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This article was authored by Madiha Tahseen, PhD
As parents, we want our children to grow up to be practicing Muslims with good character who please Allah (SWT). Many of us think that to achieve this, we have to be strict by hovering over them and punishing them when they don’t listen. Because of the emphasis placed on obeying parents in Islam, we often think this justifies strict and harsh parenting. But, will this kind of parenting create Muslim children who do the right thing, even when you aren’t there?

The example of the Prophet (saw) provides us guidance about how to be loving parents who teach and discipline without harming children’s emotional and mental health. He (saw) took a nurturing approach to his relationships— building trust as their foundation and being particularly kind and affectionate toward children.

So how can we follow his example, and work on becoming better parents? 

Parenting is usually described along two domains: (1) being warm and nurturing while also (2) setting limits and rules. Parents who are considered “strict” do a lot of setting rules but with little warmth and support. Here is what strict and harsh parenting looks like, why it does not work, and what to try instead.

Strict and harsh parents do these things:

Lots of Rules with Little Support
Little Warmth or Nurturing
  1. Set Unreasonable Rules
    • – Constantly hovering with many rules and directions
    • – Have unclear rules and limits that are not age-appropriate
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  2. Impatient With Misbehavior
    • Don’t see misbehavior as a teaching moment
    • Lack the patience for explaining rules, behaviors, and feelings
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  3. Give Few Choices
    • – Create and enforce rules based on the “My way or the Highway” approach
    • – Don’t work with children to come up with solutions or in making decisions
  1. Focus on the Bad
    • – Notice the wrongs their child does more than the right things
    • – Go on rants where they bring up the child’s mistakes
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  2. Use Derogatory Language
    • – Constantly nag, yell,  belittle or shame their kids: “You’re always messing up”, or “How many times do I have to tell you the same thing?”
    •  
  3. React Harshly and Quickly
    • – React to misbehavior swiftly and harshly, often without any explanation
    • – Make outrageous threats with no follow-through— “Clean up your room right now or I’m throwing all of your toys in the trash!”

“But if I don’t set rules, how will my kids learn right from wrong and be a good Muslim? 

As a parent, there is no doubt that we want the best for our kids— in this life and the next. But, the kind of strict parenting described above does not work. Does constantly nagging your teen to pray make them want to pray? Or are they praying only because you told them to?

Here’s why strict parenting doesn’t work:

Temporarily changes kids’ behavior.
  • – Rules with no warmth temporarily control behavior in the present but do not bring about real change in kids. 
  • – Setting harsh limits with little warmth or understanding makes children feel controlled. They see YOU as the controller of their behavior and YOU as responsible for their behavior— not themselves.
Kids will not learn how to self-regulate. 
  • – A child who does not learn from misbehavior in a loving way will not learn to think through what they did wrong and how to work on improving themselves— this is a key needed to succeed in life: self-regulation
  • – Kids will learn to listen out of fear and not because they understand the underlying reason behind the rule. 
  • – They will not learn how to cope with anger or other emotions in healthy ways, which means they will not learn how to work on their nafs and do the right thing.
Messes up the parent-child relationship. 
  • – Kids want to please their parents. But, when faced with harsh rules and no warmth or support, they start to lose interest in pleasing you. 
  • They will lose trust in you. Because they didn’t receive support from you when making a mistake, they will be afraid to come to you and prefer to lie instead.
  • – They will push back on the limits and start to resent you
Teaches kids to bully. 
  • – If you use fear and force, they will do the same. Force and anger become a part of their interactions with siblings and friends. 
  • – They don’t know how to show empathy or care for others because they didn’t get it from you.
So where’s the sweet spot between settling limits in a warm and supportive way without being harsh or strict? Healthy parenting doesn’t mean you let your child walk all over you. It means you set high standards (rules/limits) but with warmth, support, and guidance through the rules. Before you can think about how to do this, the first question to ask yourself is why are you engaging in strict parenting in the first place?

