January 21, 2014

Anita Bond-Salama on Raising Teenagers

Anita Bond-Salama is an American born Venezuelan-Polish mother of three and step-mother of one, currently living in California, USA. She accepted Islam at 23 years old, 2.5 years before meeting her husband and has now been married for 25 years mashaAllah. Since taking her shahada, she has been an active community volunteer but has most recently served on the Outreach Committee of her local masjid for the past 5.5 years. In 2006, her and her husband performed Hajj and they recently performed Umrah with their children for family spiritual bonding, mashaAllah. 

How many children do you have and where are they currently in life?
I have 3 children with my husband and 1 step-son from my husband’s previous marriage. The step-son is 29, has been married for 5.5 years and has a 2.5 yr old little boy. He is a successful electrical engineer. Our 3 children together are Omar who is 24, Sarah who is 21, and Yousef who is 19.

Omar graduated from an all-boy Catholic high school and is now married with a 1.5 year old little boy. He and his wife are graduating college this year with a BA in Kinesiology and both have applied to grad school and wait for their acceptance inshaAllah. Omar also works part time as the co-youth coordinator and does some outreach and dawah work with the youth as a branch of the Outreach/Dawah committee for his local masjid.

Sarah graduated from an all-girl Catholic high school at 15 years old by taking the California early graduation exam. She is expected to graduate from college this year with a BA in Modern Anthropology. She currently serves as the MSA President for her college and volunteers regularly for her local masjid as a youth mentor for 5th & 6th grade girls. She also volunteers at various Islamic activities throughout the community and has written a couple of articles in different publications about Islam. She performed Umrah this year with her younger brother Yousuf and a group from the masjid.

Yousuf is 19 and graduated from an all-boy Catholic high school one semester early by taking the California early graduation exam. Currently, he attends a junior college and will be transferring next year to a 4yr college. He is undecided on career choice but has some general ideas where he would like to go in life. Yousuf performed Umrah this year with a group from the masjid and regularly attends Al-Maghrib, Al-Bayinah and College of Islamic Studies classes to further his knowledge of Islam. He also participates in his college’s MSA and volunteers for the dawah table on-campus.

MashaAllah, between performing Umrah, graduating from College, marriage, community work, and careers, your children all seem to be very active and productive. Was staying busy something that you purposely instilled in them during their upbringing?
Truthfully, I have no idea how to answer this question. I did not purposely set out and say I am going to raise children who volunteer and stay busy.

As a normal, struggling parent trying to find that balance between busy and down time for my kids I became aware of volunteer opportunities for them. There were Muslim volunteer programs as well as programs through their high school that were part of their curriculum to give back to the community. 

My husband and I have always volunteered and our kids observed that. I insisted that they help me in projects I was involved with at the local mosque. I didn’t give them a choice; it was something they had to do.

I asked my kids about this question and they said that once your iman starts to grow and you realize all the baraka there is in volunteering and giving back, that the idea of volunteering seems natural and almost expected. It is a way of staying connected to the community and a way of becoming better.

As for staying busy, again, it’s about finding that balance and having some down time to contemplate and rejuvenate. Not just physically, but the soul as well.

Often times when we hear stories about raising teens, it’s all horror stories. In your experience, is raising teenagers really as bad as it’s made out to be?
Raising productive, respectful children in general is challenging in this modern day instant gratification society, let alone teenagers. 

I have observed many parents, Muslim and non-Muslims, get more relaxed as their kids become teenagers. Raising teenagers can be difficult if you do not put in the effort and time to hold your child responsible for bad, disrespectful behavior. It is a parent’s job to make it clear what is expected at each level of their child’s development. So it is my personal opinion that you get what you deserve. In other words if you put the time and effort and nourish you child from start to finish you will insha’Allah be rewarded with a well-rounded, outstanding individual.

