How I’m Trying to Raise 8 Intelligent, God-Conscious Children
Interview with Sharifah Mastura Al Jifri
Image Credit: Praveen R Venugopal: flickr[dot]com/photos/praveenvenugopal/
I’d met the eldest daughter at law school: a hafidhah who was fluent in English, Arabic and Malay, a bright student who’d studied 3 different syllabuses and was a remarkably disciplined girl for her age. When she told me all her other 7 siblings were or are becoming huffaadh and were being educated and brought up like she was too, I couldn’t wait to meet their wonder mom.
When I first met their amazing mother Sharifah Mastura Al Jifri – a petite, serene Singaporean woman; and the rest of her beautiful children at their house; I knew I’d never seen an entire productive family like this one in my life, mashaAllah.
I finally had the pleasure of interviewing Sharifah Mastura to share her arduous yet highly and continuously rewarding parenting experience with the ProductiveMuslim readership. So here’s how she’s striving to raise 8 intelligent, God-conscious children:
1) Let’s begin by introducing our readers to the role your education played in bringing up your children. After your A-levels, you attended a two-year teacher training course specializing in early childhood education, after which you obtained a bachelors degree in English Literature and Linguistics from the UK. You later attended a two-day workshop based on Glen Doman’s work that was pivotal in inspiring you to bring up intelligent children. Briefly, what fundamental concepts and practices about raising intelligent children did you learn and apply in achieving your parenting goals?
Basically for me, it’s putting into practice two principles:
- Stimulate your children
It’s never too early to stimulate your children’s mind, be it through listening to you talking and telling stories, reading books, counting biscuits, smelling onions while you’re cooking etc. Start from the time the child is in your womb because the foetus can hear. Talk to your child, from the time he’s a baby. Stimulate his senses by teaching him everything he can hear, see, smell, taste and touch in his surroundings. Arouse his curiosity and stimulate his mind also by placing educational material in front of him: books, counting beads, charts, good educational toys, and don’t stop. I must say, reading tops my list.
- Occupy your children
I must admit that being trained as a pre-primary teacher has given me an advantage in knowing how to occupy my children. Even if you haven’t been trained, it’s not difficult to find ways in spending and investing time in your children. I started drawing for them and telling them the names of things from the time they were babies. Give them safe, non-toxic crayons to scribble and draw until they can move on to colour pencils. Don’t just pour the bucket of bricks for your children to play with by themselves. Rather, sit with them, build with them, encourage them to be imaginative and creative by being there to help them out when their fingers are stuck or when they can’t find the piece that might just fit the hole.
Sitting with your children and occupying them gives you precious bonding time. This is when you discover things about your child, his character, his potential. With this insight, you understand your child, you are better-equipped to mould his character, to stretch his mind and harness his talent. With this strong bonding cemented in their childhood, your children will always turn to you as they get older. You will always be the person to turn to when the bricks won’t stick together!
The Core Factor:
Although these were the two fundamental basis I applied as a result of my learning, I was also very conscious of the need to bring up children who are pious and god-fearing. Intelligence alone cannot guide a person to be good or moral, rather it can mislead or even destroy its possessor. So I would consider the above two points as my methodology, whilst the core of my upbringing is always to do whatever I can so that my children will acquire knowledge and taqwa. In order to do this, you need to give them the knowledge of the Qur’an, Arabic and the deen. So, I made sure the baby in the womb hears a lot of Qur’an. So the time I spent with my children is really when I talk to them and try to give them the love of Allah and His book, the prophets and his companions and to teach them whatever I can of Islamic adaab (manners/etiquette).
2) You have 8 children of ages 12+ to 24+, each of whom were haafidh by the age of 13 or 14 MashaAllah! They have also all attended Arabic-medium schools while simultaneously being homeschooled by you in the Singapore and British curricula. What inspired you to have such an extraordinary vision for your children?
It wasn’t so much as having an extraordinary vision. Simply, my husband and I wanted our children to grow up knowing their deen and the Qur’an. In order to achieve this, the most obvious choice was to enroll them in the Tahfeedh school where they learn the Qur’an, the deen and everything else in Arabic. At the same time, we also wanted them to be able to benefit the ummah. We wanted them to acquire skills and knowledge that will make them bright and useful Muslims. So my children started memorizing the Qur’an from the time they were two. At the same time they would also be starting pre-writing skills, love reading and being read to.
From here, the progression was quite natural, Alhamdulillah. By the time they went to school, they would have memorized a few juzu’ of the Qur’an and were able to read from the mushaf. They would have also learnt reading and writing Arabic numbers and letters at home. Naturally, all these gave them a head start although they didn’t know Arabic. As for the Singapore curriculum, by the time they started their Arabic school, they were already independent readers in English and competent in Grade 2 English and Maths.
