they move on…eventually

A friend of mine, a mama of three, once gave me some wonderful advice. She said that one thing you learn is that children eventually move on. You think they are going to be clinging to you forever, but they learn independence. You think they will be nursing forever, but they wean. You think they will want to be in your bed forever, but they move out. And as much as you may try to avoid getting into a rut with these things, as much as you try to force them out, eventually it will happen. It kind of gives you a little bit of perspective when you might be in the middle of that clingly, over dependent infant/toddler age when they seek a lot of love and contact with the parents, especially mom. It kind of gives you perspective when you want to cut off some of those things but aren’t sure if it’s premature or not.

Her advice was given way back when Abdullah was still nursing and sleeping with us, and just before I got to that point of “what the hell am I doing here?” As in…”I’m tired of this 24/7 ‘mothering’ thing now!” Now, Abdullah is weaned, potty trained, and sleeps in is own room, most nights even putting himself to sleep…and here I am with number two, doing the same things over again ad infinitum. Difference is, this time, some of the choices have been taken away from me as to what I do with my baby. I simply cannot do many of the same things I did with Abdullah–we are still nursing, but my insomnia and neurological issues prevent me from sleeping with Zaynab. The nerve problems I had in my legs prevent me from carrying her or slinging her. As much as I tired from the intense baby days of Abdullah I miss being able to soothe a fussy baby by slinging him down, and then cheek-to-cheek swaying him to sleep. I miss the ability to do so, especially now having the perspective that it really does end, they really do just break off one day and go off on their own from the bed, the breast, and the hip.

Zaynab is a different child and she will learn in different ways from her brother. I feel like she’s already “broken off” to a certain degree.

Ironically, when Abdullah was born, his cord was cut a few minutes after the birth. Granted, this is pretty delayed according to routine obstetric care, but not delayed enough for the placenta to fully transfer all of its blood as we had discussed before the birth. Yet Abdullah was the one whose intangible “cord” stayed firmly put for so long. With Zaynab, after I birthed her into my hands, I gently held her on my chest, cord still attached, for over half an hour as we waited for the placenta. And yet she went on to have a lot less cuddles and “mama time”, being the second baby and given the other circumstances at the time.

And yet… life goes on, our love for her is just as strong, and most importantly, it all works out in the end… doesn’t it?

(I hope so, at least!)

Surah “reward” backlash

I’ll admit it: It was my idea.

A few months ago, Abdullah managed to learn surah al-Fathihah by osmosis, as it were: he heard it recited in prayer and at night so many times that he just learned most of it. A little work on our end, and he had it down pat. My father encouraged me to work more closely with him because he obviously had a knack for memorization, and off we went.

After we had a few surahs down, we set a goal of 10 by his third birthday. And somewhere along the way, even though he was doing perfectly fine without any extrinsic rewards attached to his learning, I dangled a carrot: “If you learn 10 surahs, we’ll do a ’10 Surah’ party for you!” It seemed innocuous enough–our culture is so saturated with this type of carrot-on-a-stick style of motivation that we never question it.


I, on the other hand, am probably the last person to dangle such a reward because I have always found this type of motivation distasteful, especially for Islamic pursuits. Instead of drawing our children’s attention to the rewards of Allah for their deeds, we try and hoodwink them with worldly rewards. I have seen many justifications for this, especially when the issue of Qur’an competitions come up, but I still cannot shake my dislike of the idea. When a Qur’an competition came up in the community where I was teaching at an Islamic school, a particularly astute and sincere young student told me she would not be participating. “I want to learn the Qur’an for Allah,” she said, “not to win a competition.”

“SubhanAllah,” I remember thinking at the time. What blessed parents she must have–I want my children to have this same sincere attitude towards Allah’s book.

I’ve taken great interest over the years, especially as it relates to my teaching, in the astute observations of Alfie Kohn on this issue. He is adamant that rewards are harmful because they take away a person’s intrinsic motivation to do a task, which is innately damaging to them as a student or even an employee. In an interview he noted:

Rewards are most damaging to interest when the task is already intrinsically  motivating. That may be simply because there is that much more interest to lose when extrinsics are introduced…

Mea culpa–because this is exactly what happened with Abdullah. It was a difference like night and day–the day after his party, he was utterly disinterested in learning surahs, whereas before, he did it naturally without question. He had, in the weeks prior, some deep fitri (innate) inclination towards memorizing Qur’an and it was noticeably less present after the party.

Kohn, in the same interview, when asked if this was his opinion or supported by research, countered that it was indeed well established in social science research:

There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators— including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most:  desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.

How potent is our own inner desire to do something, and to do it well! When we try and ignore that innate desire for goodness (Ihsaan as it were) and offer external motivations, then it’s natural that the work that is produced then will be sub-par. We no longer care for goodness, we care only for the carrot dangling in front of us.