Why did you choose to send your kids to a private Catholic school instead of a private Islamic school?
Our first son Omar was actually homeschooled for half of Kindergarten with a group of kids. The moms traded off instruction and we had Arabic lessons, Qur’an, Islamic studies, the whole nine yards.  But in the middle of the year, my husband’s son came to live with us and we felt it was going to be too much stress so we put all three of the kids in Islamic schools.

During their short three years at Islamic school, the educational level at the time was not the best and we noticed our kids were having difficulties adjusting to non-Muslim children, activities, and family members. Because of this, my husband felt that they should go to another non-religious private school since my parents were paying for it (it was a gift).

So we began with Omar. First he attended a Blue Ribbon private school that has been around since 1963 and it uses the Mae Carden educational system. It encompassed manners, behavior and academics; it was by all means strict. This school had all religions, race and backgrounds. The following year Sarah and Yousuf joined and eventually all three graduated from the 8th grade from this school. It was a great experience and the school was accommodating in regards to our religious beliefs.

During the Jr. High years, both of our sons had an after school sports program which played in a private school sports league. Both boys really got into football and they were both very good players so it was during this time we looked into private and public high schools. We knew public school wasn’t going to cut it since both boys were lazy in academics. We didn’t want them to fall through the cracks at a public school and we knew that if they played sports at a private school they would have to maintain a certain grade point average to be able to play.

I knew about a well-known, private all-boy school that was college preparatory with a division 1 football team. Being an all-boy school meant that our boys would have less distractions with girls, even though they have 2 sister schools. They also had Muslims and Christian Arabs who attended the school in the past.
As for our daughter, we chose the all-girl school which is a sister school to the all-boy school. Again, it would be less distraction with the opposite gender and since she was going to wear hijab, less stress in trying to impress.  She and our sons had their ups and downs but overall, the school was supportive.
How did your children deal with the differences in Aqeedah and religious practices?
It was Omar who came to us during his religion class and expressed that he felt like he was betraying Islam by learning about Catholicism. 

We explained to him that he was not and should instead look at the class as Catholic history. After that he was ok with it. Experiences like that actually helped our kids strengthen their faith because they saw flaws and contradictions in the Catholic religion. We had countless conversations regarding the loop holes and how Islam is a complete faith. The other religions just didn’t make sense to them alhumdulilah. It really was a gift from Allah they were able to see the difference, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar.

The schools were accommodating to say the least. And they stressed many Islamic attributes such as being faith leaders, having respect, honesty, integrity, upholding marriage and family responsibilities. And as parents, we were required to participate and volunteer at the school.

Both of our sons were able to express themselves about Islam and share their religion during the religious studies classes. As a matter of fact, they were even asked to explain the concept of Jesus in Islam and other topics.

In Yousuf’s senior year of football they put a verse from the Qur’an (2:216) “You may dislike something although it is good for you or like something although it is bad for you. God knows and you do not”. Our son Omar even goes back yearly to give Islam 101 classes to the history and comparative religion classes. The school even gave me the nickname Salama-Mama.

Omar said in an interview for the Associated Press about an article growing up as an American Muslim 10 years after 9/11: “in high school I realized I had to live by example, I had to learn to handle myself every time some co-student attacked my religion”.

Our sons’ experiences were for the most part good but there were times of stress and bullying. How did they handle it? They just did. It was actually after they graduated that they told me about it.

Now, going back to why we decided to send our children to Catholic schools, it’s because we felt our kids could learn about another faith and face differences in a protected, disciplined environment. After all, our kids will go out into the world. How will they know how to handle situations if we don’t allow for those experiences?

