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Some time back I was involved in a series of internet discussions on raising children in which Christian scripture was quoted to emphasize the importance of using discipline and training to rigorously mold a child to a particular mindset. The concern in the discussion was with the use and application of Christian scripture in a way that did a disservice to the scripture itself by putting it to uses that limited interpretation or misapplied the scripture to inappropriate circumstances (something that can and does happen on both Christian and Muslim sides of a discussion). The discussion began with an outline of a belief that the relationship between children and the parents should be modeled after the relationship between humans and God, with the parents being in the position of God and the children in the position of humans who are punished if they disobey God and rewarded if they are obedient to Him. Schools, corporate institutions, even governments have been modeled on a similar hierarchy – on a type of acquiescence or submission to the mindset of institutional authority and many different systems of reward and punishment to ensure compliance. With this context in mind it was suggested that children need to be trained through a process of reward and punishment into the proper behaviors and the proper mode of thinking.
My own thoughts on this subject are rooted in the descriptions Muslims have of the Prophet and his relationship to his household (his ahl al-bait [Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn] and descriptions of how the Imams taught and guided their children) although, in this discussion, the focus remained entirely on a particular (fairly stern) interpretation of Christian scripture (Muslim equivalents of such sterness also abound).
The quoted Biblical verse which touched off the discussion was:
"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6)
It was quoted in the context of providing a firm and uncompromising upbringing, one that would train children in all aspects of behavior in order that children would be able to avoid the negative pitfalls of modern Western society. What follows are my comments gathered during and following the resultant discussion on raising children.
Note: On internet discussions there is a tendency to conceptualize and crystallize a viewpoint into a rigidity that is not at all mirrored by the reality and flexibility required by day to day life and our own personalities and individual circumstances. Turning a position into a rigid ideology can be counterproductive, especially when people begin to attempt to transform the world to fit into the straitjacket of their manufactured ideology. It is also counterproductive in that scripture (revelation) itself, is deeper and more comprehensive than any single meaning forced onto it.
In the course of the discussion I responded to the following (paraphrased) points (which although they may represent a particular Christian view, are certainly not representative of Christian views in general - however, such discussions do provide an opening and an opportunity to look into the issue of raising children in general and the issue of scriptural interpretation in particular):
- Training a child must begin at a very early age and should direct and cover every aspect of the child's behavior.
- Statistics show a rapid rise in serious crimes committed by young children (sometimes very young children) - more children than ever before are in detention centers and jails - violent crimes are even being committed by children under 10 - these statistics are indicators of behaviors in children that we have to sternly counteract.
- Children have to honor their father and mother - the commandment is clear "Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother. Honor signifies respect - respect signifies following and obeying.
- To our young children we are like gods. Their behavior towards us is an indicator of the way they will one day behave toward the one true God. If we insist on 100% compliance and do not allow things to slip when they are young they will transfer that obedience when older to God.
- Punishing children, though not pleasant, is necessary for their guidance. God and the Prophets set the example for us. The Bible is full of instances when God had to enact a punishment against a people (the people of Noah, the people of Egypt and many others).
- When Jesus said "Unless ye become like children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven" he was referring to the fact that we must become obedient like children and innocent of our shame.
- Little children have an unbridled nature - they are born with the instinct to be selfish and self-centered - Their natural urge is, "I want it so I must get it... it's mine."
- Our aim is not to judge - we don't really judge children, we recognize their nature and then teach them God's ways.
Note: The points to which I responded are >>italicized and indented in red text
>>"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6) Training a child must begin at a very early age and should direct and cover every aspect of the child's behavior.
But think carefully how it is you want him to go. - merciful, kind, honorable, noble, intelligent, aware, conscious, loving.... Children have an endless curiosity, innocence, and an experiential approach to understanding, grappling with, and attempting to comprehend and gain some level of proficiency at interacting with the world around them. They approach life with purity and clarity and with a remarkable openeness in observing their surroundings. The mental world young children occupy is an intense, busy one - their mental landscape is not fixed but shifts and changes while they observe and interact and search for meaning in the external world that is around them. They also have extraordinarily pure intentions and give their whole heart into that which they love or love doing.