Alhamdulillah, in this way I managed to achieve three things:
- First, the headstart meant that I never had to worry about their progress in an Arabic school because I believe that being able to read from the mushaf and understanding numerical concepts mean that, all they had to do in the first year of school is pick up the language. They didn’t have to learn new concepts in a new language.
- Secondly, I was able to keep up with the English curriculum because I only needed to build on their early foundation. It wasn’t always easy to keep up with the Singapore and British curriculum, with the progression of Arabic education and having more children. However, as long as they continued to read in English, I was able to pick up and progress from time to time, during school holidays usually. I have seen parents struggling to do this quite unsuccessfully because the children never had a foundation before attending Arabic school. The children continued doing hifdh at home at their own pace and the school lessons were regarded as a kind of revision. In this way, they memorized the Qur’an much earlier than the school programme.
- And lastly, the work we put in before they started school meant that they were already used to learning and were able to focus. They also loved learning,
Here , I’d like to mention two important tips for those who are considering doing something similar:
- First, work hard with your first child. Everything that you want to achieve in your children, do it with the first child. If you work hard with the first child, the second child will follow suit with half the work you had put into the first. How? While you’re working with the first, that little baby on your lap (your second), would have picked up everything that you’re teaching the first one and by the time you need to teach her, she would have already learnt them.
- Second, make the Qur’an the centre of family life. You can’t expect the child to want to sit and learn his surah when dad’s watching TV and mummy’s browsing on her iPad. Without the love of the Qur’an exemplified in the parents, a young child will be even less attracted to sit and learn.
3)How did you and your children manage to do all of this simultaneously? What was their and your routine in a typical week?
Well, we’ll have to start with a typical day. From the time I had my first, my husband and I have always been fajr parents. Maybe it was the baby’s routine but our day begins at fajr.
It’s breakfast, showers and learning time from 6:30-11am. The key to this is multi-tasking. Depending on the children’s ages, my life is full of setting one child some writing at his desk, sending one to the shower, helping one to get dressed, reading a book to a little one while breastfeeding the baby. It’s an endless stream of running around until everyone’s had breakfast, showered and changed. When everyone’s ready, the children then sit to listen to me reading them a book they’ve chosen. They take turns to choose a book every day. Because of this, the children can’t wait to start work with mummy. Then they all do their portion of reading, writing, learning numbers, Qur’an and Iqraa’ and we always finish off with some exciting craft work. It might be painting, sticking or making things. The children would take turns to come to me for Qur’an, Iqraa and reading Peter and Jane (graded reader) while I monitor the rest in their maths or writing etc.
An additional tip is to make learning fun. The worksheet I created, be it writing letters or doing numbers is full of drawing, colouring, gluing and sticking. Art and craft is naturally incorporated into the worksheets, so they never felt that it was work or in any way tedious. They couldn’t wait to do work in the way they couldn’t wait to do cutting and sticking. So those who want to do the same should consider familiarizing themselves with chidren’s art and craft.
By 10:30 they’re usually hungry and ready for a break, so we would have our snack. Since they’ve been up from fajr and actively learning, they’re usually ready to take a nap after their snack. At this point, I take them to their bedroom. They lay quietly and I read my Qur’an hifdh portion, while putting them to sleep at the same time. So this was how I struggled in trying to memorise the Qur’an while bringing up my eight children, mashaAllah. It was very slow but the benefit was that the children also learned my portion of the Qur’an and memorised them long before me! MashaAllah. This is also how I put them to sleep at night and whenever anyone needs comforting.
So this daily routine continued throughout in bringing up my eight children until they all eventually went to school. For me, it gave them a sense of routine. I always believed that if you don’t occupy your children, they’ll occupy you! They’ll do things that annoy you or annoy each other. Weekends are free and easy. It’s usually a picnic in the desert or playing in the park.
4) What books and other resources have you found to be indispensable in:
- making children memorize the Qur’an
- making children understand and learn Arabic
- being a visionary parent
In all honesty, I have not read any specific books which guided me to being a visionary parent. All tawfeeq and fadhl are from Allah and making dua. Just have the right kind of intentions and make dua. Allah ‘azza wa jal has the power to do all things.
One book that I did use and found indispensable was Iqraa’. It’s a book that comes in a series of six small books which teaches children how to read the Qur’an. The approach is very non-Arabic and child-friendly and I have since recommended it to all my friends. Through this, my children learn to read the Qur’an from the mushaf from a very early age which automatically gave them a greater independence in memorising the Qur’an and also in learning Arabic when they started Arabic school.
5) Children and their parents are normally occupied the entire day with having to attend school, complete homework, pack lunches, do school runs and other school-related tasks. How can parents bring out their child’s full potential without them and their children feeling more overwhelmed than they already are?