People often argue that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’aala) offers us rewards for our actions, therefore we are merely paralleling this when we offer people rewards for their work. This is a faulty analogy. Allah’s rewards are not here in the dunya, there is no “instant gratification” associated with them besides the tranquility of heart that a believer receives when she obeys Allah. The believers must wait patiently for the true reward and recognition of their work in the aakhirah. If anything, the promises of Allah teach us that we must exercise patience and restraint when doing good, for the results do not come quickly and physically in front of us.

I went back and talked to my father again, because he too agrees with much of Kohn’s ideas on rewards and learning. He stressed that we underestimate children’s ability to develop intrinsic motivation for learning Qur’an. We can indeed develop their innate desire to learn by discussing Allah’s rewards and emphasizing that when they memorize Qur’an, Allah will love them.

I don’t regret the party, because I think it is beneficial to celebrate accomplishments, especially to “rejoice” in the blessing of memorizing Qur’an. In the Qur’an itself, after Allah describes His book as an admonition, a healing of the hearts, and a guidance, He says:

“Say: In the bounty of Allah and in His Mercy, in that let them rejoice; it is better than all they amass.” (Yunus: 58)

I love this ayah, for it calls us to celebrate the wonder of the Qur’an. I hope to impart a small bit of that enjoyment and excitement to Abdullah on his level by throwing him a small party. I wonder if perhaps celebrating his accomplishments after the fact, rather than dangling them as enticements to work, would better serve this purpose without undermining his innate desire to learn.

The other day, Siraj and I were doing some damage control as we discussed with Abdullah memorizing future surahs. Rather than focusing on future rewards, we encouraged him by developing activities related to the memorization of the surahs. He’s finishing al-Ma’un and going to go ahead to al-Feel, so we worked up his excitement by discussing the meanings of Surah al-Ma’un and what it was calling him to do, and then we planned for a project showing the events in Surah al-Feel. Later, he came up to me and said, “Mama, I want to learn Surah al-Feel!” And that, dear friends, was like “music” to my ears.

Qur’an Memorization: tips and tricks

I’ve been working every day (almost) on Abdullah’s Qur’an memorization for the last few months, because he lately showed a keenness and aptitude for it. He recently finished memorizing his first ten eleven surahs just before his third birthday–Al-Hamdulillah-il-adhee bi ni’matihi tatimmus-saalihaat. All praise is to the One who by His Grace, good deeds are accomplished!

I offer a few tips based on what I found has helped us so far. I realize that these tips may not be suitable for everyone, as each child has her own areas of strength. I try to blend a variety of learning methods (visual, auditory, tactile) to create as many pathways for learning as possible. Take and leave these tips as you see fit! I hope it will help those who are teaching children Qur’an.

First a note on concentration: it’s hard with little children to maintain their attention for long, so we usually do several small lessons rather than one long lesson. I also usually let Abdullah wander around, lie down, and be “fidgety” as we are reciting since he’s too small to expect to sit still. For some children these type of mindless motions help them learn as well.

And secondly a note on tajweed: it’s really important for the teacher to have proper tajweed before teaching the surahs, because it’s difficult for a child to unlearn a surah that has been learned incorrectly. If in doubt, see a tajweed teacher and have them test your tajweed and recitation to see if it would be a good idea for your children/students to recite after you. If not, use the recordings online to create lessons where you stop and start it according to their needs. You can also play the files in a program like Windows Media Player and adjust the speed so the playback is slower than the original.

And now, the tips:

