:00, for instance, we can see a movie in between those times, but we won’t go to a movie that starts at 3:30. Even when our sons go out with friends we insist on following this rule. Our kids know that movie watching must never, ever, interfere with our prayers.

I believe that most things are good as long as we do them in moderation. I saw two movies at the theater last year, and our 18-year old, who loves movies and aspires to become a movie director, probably saw four or five. Twice a month or so we rent a movie from the library. We watch movies, but movie-watching is not a major part of our lives.

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Boys and Media: Video Games

Right here at the beginning I’ll admit I am biased on this issue. Basically, I am against video games. This comes more from my experience as a teacher than as a parent. Have you ever tried to inspire a group of 12-year old boys and make them excited about history? It’s a tough job. Especially because most of them are just sitting there, staring into space. And later, during their free time, they’re talking excitedly with one another about the levels they reached. One of the boys I taught told me he had a website, even, devoted to video games. He never had time to do his homework, but he always had time to play games and even write about them.

So when the video game question came up in my household I was adamantly against bringing in any kind of system. But the boys wore me down once, and I soon saw the same kind of zombie-like behavior I had seen in my students. Not only that, one of my sons (no one would believe this if I told you which one) actually became somewhat aggressive and disrespectful after some time with the video games. So I packed up the system and put it in my closet.

These days many adults play the games also. I’ve never been into the more complex games, but I do play Tetris. And do you know what I’ve noticed? If I play a lot of Tetris often, spending more time than usual on the game on any given day, I soon start seeing the shapes in my mind. Those shapes invade my quiet times away from the screen, times I should be communicating with my family, even times when I should be praying. Tetris is a simple game compared to most, but what I’ve found is that it definitely does affect me.

So we don’t have any video game systems in our household these days. My older boys play them though. One of mine, my second, has a PS2 (I believe–I can’t always keep the systems straight). And my oldest recently asked me to send him Starcraft 2 in English–he’s overseas and even though he knows the language there I guess it’s just not the same. So I bought it.  He has a wife and three kids, so I’m sure they’ll prevent him from getting too involved with the game.

Actually, last fall, I began to weaken on the issue and thought about buying a Wii. It looked pretty cool and I thought maybe that was something I could get into. But when I brought it up to my teenagers, they both rejected the idea. You know I was not going to push it.

There is so much of the world to experience and we should be experiencing it first-hand, especially when we’re young and healthy and full of energy. We wouldn’t be talking about an obesity problem in this country if our kids ran around outside and played the way kids used to do. And we wouldn’t be talking about low test scores if our kids spent their time reading rather than moving objects on a screen. Have you seen the way they stare? It is total concentration. I find it disturbing.

My advice: If you must have a video game system in your home, save it for the weekends. Better yet, save it for vacations and other special occasions. Encourage your children to experience life directly. Don’t let them become zombies.



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I received some terrible news today. A few days ago a boy, well, a young man now, killed a man during an attempted robbery. He’d communicated with the man on Craigslist and arranged to meet and make a deal. But he had different intentions. He walked in with a knife. The man had a gun. Somehow the young man got hold of the gun and committed the murder.

I knew this young man when he was a boy. He was a classmate of one of my sons, and I taught him on occasion when the regular teacher wasn’t available. I believe he came over to our house a time or two. I’ve known his mother for about twenty years. She’s a good woman and a practicing Muslimah. The boy attended an Islamic school at least through sixth grade.

It’s been several hours since I first learned of the tragedy but I’m still digesting the news. The boy I knew was well-mannered. His parents are devout Muslims. He learned about Islam when he was young. And yet he committed this terrible crime when he was just a few months short of his high school graduation. What would make him do something like this?

I haven’t seen this boy in several years and I’m sure he’s changed during that time. Only Allah knows what was in his heart, what motivated him. But in spite of his many opportunities, his many advantages, I do know that one thing was lacking.

What he lacked was a strong Muslim community. The community split nearly 16 years ago, when this young man was just a toddler, and it has never been repaired. Instead of taking care of the youth, instead of guiding the young men, I witnessed the men in that community fighting for power and influence, backbiting and spreading rumors.

I tried, once, to start a scouting program for the boys. I contacted the local Boy Scouts and was able to get a Cub Scout troop off the ground. We received a grant and the program had great promise. I tried to get one of the men to take responsibility for the older boys, but I had no takers.

Then we left. We moved to a different city in a different state. I left the materials and the contact information with one of the men, someone who promised he would continue what I had started. But months later I was receiving emails from the liaison at the Boy Scout headquarters telling me no one in the community had contacted him. The program died.

In the last several years, that community has lost a few young men. Some were murdered. One was into drugs. Now one is a murderer. Sometimes I feel torn between relief that I got my sons safely out of there and guilt that I didn’t stay to help.

I kept asking the men for help. They said there wasn’t enough money. They said they didn’t have the time. They were too busy doing whatever they were doing, taking care of their own business, too busy to take care of the young men.

Some of them are probably relieved that it wasn’t their sons. Their sons haven’t been murdered. Their sons haven’t committed any crimes. As long as their sons are safe and successful, they’ve done their jobs.

Or have they?

If the men in the community won’t show the boys how to become men, who will?

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Boys and Media: Books (Part 2)

When they were younger, my boys enjoyed all kinds of books, from Curious George to books about dinosaurs. When they got a little older, they read Invincible Abdullah. But after that there was almost nothing for them, almost nothing that reinforced the values we taught them at home.

Meanwhile, as a social studies teacher, I often went to the library in search of books to use in my classroom. I found books, fiction and non-fiction, about many different ethnic groups and their unique experiences. But there was nothing about Muslims, except the occasional book that was written by a non-Muslim and was likely to have at least a few errors.

So I started thinking about writing. But I was the mother of six, and a full-time teacher, and there simply wasn’t time to sit down and write a novel. My attitude changed, though, on September 11. Our Islamic school was shut down early that day because of bomb threats and as I watched the news coverage at home I began thinking, Life is too short. Life is too short to defer my dreams.

The following May I quit teaching and that September, after my kids had gone back to school, I sat down to write. My first book had to be about 9/11. I had to get that out before I could write anything else. And when I started writing, I decided my intention would be to write in order to promote Islam.

This is easier said than done. It’s important, crucial really, that books about Islam are not preachy. I’ve worked hard to avoid this. What I want to do is not proselytize, but simply present Muslims as regular people with regular lives, which is exactly what we are.

After that first novel I wrote a series, called The Echoes Series. The main character, Joshua Adams, came to me in a dream, and over the years he became like an eighth son to me–I have many seventh sons, boys who were friends with my sons and spent happy hours at our home. Joshua is very much a normal, everyday American. But he’s curious, and while that curiosity sometimes gets him into trouble, it’s also what led him to Islam.

We want our children to read, starting when they’re very small. Hopefully they will be lifelong readers. There are some good books out there by non-Muslim authors. I read Islamic fiction when I can, but I also enjoy Dean Koontz, Jodi Picoult (sometimes), and even a little Stephen King. And I’ve read wonderful books by lesser known authors–though, at my age, I often forget the names. Orhan Pamuk is one I can recommend.

When our children are young though, in their teens and still learning about the world, we prefer they adopt Muslim role models and identify with Muslim stories. This is why I write. And I hope the number of Muslims who write continues to grow. (I’m especially looking forward to the next book from Maryam Sullivan. And I know of a couple other projects that are in the works.)

Reading is wonderful. We need to help our children grow their imaginations. And hopefully we can guide and teach them also.

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