Dreading the Sex-Ed Talk? Try this instead

#MuslimSexEd

So many parents dread “The Talk.” They will do anything to ignore it, delay it, and outsource it. I have had parents tell me, knowing that I am a teacher and rather open in the way I discuss: “Can you just explain this to my kids so I don’t have to?”

Forget the idea of “The Talk.” Think of it as “The Ongoing Conversation.” It starts at birth and continues through adulthood. It is a dialogue that is woven into everyday life as something frank, matter-of-fact, and not shameful.

It starts with respect for the body of the child in infancy. It continues into toddlerhood, when you use anatomically correct names.

It’s the matter-of-fact answer that you give to your four year old when he asks what makes his sister a girl: “She doesn’t have a penis like you do,” you say.

”Whaaaat??” he will say, “You mean everyone doesn’t have a penis? That’s crazy!” Then you think to yourself, “Freud would get a kick out of that comment.”

The conversation continues when your children don’t see their mother praying. You explain that there’s something called menstruation, and you will tie it into reproduction and tell them about how every month, there is a window of opportunity for a woman to become pregnant, and if she does not, she will shed her uterine lining during menstruation.

When your children go to the science museum and see an exhibit on skeletons, you point out that the female skeleton has wider hips to accommodate a baby during childbirth.

As your children read science books and watch documentaries, they will come to know that animals “mate” in order to have babies. They will hear about mating behaviors. My son will often point out: “See that bird? They usually fly like that when they are looking for a mate.” This is a great opportunity to talk about how animals engage in mating behaviors to attract potential mates. “Even humans use mating behaviors as well to attract others.” More conversation ensues.

These frank conversations mean that your kids don’t have a problem talking about these issues openly. My 8 year old daughter told me that her friend saw on the TV show “Anne With an E” that the girls were making fun of Anne because she was the only one who didn’t get her period. What a great conversation starter!

Another time, my son got confused and said, “Since you are not praying this week, does that mean you are having a baby?” Time for more conversation, this time explaining that no, menstruation means a woman is not pregnant.

After years of this type of frank openness, do you think it will be hard to explain the actual mechanics of reproduction? Everything ties in together, and the idea of sex is not something that exists in a vacuum–it is part of this beautiful conversation about our bodies, our feelings, gender, physiology. Honestly, after all these conversations, an astute enough child would probably intuitively figure out how humans reproduce.

All of this openness serves to create an environment that is free of shame regarding the body and sexuality. I do not mean by this that it is free of modesty–what I refer to is the toxic sense of shame in one’s body, thinking that the privates are dirty, or that sex is a crude, dirty act borne of necessity.

When children see our discomfort in talking about the body, or about sexuality, it can give them the message that these are sordid, shameful topics. They think that “good boys” and “good girls” don’t talk about these things. And in their marriages, it can lead to a relationship where sexuality is not cherished and respected.

How do you handle these conversations in your home? Do you have any advice to share regarding how to address sex ed in an open and inviting way? Please let us know in the comments.

Our dear Nabra, why do bad things happen to good people?

#Nabra

“Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”

In the face of tragedy, it is this question that burns in many a heart. The youth are especially vulnerable, and find that it is all too easy for their faith to crack under the strain of the world’s heartaches.

You see, that same God gave us a precious gift of free will. It’s the same free will that led Nabra to choose to be a giver, a helper, one who fed her friends and spent her nights praying to her lord. And it’s the same free that her murderer used to make the choice to take her precious life.

These tragedies are consequences of our free will.

The angels understood this, for when they heard from Allah that He would create generations of humans on earth, they immediately questioned why He would create beings that would sow seeds of corruption and shed innocent blood. So it has been a given that we would misuse this free will.

But what did Allah say?

He said, “I know that which you do not know.”

You see, He knew that for every human that used their free will to cheat, steal, maim, and kill, there would be many more humans of beauty and faith. There would be humans like Nabra, who would use their free will to fast by day, feed her friends, and pray by night.

Without that opportunity for us to actively choose to do good, our free will would be a farce.