Not too many adults have these kind of exceptional qualities - the reason is that in imagining that we are "training" children, we often train all these good qualities right out of them so that they reach adulthood as flat, uni-dimensional creatures - well trained but not necessarily for worthwhile things. When we "train" a child, we are trying to conform him to our mental outlook, to our view of the world. Each of us has a configuration in personality, outlook, understanding, knowledge that has been shaped and contoured by numerous internal and external factors and influences. Each of us has been shaped and delimited in numerous ways. When we train a child we try and conform the child according to our limited perception and knowledge - we try and conform the mental world of the child based on our own often dim understandings. As adults we see the world through so many accumulated filters that it is rare for us to see things as they truly are - to see them with an unfiltered perception. When we look at circumstances, incidences, events, interactions we interpret them and re-image them (according to our preconceived opinions and ideologies) so that by the time they enter our minds they have been substantially altered by the layers of mental lenses that accompany our perceptions. Children are comparatively free of these filters - they have not yet been shaped, contoured and stamped by external influences. Possibly that's why Jesus says: "Unless you turn around and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:3) He meant something far deeper by these and other similar statements than is perhaps commonly interpreted.
Training a child is to leave intact all the wonderful qualities in them and to attract them in the proper direction - so they can use these extraordinary qualities for uplifted and profoundly good aims and ends. More often than not the good qualities are trained right out of the children and then on top of that all spiritual direction is removed so the children are totally defenseless against the world around them - one largely dominated by institutions and political structures which maintain focus on human beings as resources to be managed and used, whether economically or politically. Surrounded, shaped, and limited by the interacting systems dominating our times, it becomes more necessary than ever to create a haven. Rather than prepare children to fit into and strengthen the dominant structures, they should be nourished in a beneficient spiritual environment so that there is some hope, some possibility that they will grow to have the knowledge and spiritual "hima" to re-create the world in new forms. If we have children who are encouraged to keep their inborn qualities intact then we will perhaps have adults emerge who can truly achieve much good and who are not confined by the limitations of our times.
Note: We should also note that "Train up a child...." is a proverb and not a commandment.
>>Statistics show a rapid rise in serious crimes committed by young children (sometimes very young children) - more children than ever before are in detention centers and jails - violent crimes are even being committed by kids under 10 - these statistics are indicators of behavior in children that we have to sternly counteract....
Statistics provide numbers but not causes - they highlight the fact that there are deeply disturbing trends manifesting in society but don't expose underlying causes, at least not with any depth. If anything these are indicators of gross missteps and failures within the society that adults have created. Don't raise your kids by fearing the worst in society, but by looking towards the best in all history. See how the Prophets were with their children. With what an admirable combination of freedom and responsibility Daoud (David) was raised. With what love and trust Yusuf (Joseph) was brought up and thus he and his father were able to weather all the hardship and separation they went through and in the end still be forgiving to others and in possession of an expanded love and knowledge. For Muslims, the relationship between the Prophet and his ahl-al-bait (his close family) provides a beautiful example of how to raise children.
>>Children have to honor their father and mother - the commandment is clear "Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother." Honor signifies respect - respect signifies following and obeying....
The way to inspire someone to listen and follow is by example. This commandment is a directive to the CHILD - not to the parents to force their children to obey their every word. As children of our parents, we have the obligation to honor our parents and to listen to them (so long as what they command is not in direct opposition to what God commands) and to treat them with love, kindness, and compassion. When our children are at the age of understanding and comprehension, they too will be responsible for fulfilling this commandment - but it is addressed to the children, NOT to the parents. One directive to the parents is rather, "Do not provoke or exasperate your children (when raising them), or they will become discouraged and lose heart." (Colossians 3)
>>To our young children we are like gods. Their behavior towards us is an indicator of the way they will one day behave toward the true God. If we insist on 100% compliance and do not allow things to slip when they are young they will transfer that obedience when older to God....
Yes, children when very young do have an exaggerated view of their parent's status. And we should treat them as we would hope God will treat us. With mercy, compassion, love, guidance, and direction. Remember that the Christian prayer to God is "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." (Luke 11:3) So we look towards His forgiveness and mercy. And we have no right to look towards his mercy unless we show mercy to those who slip, make errors, and don't show 100% compliance. The necessary attitude is evident in the folowing quote:
"Then he will say to those at his left hand; 'Depart from me....for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." (Matthew 25:41)
These verses have many deep meanings but one meaning we can infer from them is that it refers to those in this world whom we have the power to affect and impact - and our children are those upon whom we can have the greatest impact. They are born to us hungry, a stranger, naked, and many times their bodies go through childhood illnesses, and they are our prisoners since they cannot look after themselves. Parents fulfill all these needs of children, but as they grow they also have a spiritual hunger that needs to be fed with the healthiest food, a thirst for purity and truth that must be quenched. They will initially be strangers in the world so home must be their haven where they can gather strength and where they are always welcome and at ease, they must be given tender care and useful intellectual and spiritual remedies so the spiritual sicknesses of the world will not weaken them, and then they must be given freedom so that they will bring their own unique approach and their own unique personality to bear upon the condition of the world. Their lives must never be a prison for prisons will distort and eventually kill the spirit.
