The time for tarbiya of children is in early childhood. This is a window that closes and is not indefinitely open.
At a certain point in time, I had a relative stay with me for a while. She was the last child in a somewhat large family (5 children). She was the “baby” of the family and her mother adored her and waited on her hand and foot.
Her parents were a bit older when they had her, and had greatly relaxed their parenting by the time she came along. They felt too old and tired to enforce the old rules they’d had for the older kids, too drained to confront this fifth child when she misbehaved, and had too little energy for consequences or punishment for misdeeds.
This daughter grew up coddled in such a home, doing mostly what she liked. No chores. No real responsibilities. Getting tired of her parents’ home at the age of 21, she came to stay with me for a while.
She was a sweet, good-natured young woman, with a ready sense of humor and a kind heart. But she did not know certain basic life skills and had some deeply-entrenched bad habits that had never been corrected. She was a picky eater and expected to eat out or order food from restaurants daily or nearly daily. She disliked eating leftovers. She wasted things around the house, throwing things that were usable into the trash bin without thought. She had very little financial responsibility. She lacked basic organizational skills, not knowing how to plan ahead to get tasks done or how to sort her responsibilities by importance. In general, she was unaccustomed to responsibility, consistency, accountability. Her priorities were misaligned, often mistaking luxuries for necessities and vice versa.
She received material things from her parents to compensate for her parents’ own poverty when *they* were children. But the irony is–this family was still quite financially limited. Despite being poor, their daughter got the latest iPhone with a brand-name phone case regularly. This type of material over-compensation comes from a place of emotionality from the parents, a need to somehow right the wrongs of their *own* past by making sure their daughter had things they never had themselves as children. So from a very young age, this girl had a smartphone, before she had the maturity or the prefrontal cortex development to use it well. Of course, she ended up talking online with strangers and getting into a “friendship” with a young American non-Muslim man 8 years her senior when she was 14. When her mother found out eventually, she tried to sternly order her daughter to desist from chatting online with this random man. But the girl persisted. The mother told me later about this issue, “Yeah, of course, it bothered me to see her talking to him whenever I’d notice it. But I…just kind of looked the other way after a while. I don’t have the energy. I couldn’t tell her what you are telling her so bluntly and so directly. You’re right, of course. Thank you.”
She had little knowledge of the Quran, though some of her older siblings knew much of it. She asked me one day to help her memorize some of the surahs of Juz `Amma, along with my own children. I agreed, of course, reassuring her that it was never too late to start learning even small surahs and that with just a bit of time and practice, she’ll have the full juz memorized insha’Allah.
One day, she and I were talking on the phone with her mom, just having a normal chit chat. During the conversation, her mother told me:
“ربيها يام خالد. أنا ماعرفتش أربيها.”
“Give her tarbiya (ie. Raise her), ya Umm Khalid. I wasn’t able to raise her.”
I reassured this tired old mother that everything was fine inshaAllah and that her daughter was a fine young woman with a good heart. Everything was going to be fine, I kept repeating. Don’t worry.
But the statement of this mother, nearing the age of 60, hit me. It made me think about the nature of childrearing. The parameters of parenting. Is there timing involved? Is there a window that closes? When does it start and when does it end? Can a child who has already grown into an adult still be parented and raised? Can old parenting mistakes and lapses and blind spots be corrected decades later by another stand-in parent?
I don’t know.
But I had long known (very intimately, in the most up close and personal way) families who had failed to raise their children when the children were young and needed to be raised by parents. The parents were lax, busy, stressed, distracted, too preoccupied fighting amongst themselves and bickering with one another, and failed to pay real attention to their kids and provide them with real tarbiya. These are not absentee parents or non-Muslim parents. These aren’t deadbeat parents who abuse alcohol or drugs. These aren’t kids who come from a broken home or were raised by a single parent because the other parent took off on them.
No. These are Muslim families with seemingly stable households, both parents living together in the home and working and living normal lives. But the substance of childrearing was missing. Tarbiya was not especially focused on. It was emotional, haphazard parenting rather than Islamic parenting based on the principles and values of our deen.
The prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم raised an entire generation of men and women, with astounding results that we still marvel at to this day. He, صلى الله عليه وسلم , was the best parent, the best teacher, the best mentor. He dealt with babies, toddlers, young children, teenagers, and young adults. He raised four blessed daughters. He raised Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son of his older, poorer uncle. He raised Zayd ibn Haritha, the young boy who had been stolen and sold into slavery but who was later freed and adopted by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم (until the ahkam of adoption were later revealed).
He raised many children, صلى الله عليه وسلم . He corrected mistakes firmly but with wisdom, never letting problems stand. He gave measured praise when necessary and meted out consequences when necessary. He صلى الله عليه وسلم taught values and principles, first enacting them himself, which made it easier for those around him to mirror them. He صلى الله عليه وسلم raised mature, responsible, upright men and women who would go on to fight battles (both military and otherwise) at young ages, who spread Islam in the most beautiful way, who would teach the world, centuries later, how to live as a good human being based on Islam. This is the kind of tarbiya he gave, صلى الله عليه وسلم.
And this is the kind of tarbiya we want to emulate in raising our own children today. Yes, we live in a different era, a different time and place, and everything is much worse now as we near the end times…but we must cling to the Prophet’s approach, صلى الله عليه وسلم. He is still our role model, despite everything we perceive as an obstacle. We want to follow in his blessed footsteps in raising the kind and caliber of men and women who will raise the flag of Islam inshaAllah. We want to provide true Islamic tarbiya, with love, intelligence, and wisdom.
And tarbiya starts at home. From a young age. Muslim parents, your job is extremely important.