But Allah doesn’t just leave us here on this earth to fight it out, kill and be killed, suffer and toil, and have that be an end of it.

He’s “maaliki yawmid-deen.” The Master of the Day of Judgment. The word “deen” means that it is a day of recompense. A day where justice is served. A day where the evil ones will get only the amount of punishment that is justly due to them, not an ounce more, but where the good ones will get a reward that is infinitely beyond their deserving.

Not only does he amply recompense and care for those victims like Nabra, but his mercy is so gloriously vast that every second of pain her loved ones feel will also be recompensed. Every tear of her mother. Every ache of her father. Every fear, sorrow, and hardship of her friends and community will all be recompensed on that Day.

His Mercy is so vast. We are grieving, we are weeping as we reap the consequences of a world in which humans have been given free rein to make choices that can build or destroy.

Don’t think that He has left her, that He has left us.

وَلاَ تَحْسَبَنَّ اللّهَ غَافِلاً عَمَّا يَعْمَلُ الظَّالِمُونَ

“Do not think that Allah is unaware of what the evildoers do” (Surah Ibrahim: 42).

وَلَدَيْنَا كِتَابٌ يَنطِقُ بِالْحَقِّ وَهُمْ لَا يُظْلَمُونَ

“And with us is a record that speaks the truth; and none shall be wronged.” (Surah Muminoon: 62)

Dear Nabra, may Allah give you a reward that will erase every second of your pain. May He give your family and community ease and healing. May you be now rejoicing in peace in His Gardens of bliss. Aameen, ya rabb.

Podcast–The Ramadan Intention Multiplier Machine

Before Ramadan, we had a small halaqah where we (the adults and kids present) discussed the idea of intentions for fasting. My husband pointed out that one way to maximize rewards in Ramadan is to stack up your intentions. So a person intends to fast because Allah ordered it, and because he seeks Bab ar-Rayyan, and because she wishes to distance herself from the fire, and, and….

The next day, I asked the kids: what if we could create an Intention Multiplier Machine? You take a simple intention: “I am fasting,” and then add on any number of variations.

20170502_145914You do have to be careful not to have conflicting intentions. So for example: “I am praying for Allah,” and, “I am praying because I want others to think I’m a good Muslim.”

The discussion about rewards came up: what if you are promised a reward like some money for fasting or for completing Qur’an reading?

That led to me to discuss my concerns with the idea of rewards–I dislike them for this very reason: that they lead divided intentions and can detract from iklaas (sincerity).

The recording of our discussion can be accessed here at this link: Intention Multiplier Machine Podcast.

This is a good example of a type of discussion I will have with my kids after we have learned some material. A first session would include the discussion of the topic using the relevant verses from the Qur’an or statements of the Prophet (sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam). After that, we will have a session like this one where we mind-map the concept or come up with some other graphic organizer for the content.

In an activity and discussion like this, I am looking for:

  • the ability to use what they have learned in the past and apply it to novel situations
  • the ability to synthesize their knowledge and come up with ways to organize it and relate it to other areas
  • the ability to “think outside the box” and expand their thinking on a subject

I was touched by how my son came up with the point in the bottom of the picture. He was reflecting on the fact that I could not fast due to my health, and so he said that one intention he could make was to be grateful for the ability to fast, since others could not do so. So the actual act of fasting in itself is done out of gratitude and appreciation for one’s health.

Do you have any other ideas for intentions to add to the list? If your kids listen to the discussion, please share their feedback!

Fruits of Fasting

What do we gain from fasting? If you thought the answer was “taqwa,” you are correct–but there are other benefits the Qur’an mentions. This is a translation of Sh. Kehlan Abdullah Salman’s discussion of these benefits. The original Arabic can be found at the end of the post.


In the Qur’an, Allah mentions three benefits of fasting:

Taqwa (piety)  (لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ)

Shukr (gratitude)  (لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ)

Rushd (guidance)  (لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ)

The First Benefit: Taqwa “So that you may attain piety.” (لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ)

These are the levels of taqwa–various ways we erect a protection between ourselves and undesirable outcomes:

Level 1: Barrier against kufr (disbelief). All Muslims have this characteristic.

