NO ONE IS born a good mother or a good father – we all need to learn how to be a parent. And most of the time we learn it from our parents consciously or unconsciously copying their parenting style. It’s often only when we encounter a problem that we cannot handle or when we are exposed to a totally different approach to raising children, for example when travelling abroad, that we begin to question our own methods and look for alternative solutions.
My family is a multicultural one – I am Polish from a Catholic family; my husband is Pakistani Muslim and we live with our three daughters in the UK. This means that from early on I was exposed to three different parenting styles. And very soon I realized that none of them is superior to others, but rather in each culture I can find something that can enrich my own experience as a mother. This also made me search further on. I was curious to find out how differently parenting is done in different parts of the world and what I could learn from them.
In my research, I came across a book by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl called The Danish Way of Parenting. The title was enough to make me interested and the subtitle got me hooked: What the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable children. I started reading as soon as I opened the parcel, but made sure to take a break for reflection after each chapter.
And once I finished I realized three things: firstly the Danish way seems practical, effective and stress-free for both parents and children; secondly – some of the elements of the Danish way – like the Hygge, were present in my childhood experience and they did work, while other elements were just what I suspected would be the right way of doing things; and thirdly, most importantly – the Danish way is totally compatible with the parenting style based on Sunnah, which is how we are trying to bring up our children.
It was a surprising discovery – after all Denmark is rather secular – but it just goes to show that the moral principles that we follow as Muslims are present in the conscience of all people, no matter their culture or religion.
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught us:
Wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it. (Tirmidhi)
The Danish way of parenting is based on six principles arranged in the book as: Play, Authenticity, Reframing, Empathy, No Ultimatums, Togetherness and Hygge.
These terms might not sound familiar, but these concepts are present in Islam, perhaps going by different names.
And they are the principles I do try to incorporate in my life on everyday basis. But I needed this book to point out that I should teach them to my children as well, to foster their resilience, self-esteem and an inner compass to guide them through the good and bad and to teach them to be happy.
So how is the principle of PLAY present in Islam? Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:
Teach your children to pray when they reach the age of seven.
And there is a famous saying attributed to Ali Ibn Ṭâlib that you should play with your children until they are seven years old, then teach them for the next seven, and befriend them for the next seven years.
So here it is! Play has a huge importance in children’s growth and there are numerous studies confirming it. And according to 19th century Danish pedagogues Niels and Erna Juel-Hansen children should not even start school before they are seven because the unstructured play in early years is crucial for a child’s development. Play teaches children social skills and stress management, as well builds their “internal locus of control” that is, their drive and motivation to learn and to try new things.
On the other hand, burdening children with too much from early on and over-organizing their lives with extra-curriculum activities can lead to anxiety and stress and even mental health problems later. These days our lives are very busy and sometimes we are made to think that it is how they are supposed to be, confusing busyness with success. But the Sunnah encourages simplicity; a simple life with plenty of time to play –and not too many toys to create confusion– is what children need.
AUTHENTICITY, the second of the six Danish parenting principles, refers to authenticity in experiencing and expressing emotions as well as being realistic about life and seeing good as well as bad aspects of it, rather than painting everything in Disney Technicolor.
There is a tendency nowadays to tell children only the good news to spare them from experiencing grief, sorrow and other negative emotions. The classic fairy tales are rewritten so that there is always a happy ending and even the bad characters mend their ways eventually.
But the traditional Danish stories are not like that – they deal with the full palette of emotions, and the happy ending is not requisite. Similarly, the stories of the Prophets are also not much Disney-like – instead, they contain tragic events and evil people who get punished by Allah for their wrongdoing.
Authenticity is also about honesty – both in admitting your mistakes and in praising others. It is about teaching your children to cope with their emotions – the good and the bad ones, and to feel gratitude for the good that happens to us. And all of this is very Islamic as well as being Danish.
REFRAMING – the third of the traits found in The Danish Way is about shifting a negative perspective to see things in a more positive way and expressing this through a change in language.
It’s not about pretending that there is no problem at all, but rather about focusing on the good things while acknowledging the bad things, but not necessarily complaining about them.
It’s also about separating the action from the person – very Islamic. And about believing that children are inherently good – we call it Fiṭra.
The Danish attitude is what you’d call realistic optimism –not dissimilar to the Muslim belief that everything happens for a reason and Allah wants the best for us. We just need to show some sabr (patience) and shukr (thankfulness).
Closely connected to the idea of re-framing is EMPATHY – that is feeling what others feel and sympathizing with them. Danish children learn it at school and so as adults and parents have no problem separating the emotion or action from the person and finding a reason to explain even annoying behavior. The baby is crying? She’s probably tired or hungry, poor baby. That boy just took my daughter’s ball? He probably wanted to play together with her, but was too shy to ask.
Empathy and compassion is what our Prophet taught us:
Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully. (Bukhâri)
[It happens that] I start the prayer intending to prolong it, but on hearing the cries of a child, I shorten the prayer because I know that the cries of the child will incite its mother’s passions. (Bukhâri).
Hamdun Al-Qassar, one of the great early Muslims, said,
If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.
NO ULTIMATUMS as outlined in The Danish Way of Parenting is basically a positive discipline without punishment, be it physical or otherwise and with mutual respect between parent and child.
So, is this Islamic? It might appear to be in contradiction to what many of us know, as spanking is used to discipline children in many Muslim households, but if we look for the evidence in Sunnah it turns out that our Prophet ﷺ was a perfect role model of positive parenting.
Anas Ibn Malik, who used to help and serve the Prophet ﷺ during his youth described his personal experiences:
I served the Prophet ﷺ for ten years. He never said to me ‘uff!’ [to express annoyance]. And he never said about a thing I did, “Why did you do that?” And he never said about a thing I left, “Why did you leave that?” The Messenger of God ﷺ was the best of people in character… (Tirmidhi).
I served the Prophet ﷺ for years. He never insulted me at all. He never hit me at all. And he never scolded me. And he never frowned at me in my face… (Al-Baghawi, Al-Anwâr fî Shamâ’il Al-Nabi Al-Mukhtâr)
The last of the Danish principles of parenting is TOGETHERNESS AND HYGGE. Hygge is a uniquely Danish concept of celebrating togetherness with family in a cozy atmosphere. Cherishing togetherness every day is one of the reasons that Danish people have topped the ranking of happiness for decades.
Can we find Hygge in Islam? Not in comparable terminology perhaps, but family time has great importance for Muslims all around the world. And if we can make it a bit more peaceful and enjoyable – a bit more Hyggeligt – then all the better.
Allah has encouraged us Muslims to learn from others:
We have made you peoples and tribes, so that you may [come to] know one another. [Sûrat Al-Ḥujarât, 49:13]
It is indeed satisfying to find in the best practices of other peoples a reflection of the practices of the Sunnah of our Prophet ﷺ.