By Mesha O, New Age Islam
30 August 2016
To be a parent is to take on one of the most challenging responsibilities possible—of being the vehicle for providing for the various needs of the child that one has been gifted with by the Creator.
Every individual has a number of needs that must be met in an optimum way for his or her all-round health: bodily or physical needs (such as for food, clothing and shelter); emotional and mental needs (including the need for intellectual development, emotional security, comfort and growth and psychological maturity); and spiritual needs (the needs of the soul—vertically, in relation to the Creator, and horizontally, in relation to the rest of the creation).
Good parenting is all about meeting all these different needs of a child in a balanced and adequate manner. From this it follows that a good way for people to understand how they are performing as parents is to reflect on how they are providing (or not providing) for each of these different sets of needs of their children.
Now, parents are, after all, human beings, and human beings do make mistakes occasionally. All parents err, though some less often or in a less damaging way than others. Taking time off every now and then to think about where one might be erring as one goes about parenting a child, in terms of meeting the child’s various needs, is a good way to help play one’s role as a parent in a better manner.
Because many of us tend to identify with our physical bodies, many parents think—and this is much more so today, in an age when materialism has become probably the most seductively missionising religion—that meeting the physical needs of their children in what they think is the best possible manner is what they need to do in order to be good parents. While these needs are vital and have to be met for the sheer survival of their children, this tendency can—as it very often does—go completely overboard, turning into sheer over-indulgence. Such is the case of well-heeled people who think that being a good parent means gifting their children the latest electronic gadget, the trendiest outfit, almost every toy that their children demands and every new chocolate or breakfast cereal advertised on TV and who believe that taking them out to expensive restaurants and hotels or on holidays abroad is what spending quality time with them means.
In many cases, such obsessive concern with providing material things to children serves as a substitute for providing them true love and genuine emotional bonding, even though parents who behave this way may think that in plying their children with these ‘goodies’ they are expressing their care for them. Material over-indulgence can sometimes simply be a sign of emotional under-provision. This, for instance, is the case with many parents who don’t give sufficient time and attention to their children and who think (often impelled by a deep, though unrecognised, sense of guilt) that loading them with material things can make up for this.
Parents need to recognise that children who are brought up in this way are very likely to face immense difficulties when they are older. They may be rendered incapable of doing things by themselves and may also have unreasonable expectations from others, imagining that others exist simply to serve them and meet their demands. Their relationships with others are likely to be shallow, self-centred and instrumentalist. They are also likely to grow up like their parents in equating happiness with mere material or sensual gratification. As adults, they might be shy and insecure, or, on the other extreme, aggressive and pushy, either way because as children, their every demand was met and they weren’t trained to do things by themselves or to accept ‘No’ for an answer.
Like physical needs, children have emotional needs, and if these are not met in the right manner, they are likely to grow up crippled for life. Every child needs to feel loved and wanted unconditionally, and, as it grows up, genuinely respected as someone with a will of his or her own that counts for in the family. This is crucial for the development of self-esteem and confidence. Children need to feel secure as well as free and to be able to know that they can trust others, beginning with their parents. In many families, children face enormous emotional turmoil as a result of parents not adequately providing for their children’s varied emotional needs. It is absolutely imperative for parents to seek to dispassionately observe how their children are doing in terms of their emotional or psychological development.
This is, of course, easier said than done, for many parents are themselves emotionally damaged in various ways and are thus not in the best position to assess their children for the same issues that affect them, too. This could be overcome to some extent if parents seek to become more aware of the emotional needs of children and of the ways of meeting them and also learn to identify signs of possible emotional distress in their children by reading up on the subject—there are many magazines and books and much material on the Internet on these issues—or by enrolling for a course on child psychology or counselling, which are now easily available in many places and also online.