Level 2: Barrier against shahawaat (base desires), for these lead to fisq (disobedience) and transgression.

Level 3: Barrier against shubuhaat (doubts), for these lead to innovations.

Level 4: Barrier against permissible actions that are not necessities–this is the level of those who practice zuhd (asceticism, abstaining from unnecessary pleasure).

Level 5: Barrier against anything that distracts you from Allah, and this is the level of the saabiqoon (the “high-level believers”–those foremost in the worship of Allah)

The Second Benefit: Shukr (gratitude). “So that you may be grateful.” (وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ)

Shukr can be in word, or in deed.

Allah says, “Work, O family of David, in gratitude [towards Me].”

In the verses of siyam, Allah mentions both types of gratitude. He says, “that you may magnify Allah because He has guided you” (i.e. shukr via speech), and then, “and so that you may be grateful” (i.e. shukr via action).

One of the fruits of gratitude is that Allah increases your blessings. Allah says: (وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَبُّكُمْ لَئِن شَكَرْتُمْ لَأَزِيدَنَّكُمْ) “And [remember] when your Lord proclaimed: ‘If you are grateful, I will increase you.’”

However, sometimes an increase in one’s worldly blessings can lead a person to become arrogantly disobedient. That is why a person needs rushd (guidance) as well. This leads to the next benefit of fasting:

The Third Benefit: Rushd (guidance, integrity). “That you may be guided.” لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

One of the meanings of rushd is integrity of conduct; good dealings with others. So if a person has taqwa and shukr, and makes du’a to his Lord while his heart and soul are pure, Allah will grant him rushd.

This integrity of conduct (rushd) is something that is expected of every person: leaders, teachers, officials, spouses, and others.

Through this a person will reach true happiness in this world and the Hereafter, whereas if he is thoughtless and reckless, he will ruin his life in this world, and utterly fail in the Hereafter.

And Allah knows best.

من ثمار الصيام

ذكر الله تعالى في آيات الصيام ثلاث ثمرات “لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ” و “لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ” و “لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ”.

لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

من مراتب التقوى:

  1. اتقاء الكفر، وهذه مرتبة يشترك فيها كل المسلمين.
  2. اتقاء الشهوات، لأنها تؤدي إلى الفسق، والعدوان.
  3. اتقاء الشبهات لأنها تقود إلى البدع.
  4. اتقاء فضول المباحات، وهذه درجة الزهاد.
  5. اتقاء كل ما يشغلك عن الله، وهذه درجة السابقين.

وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ

الشكر قد يكون بالقول، وقد يكون بالعمل، قال تعالى “اعْمَلُوا آلَ دَاوُودَ شُكْرًا”.

وقد جمع الله بين نوعي الشكر في آيات الصيام فقال “وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَاكُمْ” فهذا شكر بالقول، وقال “وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ” وهذا شكر بالعمل وغيره.

ومن ثمار الشكر الزيادة في الخير، قال تعالى “وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَبُّكُمْ لَئِن شَكَرْتُمْ لَأَزِيدَنَّكُمْ”. وزيادة الخير قد تطغي صاحبها، فيحتاج معها إلى الرشد.

لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ

والرشد من معانيه حُسن التصرف، فكأن العبد إذا اتقى، وشكر، ودعا ربه، ووافق ذلك صفاء في القلب والروح، رزقه الله الرشد.

والرشد مطلوب من الجميع، من الحاكم، والمعلم، والموظف، والزوجين وغيرهم. وفِي هذا سعادة الدنيا والآخرة، كما أن في الطيش خراب الدنيا وخسارة الآخرة.

والله أعلم

Tarbiyah vs. Ta’leem

Sh. Salman al-Odah was asked, “How do you get your kids to love the salah?”

The first thing he said was, “Have them love you.”

Learn this life lesson: tarbiyah is founded upon relationship.

Tarbiyah is the raising up and education of a child such that she can reach her full potential as a human and a Muslim. It is different than ta’leem, which refers to fact-based education.

baby hand

We often confuse the two, giving our children ta’leem when they need tarbiyah.