>>Punishing children, though not pleasant, is necessary for their guidance. God and the Prophets set the example for us. The Bible is full of instances when God had to enact a punishment against a people (the people of Noah, the people of Egypt and many others).
We have to make a distinction between discipline and punishment. The law and the punishments for breaking the law have little to do with the small mischiefs or misbehavior of little children. And it is unfair to project God's prescriptions for serious crimes in a minaturized way onto small children.
These were Divine punishments for a people who had gone so far astray and had earned God's wrath to such an extent that they obstinately and knowingly put themselves out of the ambit of God's mercy - they chose His Wrath. They went past the point of no return. There is no connection, no parallel, between the punishment of such peoples and the raising of children. In fact, it is dangerous to create such parallels as it causes us to see things from the perspective of retribution, and wrath, rather than from the perspective of mercy. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." (Matthew 5:7) The dealing out of wrath is God's prerogative and the prerogative of His Prophets who had a comprehensive and Divinely granted perspective by which they made true and correct judgments - not judgments from narrow understanding or ego. Unless we have true knowledge and a higher perspective than that of this world our wrath is of no benefit to anyone - least of all our children. We have to tread carefully when interpreting scripture and the actions of Prophet's and of God. Too glib an understanding sometimes leads to misunderstanding. We should not imagine that we have any more than a shard of understanding from the myriad facets to be found in each and every verse of the various scriptures.
>>When Jesus said "Unless ye become like children, ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven" he was referring to the fact that we must become obedient like children and innocent of our shame.
What he was talking about was purity of heart and purity of intention, and humility, and the pure, undiluted human impulses as yet relatively untainted by the filters of our own mental constructions which we impose on revelation and on understanding the world. The scribes and pharisees saw all revelation through their mental constructs, they were blind to everything but the narrowest interpretation of their theology, their self-interest (in the matter of their social status and their religious authority) and the manner of interpretation that they had constructed. They "trained" all others in this manner of viewing and filtering the world. "You traverse sea and land to get a single student (a convert), and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." (Matt: 23.15) Today our institutions and corporations and media train us to view and interact with the world and with each other in certain delimited ways. Jesus is issuing a warning to those who are "training" others that perhaps they have more to learn from the child's nature than they imagine.
Unlike the scribes and pharisees we have to reach deeper into scripture to gain any real lasting benefit from it. Sometimes this necessitates a throwing off of the many filters and blinders we wear. We need to contemplate, not superficially, but as deeply as our own being allows us to reach. And the deeper we reach the more the depths will open up to us. But to partake of that knowledge we need to do more than just stand upon the shore or listen to someone else’s description of of it.
Jesus says that someone who hears the word but doesn't understand it loses to the world whatever little of the word he has in his heart. One who hears it and receives it but doesn't comprehend it with any depth will endure for a short time but there is no depth and so no permanent root of knowledge and wisdom can take hold in him. One who receives it but who dilutes that knowledge with his own prejudices and filters (thorns) will not receive the fruits of the word - the knowledge will not reach fruition and true understanding. But the one who hears and contemplates and understands with depth, will gain the true fruits of understanding which is knowledge and wisdom exploded a hundredfold - a Divine harvest of knowledge (see the parable of the sowers). What better analogy for the hidden spiritual potential that lies in each new generation but which an “institution” and "training" obsessed society often wastes away or diverts towards harmful or low purposes.
Note: "A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit a hundredfold."(Luke 8:4-8)
>>Little children have an unbridled nature - they are born with the instinct to be selfish and self-centered - Their natural urge is, "I want it so I must get it... it's mine."
Children go through a stage of realizing their individuality, their sense of “ I ”. They go through the process of discovering the boundaries of the external world and their own selves. This is not selfishness or self-centeredness. If they did not experience this stage there would be no sense of self or at best a distorted one. Selfishness comes later when we have knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world and in spite of knowing better, put ourselves first at others expense, or deprive others so our ego may be fed.
When children are born they are free of any teaching, any particular view of reality, any prejudice, any coloring of thought, any bias of opinion. God has placed within them certain potentials and capabilities and traits and certain strengths and weaknesses, but they have no acquired, human-filtered knowledge. They are blank slates (as far as societally learned teachings are concerned) - unlettered - they are like clear calm water, receptive to light and learning, whereas the mind immersed in the world is like water in turmoil, it's surface darkened and opaque.
