54% of American Muslim college students have engaged in pre-marital sex, according to The Family & Youth Institute (The FYI). At least 45% have tried alcohol and 19% have tried illicit drugs.
Whatever idealistic notions we may have about our youth, Muslim students are not immune from engaging in risky behaviors. “We are struggling with alcohol issues, drug issues, pre-marital sex. Everything that is happening outside is also happening inside the Muslim community,” Dr. Sameera Ahmed, director of The FYI said.
At the 53rd Annual ISNA Convention held earlier this month in Chicago, Dr. Ahmed was joined by a panel of experts including Riyad Shamma, founder and executive director of the Institute of Youth Development and Excellence (IYDE), Mariam Martinez, whose work with IYDE focuses on Muslim children ages 4 to 11 years old, and Nadeem Siddiqui, chairman of the board of directors at The FYI, to discuss the importance of “Promoting Positive Youth Development.”
“Why do some Muslim kids make the decisions that they do?” Dr. Ahmed asked. She shared her own story about growing up in Ohio, where hers was one of the few Muslim families in town. As Dr. Ahmed said, “I didn’t care to be Muslim.” Even though her parents shared their love for Islam and stressed the importance of practicing the deen (religion), it simply wasn’t enough. What did have an impact were her cousins. They were the ones she connected with.
When she made mistakes, they let her know – but they helped her back up. Later, when Dr. Ahmed was a little older, it was a weekend school teacher who connected with her and made Islam relevant for the first time in her life. This new-found love led Dr. Ahmed to become involved with MYNA and start Islam Awareness Week at her college MSA. She believes that because someone – in her case, her cousins and teacher – took a risk on her and believed in her, she has started the process that led to her eventual success.
As Dr. Ahmed said, she had all the opportunities to make poor decisions – except she didn’t. What made the difference for her were the right building blocks that promoted positive development.
What are these building blocks?
- Connection – Connection is the basis of everything. If we think about the Sunnah, we see that when our beloved Prophet shared the message, he started by making connections with others. Children need positive bonds; they need to know that people care for them, that they matter to someone.
- Positive relationships then build the opening to the next building block, Character – Children observe the behavior of others around them – and from them, children learn morality and what is or is not appropriate behavior.
- After character comes the next building block, Compassion – It’s not just about what to do, but how and why. Children need to see and feel empathy, a lot of which they will learn from how adults interact with one another.
With Connection, Character, and Compassion firmly in place, children will then be able to develop the three positive traits that ensure continuous positive development as they grow. These are:
- Competence – this is the ability to do something successfully
- Confidence – this is a feeling that arises when a child appreciates his/her abilities or talents.
- Contribution – this comes when a child is able to use his/her abilities and talents to help others.
Starting at a young age
Mariam Martinez relayed a personal story that reinforced the importance of building connections with children at a young age. While she was at a playground with her niece, one of the mothers there went directly to her niece and told her she should not push people. This mother had assumed that Mariam’s niece was bullying her son, when in reality just a few minutes later, the children had forgotten everything and began to play again.
This incident showed Mariam how we, as a community, fail to engage with our children. If we want to make a positive impact on a child, whether it is our own or someone else’s, we have to first take the time to build a relationship with that child. It’s all about connection.
Parents may think that the solution to the problem is to just enroll their children in Islamic school. While such institutions as Islamic schools, Muslim youth groups, and halaqas are a good start, according to Riyad Shamma, they are not enough. We know this because “issues continue to grow,” he said. “We continue to have youth that are leaving Islam. We continue to have youth that are facing serious issues of depression leading to suicide. We don’t like to talk about these things because ‘We are Muslim and that’s haram’,” Riyad said.
But we need to talk about these things. “As a parent, you have immense opportunity to impress upon a child a lot of different things,” Nadeem Siddiqui said. Parents need to, first of all, recognize that every child is different and this will change how you interact with each one.
Nadeem suggested that one parent go out to breakfast with one child once a month. Let your child pick the restaurant – this will make him/her feel special, but it will give you the opportunity to get to know your child on a more intimate level.
Nadeem also underscored the importance of exemplifying good character at home. But instead of just living by example in silence, explain to your child why your values are important to you. Lastly and most importantly, if you make a mistake, acknowledge it and apologize. You send a very powerful message to your child when you, as an adult, say you are sorry. “When you apologize,” Nadeem said, “it reinforces to your child that he or she is not an after-thought to you.”
While parents and institutions all play a part, what our children need are mentors. Mentors provide a unique relationship. They typically are a few years older than a child and thus come with wisdom that friends simply do not possess.
What’s most important however is that mentors are not parents (or adults that children might associate with their parents, such as an Imam, for example). Even if you have a wonderful relationship with your parents, there are some issues you just can’t talk about with them. Mentors fill this gap. Mentors create nonjudgmental safe spaces for our youth to explore and discuss difficult and awkward topics.
It is important however that mentors be trained. If not, Riyad warned, this could result in a child becoming dependent on the mentor, and what our children need is resilience, the final component of the building block (competence, confidence, and contribution). Children need to be instilled with the sense that they can and will make the right decisions in life. To learn more on how IYDE can help train mentors already living in your community, email [email protected]
“As human beings, we need to be seen, we need to be heard” Riyad Shamma said. If we, as parents, and our institutions recognize this fact and provide the space and opportunity for our children to be heard and valued, Insha’Allah when they are faced with a difficult decision, they will make the right one that adheres to the values we have exemplified and hold dear.