Parenting starts from within. Harsh and strict reactions to children’s behavior usually happen in moments of anger or stress.  Engage in some self-reflection and learn how to keep a cool head during tough parenting moments. Then, try the techniques below to set limits with warmth, and show rahmah towards your children. Remember, we can follow the example of our Prophet (saw) who constantly encouraged everyone around him to show warmth to children, even in moments of misbehavior:

“Abu Huraira reported that “Al-Aqra’ b. Habis saw Allah’s Messenger kissing Hasan. He said: I have ten children, but I have never kissed any one of them, whereupon Allah’s Messenger said: He who does not show mercy (towards his children), no mercy would be shown to him.” (Sahih Muslim)”

What to do instead

Let’s take the example of your 12-year-old child getting ready to go to their friend’s house before completing their assigned chore or homework (which you’ve been nagging them all day to finish). 

– Cool down. 
  • – Use whatever strategy helps you get back to being calm. 
  • – Reduce distractions. Guide your child once you are focused.
  • – Stop your own negative thought patterns (he never listens, he doesn’t respect me, he thinks he can do whatever he wants)
– Connect with your child first. 
  • – Describe what you see or hear. 
  • Offer genuine empathy for what they are feeling so that they know you are on their side, and not just being punitive or controlling.
  • – Kids are more willing to listen to your guidance if you show that you understand that they want something, even if they can’t have it.
    • “I see you’re getting ready to go to your friend’s house but you haven’t done your work yet. I know you’re really excited to go because they have that new game you’ve been wanting  to play” 
Set (or reinforce) the limit. 
  • – Keep it short and sweet- no lecturing or rationalizing. 
  • – It takes two to engage in a power struggle—  so step out of it. 
  • – Do not get baited into their accusations or complaints. “You’re so strict- you don’t care!” 
  • – Be firm but empathetic. 
  • – Include choices, if possible (especially if you have a strong-willed child)
    • Parent: We can’t see our friends until our work is done. When you complete your homework/chores, then you can go see your friend.
    • Child: But I’ll do it right when I get back— it’s not a lot anyways so why can’t you just let it go for this one time!
    • Parent: I can see how badly you want to go— that game must be really exciting to play! And yet, your work has to be done first. If you’re saying you don’t have a lot of work, let’s knock it out quickly together.  (don’t take the bait to “why can’t you let it go”)
    • Child: (getting angrier and slamming their things down): No! Why can’t I just go now! You’re always telling me what to do— just let me be for once!
– Stay calm at their reaction to your limit
  • – Don’t fear their reaction— they are allowed to be upset, hurt, or frustrated (within reason) at the limit you are setting. 
  • – Accept their feelings and help them move through them. You can show empathy and still enforce limits (which comes next).
  • – Showing them empathy tells them that even when they don’t get something they want, they have a loving adult in their corner who is there to help them through the biggest of feelings.
    • “I know this makes you really angry. I’m sorry you can’t go to your friend’s house right now.”
    • (Rather than: “It’s not that big of a deal” or “If you don’t calm down, I’m not going to let you go at all”).
– Set boundaries 
  • – If they become disrespectful or aggressive, set a boundary and uphold it.
  • – Continue to show empathy, be firm and calm.
    • “It’s okay to be angry but you may not use those words towards me. You’re getting very worked up right now. You can go calm down in your room”
– Reconnect. 
  • – This is the step many parents miss— checking inwith your child after the incident passes.
  • – Sometimes this can be a direct teaching moment. Sitting with your child and having a calm talk about what happened and what they can learn from their own behavior.
    • – Remember to have this from a place of calm and empathy. 
    • – Use open-ended questions to get them thinking:
      • – How were you feeling when you couldn’t do XYZ?
      • – What would help you in those moments? 
      • – How can I help you better …”
      • – Can you find other ways to show that you’re angry or upset?
  • – Other times, reconnection can be hanging out and increasing the positive interactions between the two of you —“filling up their emotional cup”. This could be as simple as cuddles for younger children or playing a game together for older children.  
Parenting is the hardest job we’re given— but it can also be the most rewarding. Imagine how you’ll feel in that moment when you find your child engaging in a positive behavior you taught them? Think about the relief you will feel knowing they are on the right path? It’s possible— by shifting your parenting approach from control and obedience to setting limits with warmth and support. May Allah grant us all diligence and patience to do the right thing for our children, Ameen!
Think Strict Parenting is the Way to Go? Think Again— and Try This Instead