  1. Prep: We usually start with some exposure to the surah, by playing it in the house, reciting it to him, reciting in salah, etc. before we actually “sit down” to memorize it. It’s less frustrating that way because by the time we sit to memorize it he’s already familiar with the words.
  2. End game: Initially, we play a game where we recite parts of the ayah and have him fill in the end word(s).
  3. Mouth aerobics: To get the right pronunciation, I have Abdullah watch my mouth as I recite with exaggerated mouth movements to demonstrate the pronunciation and tajweed.
  4. Visual prompts: Hand motions can help with tough words/phrases or learning the order of ayat. A couple of examples: For al-Kaafiroon, I put up one finger for each verse. I teach that finger #4 is for “wa laa ana aabidun” and #2 and #5 are “wa laa antum” sandwiching that verse. After five ayat, I show a fist to remind to go to the last ayah “lakum deenukum.” For Surah al-Maa’un, “Fa waylul-lil musalleen” I do a slow drumroll to get the “beat” down so that it is less of a tongue twister. For al-Feel, I show gestures that correspond with the meaning: “a lam tara” (point to eyes), “tayran” show bird-like motions, “tarmeehim” show throwing motion, etc.
  5. “Read” the surah: This works better for older kids who can sit down and concentrate on the written word: while teaching an ayah, I point to the Arabic word in the mus’haf and eventually they learn to recognize the surah or some words by sight.
  6. Using “al-Mu’allim” recordings: One of the clearest of these is by al-Minshaawi where he recites an ayah and then a group of kids recite after him. We play a game where Abdullah plays “shaykh” and we recite after him. It works sometimes on those days when he’s reluctant to recite after us. We then switch roles and we play “shaykh” or we recite together and he says, “Now we are both shaykhs!”
  7. Two at a time: For some kids this may be confusing, but it works for us– as Abdullah is nearing the end of one surah, we start on the next one. So for a few days we do two surahs at a time–the first is pretty much done but needs polishing, while we tackle number two.
  8. Learn the meanings: Abdullah has always demanded to know what he was reciting, so we go over the meanings of each surah. I try to distill each surah into a few important points and have him learn those just as he learns the surah itself. So, for example, his last surah (al-Maaun), we focused on four important points: help the orphans, help the poor, pray sincerely for Allah, and do small acts of kindness. We try and have him act out on the meanings as well, so for example I had him take a glass of soda to the worker who was repairing the house, telling him that it was an example of “al-Maaun.”
  9. Hands-on projects: This goes hand-in-hand with learning the meanings–we just started making a one-sheet visual representation of the surah. So for al-Maaun, I printed clip art illustrating each of the four main points above, and he glued it to a sheet labled “al-Maaun.” I then labeled each picture with the Arabic word for each theme (yateem, miskeen, musalleen, and al-Maaun). For al-Feel, we made a picture of men on elephants going towards the Ka’bah with a flock of birds in the sky with stones. We labeled each part of the picture with words from the surah (ashaab ul-feel, tayran abaabeel, hijaarah min sijjeel).
  10. Recite it all day: Memorization these days is the main focus of our day, we try and infuse it throughout the day as much as possible. So when Abdullah’s grandmother comes home from work, he recites his daily lesson to her, when we are just sitting around doing nothing, we try and review a little bit. Because at this age his attention span is so short, we squeeze in short mini review sessions whenever we can.
  11. Car time: This is a great time to review because there’s nothing else to do in the car!
  12. Peer pressure: Showing YouTube videos of people (especially kids) reciting helps build up enthusiasm.

I hope these tips were of help–remember, slow and steady wins the race: memorization will be really slow in the beginning, but eventually they get the hang of it. Even if they won’t recite, keep reciting to them and something will sink in once they are ready and willing to recite back. I pray that Allah gives us ikhlaas (sincerity) and tawfeeq (success) in our efforts!

back to blogging…for now

I’ve been MIA from this place for so long. I now am no longer only “Abdullah’s mama” any more, I am the proud and grateful mama to Zaynab as well. The kids are now close to 3 and 1 year old, and our lives are still on the move as Siraj finds his niche as a new J.D., and I attempt to stay focused on my studies online with the AlHuda Institute.

My latest mama-project is providing brain-food for Abdullah by way of focusing on Qur’an memorization (and understanding!), learning Allah’s names, reading and loving learning. He’d love to go to school, but we have yet to settle down somewhere and we’re still trying to figure out how that will fit in with his Qur’an memorization.

Since Zaynab’s birth I have been battling an array of bizarre neurological symptoms which, after about 7 months of baffling everyone was finally diagnosed as Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS for short). This new beast is sort of like my third child (the black sheep of the family as it were)–always there, reminding me of its presence at the most inopportune times. Minus the love and cuddles of course (insert wan smile here). Fortunately I am doing rather well with it right now and have suffered only negligible residual damage from the attacks over the last few months. Al-Hamdulillah. I mention it because it’s become a massive part of my life, shaping my identity itself. How ironic too that my MS places me further down on the “road less traveled”, away from those fortunate enough to consider themselves “normal.” And yet… it seems that every where we turn, chronic disease afflicts so many that illness has become the new healthy, abnormal the new normal.

I don’t make any point of hiding my MS or pretending it doesn’t exist, and so I know it will come up here and there in these pages (makes a nice thing to vent about, ya know). So rather than blanching with terror if my disease comes up in petty conversation, I rather enjoy making a bit of dark humor out of it. Like if I forget something I’ll joke that perhaps a few neurons just died off or something… When I was first diagnosed I was like, okay now, I gotta go to a support group and learn the secret handshake! As sucky of a disease that MS is, it fortunately doesn’t suck too bad for me (yet!) so I am thankful for that. And I get enjoyment, actually, by keeping up with all the latest MS news and research (I’m a geek through and through, in sickness and in health!).

So–that’s basically in a nutshell, what occupies my time these days–Abdullah, Zaynab, AlHuda classes, MS… in that order I suppose 🙂 Once we settle down I hope to get back to teaching part time from home, which I had been doing until Siraj graduated.

We’ll see how much time these kids give me for my writing, but for now I thought I’d come back to this little nook of mine and spruce it up!