Ta’leem is teaching our children the how-to of the prayer. Memorizing the duas, learning

the positions.

Tarbiyah is the cuddling after the prayer when we ask each other, “What did you ask for in sajdah?”

Ta’leem is memorizing ahadeeth and verses.

Tarbiyah is the dinner-table banter where we talk current events and other issues on our mind.

Ta’leem is studying fiqh.

Tarbiyah is the loving conversation we have about an incident that happened at school.

Ta’leem is studying seerah by memorizing dates and events or preparing for a quiz bowl.

Tarbiyah is snuggling in bed and telling stories of brave heroes of the past.

When we were at Umrah, Ustadh Abu Eesa stressed this point a great deal and it has caused a seismic shift in my own approach to teaching my children. I had asked him if he had a suggested program of study for school-aged children. He responded by saying that he was no expert on education and he would leave that to the experienced teachers to develop such a program. He directed us instead to focus our efforts on building relationships with our children as our tarbiyah.

“Tarbiyah,” he explained, “is an emotional, not a physical exercise.”

He went on to explain that in the Qur’an, we are taught the dua for the parents as follows: “O Allah, have mercy on them, as they rabbayaani when I was young.” In other words, have mercy on them because they did tarbiyah for me when I was young. It doesn’t continue the theme of mercy and say “have mercy on them as they had mercy on me,” rather, it says “have mercy on them because they did tarbiyah for me.” It is this tarbiyah that a parent does for their child that brings the mercy of Allah upon them.

Long after facts have come and gone, what a child will remember are the memories she has cuddling on the couch, laughing at stories, and warmly basking in the glow of a parent’s attention and love. This relationship is what builds the person up, not the facts and pieces of knowledge imparted.

This does not mean we do not teach facts and knowledge! Those who follow my work know that I do indeed spend time on this ta’leem. You need to discern the difference between the two themes of ta’leem and tarbiyah though, so that you give adequate time to each.
Most importantly, you must understand that you, dear parents, are indispensable. You CANNOT outsource tarbiyah. You can send your child to classes and masjid programs for ta’leem but this can never replace tarbiyah. The cuddling on the couch, the lively discussions around the table, the one-on-one chats before bed….these are the things that only a parent can do. And these are the things that build the foundation of the Islamic akhlaq and adab (morals and manners).

Note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly explained the dua of mercy for the parents. The post has been updated with the correct explanation.

if the kid schools the parent, is it called kidschooling?

One day the three-year old was acting really cranky, and so my husband said, “See? We shouldn’t take him to a movie–he can’t handle it; it makes him cranky.”

I could see the look in AB’s face that he wanted to say something. I know this kid and how we will spot a tiny flaw in something and feel a desperate need to point it out. Honestly, it gets tiring at times, and we’ve tried to let him know that this behavior is not exactly a trait that endears one to people. I get the way his mind works, though. He has an ability to spot tiny flaws or holes in logic and it bothers him–it’s an itch he can’t help but scratch.

“Abdullah,” I said quickly, “I know EXACTLY what you want to say right now, and I’m telling you, just don’t say it. I know Baba will not like it, so wait until later and then say it.” Baba is old school and I don’t think he’d appreciate his logic having holes poked in it by a fourth-grader.

“You know?” Abdullah said. “How do you know what I’m going to say?”

“I’m your mom: I can read your mind.”

He wiggled. He held his hand over his mouth, dying to say his piece. He then asked, “Is it something with a C and a C?”

“Yep,” I replied. “I told you I’m a mind-reader. I knew it.”

Siraj had gotten curious by now and then asked, “Ok, ok, what is this about?”

“Confusing correlation with causation,” we answered. “The movie and the crankiness.”

“You’re right,” he said, “I think I would have gotten irritated.”

I could feel his pain–it wasn’t too long ago that I was saying something when my nasally-sounding 9 year old interrupted to say, “Mama, I think you are mixing correlation with causation.” Please, God, let him outgrow this before high school.

cell-phones-cancer

(c) xkcd, 2014

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.

IMG_8206

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.