If you had the choice to send them to a Catholic school again, would you? Or would you choose an Islamic school?
It really would depend on the availability of the high school. Currently, I think Islamic schools are important and serve a purpose. But in my opinion, they could hinder a child’s overall social interaction with the non-Muslim society at large (this is based on our experience 18yr ago). I feel as a responsible parent it is our job to expose and teach our kids the proper way of being around non-Muslims. All of our kids had non-Muslim friends as well as Muslim friends; they interacted with everyone. There were boundaries and we enforced them. Muslim kids can actually be worse than non-Muslim kids.
One day we won’t be around for our kids. Allah will call us and we should make sure that our kids can handle themselves and hold onto their deen with conviction. We felt that if our kids were predominantly in Muslim schools, they may lack the skills and maturity to move onto college where there are no limitations, no supervision and everything is accepted. We’re confident with the decision we made for our kids and we know the route we took may not work for others. Every kid is different and every family is different.
What have been some of your biggest challenges in raising your teens?
Dealing with peer pressure can be extremely unpredictable. Our children face many more challenges than we ever did due to modern technology. Our boys are being constantly bombarded with sexual images of girls and our girls are being constantly bombarded with the push to be outwardly provocative and sexual. 

Both genders are being pushed to grow up before they are ready. Since our kids went to private school the pressure was not as intense as someone who attends a public school, but nevertheless there was pressure.

What have been some of your most rewarding times raising your teens?
There are and insha’Allah will continue to be many rewarding times. But for me, the most rewarding is watching all three of my children develop spiritually in their desire to please Allah and in their desire to learn more about their deen. They are so blessed in this new era of scholars. The opportunities for them to learn have become much easier and more available than when I was first a new Muslim.

The teenage years are often when individuals begin evolving and defining their personal identities. As a parent, what did you do to help instill a strong sense of Islamic identity during your children’s teenage years?
Instilling Islamic identity starts from the time they are born. In actuality, it is a basic right of a child to have righteous parents and a good meaning name. In the teenage years it’s important to stay consistent in performing prayers together as a family, especially the fajr and isha prayers. It’s a great way to start and finish the day.

Believe it or not, having dinner together nearly every night helps. For us, my husband worked most nights so we always had breakfast together before going to school. Also, making a huge deal over Islamic celebrations, doing things over the top, going to family Muslim camps. Ramadan has always been, and still remains, to be a big deal.  Since my husband is originally from Egypt we made sure we traveled to Egypt nearly every year so our children could keep up their Arabic and connect with their Muslim family members, whom they are close with till this day thanks to the internet.

A main reason I believe our kids have been able to grow into being able to maintain their Islam is because of my husband and his very calm approach when the kids made mistakes (trust me there were many). He was fair in their punishment and did not put them down or make them feel less. He always brought it all back to Allah and how by pleasing your parents you are pleasing Allah. 

Also, what we were teaching them at home they were being taught at the different youth conferences they attended so all this reinforcement made a difference.

Knowing who their friends were, where they were going, and what they were doing. It’s our right as parents to know everything about our children. Who, what, when and how they socialize is definitely our business.

Did your teens ever experience a period of struggle in trying to hold to the religion? If so, how did you support them through those times and encourage them towards Islam?
I can’t say for sure if they struggled with holding onto the religion but most definitely they made mistakes and faced many challenges. We supported our kids during their challenging times by making sure we did not put them down, insult them, or speak in a derogatory manner to them. When they were faced with making bad choices, they had to be held accountable for that bad decision and needed to understand why they were going through a difficult time.

When a teenager makes a mistake, we need to understand as parents that it is our teenager calling out for help. Is our teenager being stupid and making poor choices without thinking of the consequences? Or is it just plain growing pains that teenagers experience to help them become the adults they are destined to be, insha’Allah?

All three of our kids struggled with growing pains, self-doubts, mistakes, and challenged us as parents. Of course we overreacted in the beginning, exploding with anger at times, and nagged them till they couldn’t stand it anymore. But over time we got a hold of ourselves and addressed the challenges with a more calm, loving, and understanding approach. We realized that our teens would face unbearable situations at times and we needed to be the source they came to and Alhamdulilah, over time they came to us more and more.

Many Muslim teens struggle with not being able to date. How did you handle dating with your teens and encourage them to engage in halal relationships?
To be perfectly honest our kids didn’t express the desire to want a boyfriend or girlfriend. It was something that was understood and still is; that it is unacceptable behavior and something Allah warned us about. We always spoke to them about marriage. Maybe you will marry, maybe you won’t, only Allah knows that. I believe that because they were always part of a mosque youth program and youth conference, and of course instilling Islamic moral ethics and behavior, it definitely assisted them in staying on the proper path.