The intellectual needs of children—the need to sharpen their minds and widen and deepen their knowledge—is something that many parents do try to take seriously, if only to ensure that they ‘succeed in life’, which many of them equate with getting a ‘good’ (read ‘well-paid’) job. Many parents go out of their way in seeking to do this, by sending their children to what they consider to be the ‘best’ possible schools that they can afford. But given the severe limitations of the formal education system as it exists, with its obsession with the accumulation of information and its almost complete neglect of transformation and the need for the cultivation of wisdom and the ethical dimension, parents should recognise that merely sending their children to ‘good’ schools will not meet all their essential intellectual needs.
In fact, schools often work to mis-educate children, seriously damaging their minds, hearts and souls. Given this, parents need to consider alternate or additional ways of meeting those intellectual needs of their children that schools cannot address—for instance, by taking their children on visits to places of historical interest or natural beauty, centres of worship, homes for the aged or the infirm, factories, museums, or, say, a zoo or a slum, a forest or an orphanage, a shrine or a park, a dance performance or a planetarium or a bakery, combining in this way entertainment as well as exposure to various situations and dimensions of lived reality, a form of education that is far more wholesome, meaningful and stimulating than mere bookish learning at school.
Parents could also provide their children good, intellectually-enriching books to read, movies to watch or games to play with. Such additional means of fulfilling the intellectual needs of their children require that parents spend quality time with them for this purpose and consciously choose to be an integral part of their learning process, rather than leaving it entirely to schools and after-school private tutors to manage.
Human beings are spiritual beings, and they have been sent into this world by the Creator for a definite purpose: to reflect the Creator’s attributes in their own lives and in this way work towards felicity in the eternal life after death. This means that in addition to their physical, emotional and intellectual needs, children have spiritual needs, which need to be met if they are to fulfil the purpose of their coming into this world, or, in other words, if they are to gain true success in this world and in the eternal world after death. Meeting the spiritual needs of their children is of the most vital importance for parents.
Sadly, in our age, when consumerism is the new religion for vast numbers of people, many parents completely ignore the spiritual needs of their children, so much so that they don’t even recognise the existence of such needs at all. Typically, these are people who haven’t cultivated the inner dimension of life themselves and who think that having ‘a good time’, ‘making it big’ and maximizing sensual stimulation is the purpose of life. While they readily pander to every other need, demand and whim of their children, thinking that in this way they are doing the best for them, they fail to realise that they are actually destroying them, for which crime they would be answerable before their Creator. A life characterised by spiritual barrenness is a life spent in total vain. As the Bible famously puts it:
"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
Parents need to constantly and deeply reflect on how, if at all, they are seeking to fulfil their children’s spiritual needs, including through their own life. Have they made provision for the spiritual nurturing of their children—for instance, by telling them about God, by teaching them to pray, by praying together as a family on a regular basis, and by introducing their children to the scriptures? How often does God appear in their conversations with their children? Do they remember to thank God before and after meals, after waking up in the morning and before going to bed at night and before setting out on a journey, for instance, and have they taught their children to do likewise? To what extent is their own life a God-centred one? Have they spoken to their children about what their religion says about the purpose of life? And so on.
These are issues related to the vertical dimension of religion or spirituality—the relationship between the human and the Divine—that parents need to regularly reflect on to see how far they are addressing the spiritual needs of their children. In addition to this, is the horizontal dimension of religion or spirituality—the relationship between the individual and other human beings and the rest of creation. This dimension brings in many vital questions of ethics and morality in relationships. In this regard, parents need to reflect every now and then on how well they are performing in enabling and encouraging their children (especially through their own example) to lead an ethical life, as expressed in their relations with other people, with non-human beings (animals, birds, plants) and with the rest of creation (including the natural environment).
One doesn’t acquire good parenting skills simply by giving to a child. It is an art that needs to be slowly and consciously cultivated. At root, it requires careful and regular attention to how one is faring in terms of meeting the various needs of one’s child—physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual—and in this way also assessing how one is doing in terms of helping him or her fulfil the ultimate purpose for which he or she has been sent into this world for by the Creator.