In Islam it is said that a soul can receive God's word only when it is in a state of virginal purity, original simplicity, and not distracted, entangled, or immersed in worldly matters – the analogy is Mary, the pure, who was chosen to receive God's word (Jesus) in her womb. Our souls must also be in such a state, or as close as possible to such a state to receive correct, undistorted (by the convolutions of our own mind) teaching. The more our being is contoured and filtered with unrooted opinions, preconceived notions not based on true understanding and knowledge, the less we are able to be like those children, who are far closer to that state of purity. This is why Christians are told to be "born anew", and Muslims to "die before you die" to return to that pure state, that childlike state (not childish state) and then advance from there. Children don't have all those distorting filters, we do.
>>Our aim is not to judge - we don't really judge children, we recognize their nature and then teach them God's ways.
We teach them an interpretation of what we believe to be God's ways. And we do judge them - when we say that children have such and such a wrong nature, we have judged their very being, their very essence, as something that needs to be punished or disciplined or trained out of them.
Jesus says, about following him, about religion - he says that there are two supreme commandments which contain all of the law and the prophets. Total love and consciousness (taqwa) of God - and love your neighbor as yourself. These are the two underlying principles of all religion - from which all law and ethics emerge (Matthew 22:37). Both of these are things which must be experienced and struggled towards - academic, theoretical knowledge of them is not sufficient. We often have difficulty lifting ourselves above the minor and petty annoyances and trials of daily life, of our jobs, of raising children - how can we hope to achieve two goals such as these, or to teach them to those in our care? Those aspects of religion which move us in this direction, are of course good, if not essential. And of course children need direction and guidance, and in time must learn self-discipline. But we should be careful of the lens through which we view these matters - it is too easy to distort our outlook, and then what we call following the apostles or prophets (or whomever) may actually be a dis-service to their teachings.
When we plant a flower in a garden we take care to ensure that the soil is good, that it receives water and sunshine, that we weed the garden and shelter it from what may harm the flowers. But even as we tend the garden in this manner we trust the flower's own innate capacity to take it to full bloom, to disclose the potential that was contained in the kernel of the seed, and to become what it was capable of becoming. We do not try to change the nature of the flower, but rather protect and nurture it and provide what it needs so it may attain the best possible fruition. So with children – so with their education.
By contrast, this age's approach is not only to train but to alter the basic nature of things – the ability to alter genetically, to recombine and reshape is a modern analogy for a level of control and interference practiced by modern institutional society that is unparalleled in history - to seek to shape humans to fit constructed institutional /corporate/political/societal moulds. Even education can get subverted to this end. It’s truly sad if religious misinterpretations might cause us to transform even the refuge of home and family into a miniature reward and punishment based training ground – turning the sanctity and beauty of "home" into a place where children have their own individual reality trained and engineered right out of them.
- Irshaad Hussain
"My dear son, you are a part of my body and soul and
I look at you I feel as if I am looking at myself. If any calamity
to you, I feel as if it has befallen me.... My dear son, so far as your
with other human beings is concerned, let (the best aspects) of your
act as scales to judge its goodness or harm....
Whatever you like for yourself, like for others, and
whatever you dislike being done to you, spare others from such actions.
Do not oppress and tyrannize any person because you surely would not
like to be oppressed
and treated unjustly. Be kind and sympathetic to others as you
are thankful if others treat you kindly and compasionately. If you find
and loathsome habits in others, abstain from developing those traits of
in yourself. If you are satisfied or feel blessed upon receiving a
kind of behaviour from others, behave with others in the same
....Lead a balanced life
whenever you receive guidance from your Rabb (Lord) to achieve a
you desire, then do not be proud of your achievement but be humble and
to Him and realize that your success was due to His abundant Mercy...."
(excerpt from Imam Ali's advice to his son - Nahj
"My God (as for my children),
make long their lives for me,
increase their terms,
bring up the smallest for me,
strengthen the weakest for me,
rectify for me
their religious dedication,
and their moral traits,
make them well in
and everything that
concerns me of their affair,
and pour out for me
and upon my hand
aware, fearing, insightful, hearing, and obedient
loving and well-disposed
toward Thy friends....
Help me in their upbringing,
and my devotion toward them...."
(dua of Imam Zain al-Abideen - the
fourth Imam of the Shi'ites)