What do you think are some of the influences out there today that pose the biggest risk to Muslim teenagers and how can we, as Muslim parents, help them to not be negatively affected by those influences?  
Media: TV, radio, social media sites, personal blogs, and of course the internet. Anything they want is at their fingertips, good or bad. We don’t believe in banning these items so the kids won’t be tempted, but instead we taught them self-control. A teenager is not born with self-control; it has to come from the parents. First and foremost, be the example and set limits. Teach them to lower their gaze when something inappropriate is in front of them. It all sounds silly but how else will they learn. Your teen will cross the line and will challenge you, but it is a parent’s job to hold their teen accountable for inappropriate, bad behavior, even if they are just curious.
As a parent, you have to set boundaries and enforce discipline but you also want to be there for your teens in a way that makes them want to be open and honest with you like they would with a best friend. How did you find balance between the two?
Parents are forced to be in a position of flipping the coin. At times, parents can be mild mannered friends and everything is cool and then without notice you have to flip the coin and be the disciplinary. I didn’t have any problem doing that for myself. It was a matter of do I want to create a monster or do I want to have a respectful child? I chose the latter.
Your teen will learn how and when they can come to you by how you react to them and their bad behavior. If you follow through with your teen regarding some inappropriate behavior you will gain their respect and the teen will know you mean business. But if you are wishy-washy and don’t follow through, believe me the teen will work you until you are at a point of no return and there will be chaos and pandemonium.
By nature teens are less likely to go to their parents but we always reinforced that they could come talk to us. We had family times, one-on-one times, all kinds of activities and daily actions so they knew they could come to us but it took time for them to feel that comfortable.
One trick we used was installing cyber spy on our home computers so we were aware of everything little thing they did on the internet. Some of it was horrifying and some of it was stupid teen stuff. There were times we would bring up topics with them as we went about our day and they would open up. And there were times they had to be called in behind a closed door and we set down the law.  They were always surprised as to how we knew what they were going through, lol.
I can’t stress enough that it is all in how you respond and deal with your child. If you overreact and start yelling, pulling your hair out or get violent, you will not get the result you want. But if you talk and discuss and guide, over time it will all pay off.  Your teen will actually surprise you.
The teen years is not the time to take a back seat as a parent, it’s a time to be more proactive than ever before. Your child will make loads of mistakes, but catch them and guide them and hold their hand. Then let them go and start all over again. Over time they will grow mature and make less mistakes. They will have their epiphany and realize “I am a Muslim and I need to act like one.”
How has raising teenagers affected your relationship with Allah?
Praying more. Because your teen will drive a car and will begin to branch out with activities outside of the family more and more, preparing themselves for adulthood. And you just pray more and more to Allah, asking for your child to come home safe, and for them to not have to be put in a situation that they may not be able to handle.

What is your greatest advice for other Muslim mothers raising teenagers?
Create a safe environment for your teen to be able to come to you when necessary. There will be times when you don’t know everything about your child and maybe that is a blessing. Make dua to Allah to reveal to you anything you need to know about your teen. They may be experimenting in behavior you need to know about and they are afraid to say something. But I believe truly if your relationship with Allah is sound, your relationship with your teen, husband, family unit will be sound.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Insha’Allah I would like for you to realize that we struggled many times with our children and they were a handful at times. Many nights I would just scream into my pillow from the frustration. It has been a lot of sacrifice, tough love and desire to uphold our responsibilities as parents so that when our time comes we can face Allah and, insha’Allah, be rewarded for our efforts.

Having a supportive spouse and being connected to the mosque and other Islamic organizations like CAIR, Al-Maghrib, MAS, etc all assisted in some way or another in helping raise our kids into who they are today. We are in another stage of life with them and enjoying their journey to adulthood and this is only by Allah’s grace.

May all Muslim families grow and prosper within the realm of Islam. 

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