"You will not eat anything today until the Sun sets."
Such a declaration can be dreadfully frightful to a small child. It seems like a very, very long time.
Many adult Muslims can recall the first Ramadan fast they observed when they were children. It is often a poignant memory. The difficulty of that day is easy to recall. Nevertheless, when the fast is successfully accomplished for the first time, the sense of triumph and of joy felt on that day is cherished for life.
One woman recalls that day as follows:
It was all a very long time ago, yet I can still remember some of the details of that day. I remember standing all puffed up with pride between my brothers. I was the only one fasting. Shortly before sunset, they brought sweets and gathered round to eat them. I just couldn't resist. That day, I broke my fast. The next day, I steeled myself up for the challenge. On that second day I triumphed, and may Allah be praised.
Another woman relates this memory:
Who could forget those days? Fasting was very difficult for us. If our families found out that we were fasting, they would forbid us and force us to eat. To tell the truth, I couldn't resist the smell of food. That was enough to make me break my fast.
A third has this childhood memory to share:
I woke up late one day in Ramadan. It was, as a matter of fact, in the afternoon. I felt extremely hungry, but I resolved to fast. Later in the afternoon, my mother sent me to the neighbors to borrow some drink mix powder from them. On the way back, I was so hungry that I ate the drink mix powder.
Another woman shares this memory:
The days were very long. I used to climb onto the roof of the house in the late afternoon to watch the Sun go down.
Some Motherly Advice
A number of mothers share with us their experiences with teaching their children how to fast. One mother tells us:
I would get them used to fasting by constantly reminding them of the blessings and rewards that a fasting person receives. I would teach them the wisdom behind fasting. I would also encourage them by preparing for them their favorite foods to break their fasts with. As the day progressed, I would keep them busy with beneficial tasks, and as the time for breaking the fast grew near, I would keep them preoccupied by playing with them. A final strategy was that I would instill in them a spirit of competition. The children would vie with each other as to who would fast the greatest number of days.
Another mother has this to share:
I would try to give my children strength by telling them things like: "When we were small, we would see our mother fasting, so we would fast along with her." I would remind them of the blessings that they would receive and that our beloved prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to fast.
A third mother tells us:
Every time a child was about to eat something, I would remind that child of the fast. I recall one singularly humorous incident. I saw my little girl put a piece of gum in her mouth, so I reminded her that she is fasting. So she spit out the gum, looked at it for a while, then quickly put it back in her mouth and swallowed it. Then she looked at me and said: "That solves the problem."
The Example of Our Pious Predecessors
The best example of raising children is that of our Pious Predecessors. They brought up the greatest of generations. Al-Rabî`, the daughter of Mu`awwadh tells us [Sahîh al-Bukhârî
and Sahîh Muslim
We used to fast and have our children fast. When we went to the mosque, we would give them cloth toys to play with. Whenever a child would cry for food, we would give that child the toys. We would do this until it was time to break the fast.
This shows that the Pious Predecessors did not simply impose fasting on their children. They looked for ways to occupy their children's time and make the fast easy upon them.
Is My Child Ready to Fast?
Fasting is more difficult for some children than it is for others. Children who have a weak constitution might not be able to fast. Likewise, children who normally need to eat frequently can find fasting difficult. Children who are extra active in their play are also among those who have trouble fasting. It is the job of the parents to determine whether their children are ready to fast. They know their children's health. However, the parents should not be lax in the matter. As long as a child is in good health, the child can be introduced to fasting in some manner or another.
Dr. Rashâd Lâshîn has the following advice for making the fast easy upon our children:
Between seven and nine years of age, it is possible to gradually introduce children to the fast. At the beginning, they can be encouraged to fast until 10 AM. Then the time can be increased until the time of the Zuhr prayer, then until the time of the `Asr prayer. At this point, we can encourage them, saying: "Come on, be brave. Keep up the fast until sunset and complete it all the way."
A healthy ten year old child can handle the fast. Medically, his body is able to handle cope with it. We can say to a child at this age: "Come on. Show us how brave and strong you are. Do something really great and fast the whole day."
It is important for us as parents to adopt the following measures so that our children can get the maximum benefit from their attempts at fasting – and not develop instead their skills at lying and deception:
1. We must work to instill in our children's heart the desire to fast. This means that compulsion is out of the question. Forcing them to fast is no way to develop their inner selves. Instead, it can cultivate ugly character traits like hypocrisy, lying, cowardice, and deceit.
2. Positive reinforcement works wonders and can make it much easier to get our children to fast. Praise and encouragement are strongly recommended. Prizes – both material and honorary – can be awarded to the children.
3. A great way to encourage our children is to cultivate a competitive spirit among them. This is especially effective when the children have peers who are fasting and who are praying in the mosque.
4. We must not neglect using the gradual approach with our children. This approach should be used so that the child steadily advances to the point of fasting a full day.
"I am fasting, Mom" (but only when you can see me)
What is a mother to do when she discovers that her child has not been observing the Ramadan fast, but has been lying?
Dr. Hiba `Îsâwî, a professor of Psychology at the `Ayn Shams School of Medicine, addresses this question. She stresses that the fasting of small children is a mother's responsibility, since the children are too young to understand the importance of the fast. Therefore, when a mother discovers that her child has been eating in secret, she should do the following:
1. Encourage the child's fasting by giving the child an allowance for each day successfully fasted.
2. Do not confront the child because of the mistake. Do not call the child a liar. Instead, inform the child indirectly – by using stories of others – just how serious it is to break the Ramadan fast and to lie.
3. Do not expect a small child to fast a full day from the onset. Increase the duration of the child's fast in increments, according to the child's age and ability.
4. When the child fasts, make sure to praise the child and to give the child recognition in front of the rest of the family.
5. Encourage the child to fast by only permitting fasting people to have the privilege of sitting at the table at the time of breaking the fast. In this way, the child will understand that breaking the fast early is a big mistake.
6. Do not place sweets and displays of food within the child's line of vision before the time of breaking the fast. There is no need to weaken the child's resolve with such temptations.
7. Cultivate a religious and celebratory atmosphere at home. Let the child sense the importance of this month by making it different that the other months of the year. Ramadan should be something special.