Once you have children and as the family grows, your stamina grows too, believe me. You’ll be able to stretch yourself in a way you never thought possible. This is what diligent and sincere parenting will do for you. Because of my desire to see my children memorise the Qur’an and do well in school, Allah ‘azza wa jal gave me the energy to occupy them, help them and teach them. As a mother, it was the air I breathed, so being tired is a natural state but Alhamdulillah, I never felt overwhelmed. The secret to this is learning the Qur’an. In the course of busily bringing up my eight children, I was also trying to memorise the Qur’an. The book of Allah was the one single source of calmness and strength.
As for the children, it’s important to make them understand why they have to do what we, as parents, make them do. I always tell my children from the time they were little and working with me in Qur’an or writing that I want them to grow up to be bright and useful to the ummah. This is the way to worship Allah . As we need to have the correct intentions, so do our children. They’re never too young to understand that life is about doing things to please Allah . The second thing is to teach them obedience to parents. If your child understands that obeying you is pleasing Allah , then it is easier to get them to cooperate and do everything that they need to do. So once the children see that their day is busy with things that are pleasing to Allah and everything is rewarded, it gives them a true sense of purpose.
So it’s not a question of senseless slave-driving, which some families practice, all in the name of succeeding in studies and getting a good job. Worshipping Allah gives you strength and tawfeeq. The child’s potential will unfold itself, In sha Allah. I believe in this because this was what I found in my own experience. I never gave my children any ambition when they were little except to memorise the Qur’an and to work hard to serve the ummah.
6) Fulfilling the vision and goals you had as a parent for 8 children must definitely not have been an easy journey. I believe, the fundamental reason for your success after Allah’s help was your perseverance mashaAllah, because this is where most people fail when they set out to achieve their dreams. What kept you going all these years, especially through the hard times?
All tawfeeq is from Allah . I never stopped making dua asking Allah to make my children people who will benefit the ummah. That dua and vision gave me strength to never stop.
I was and still am struggling to learn the Qur’an. For as long as I was struggling to learn the Qur’an myself, I felt that I could demand the same effort and dedication from my children. So for me, learning the Qur’an was synonymous to perseverance.
Lastly, it was also born out of the desire to be just and fair to all my children that I persevered. I felt that I needed to continue teaching and giving the younger set of children what I did for the older set. So this kept me going. Our home-school routine continued even until all seven children had gone to school and there was only one child left to teach at home. In fact, I found classmates for her so she would enjoy her learning.
Sometimes as parents, we tend to move and make decisions according to the needs of the older children and neglect the young ones. It might seem naturally so. This was something I always tried to remind myself not to do.
7) How can people practically inculcate perseverance and patience, especially as parents?
I’m not sure how you practically inculcate the characteristics of patience and perseverance. My own answer to that really is, bring yourself closer to Allah . If this parenting vision you have is not connected to ibaadah, then there is no reason to be patient nor persevere. Be conscious of your intentions and beliefs. If you believe that as Muslim parents, it is our duty to bring up our children in a way that will make them the best of Muslims, then it is a cause worth pursuing. Like any other acts of worship, this kind of parenting must stem from the belief that it is something that is pleasing to Allah for which you will be rewarded. It is this belief that will give you patience and perseverance. Anyone who has a lesser intention or started out because of some worldly reasons will eventually get tired and give up. Last but not least, remember that the dua of your pious children will benefit you in your grave. This is enough to make you work hard.
8) Many of our readers (especially mothers!) will want to know what role your husband played in your achievements with your children. How involved was he in envisioning and executing your parenting goals?
Both my husband and I share the same vision and so it wasn’t a question of one partner having to convince the other, Alhamdulillah. I never expected my husband to take an equal load in bringing up our children simply because he is the breadwinner who has to be out of the house. What I do expect is that he supports me, fills in the gaps and lends me a hand where needed and is always ready and willing to spend time with the children whenever he can. This he did most naturally and willingly, Alhamdulillah.
As a husband, he was fully supportive and played equally active roles in stimulating and occupying our children. He would talk and play with the baby, read stories to the toddler, explain things to the three-year-olds, play with the children even when they’re a bit older, and always kept an interest in their development, whatever stage they’re in.
The greater help for me is that my husband would continually encourage the children to work hard with me, reminding them of the great purpose for working hard. He also had to step in as teacher from time to time. Once, I was really short- handed, so my husband took over my third son’s reading progress. He had to listen to him read ‘Peter and Jane’ everyday until he became an independent reader. He also helped in listening to the children’s hifdh portion and test them when I’m busy.
My husband also never shied away from helping me with parenting chores like changing nappies, washing the children, feeding them and cleaning up. I never drew up a duty roster. We just had to help each other.
He was also my ‘higher authority’ in the sense that if and when the children do not obey or cooperate, then I would refer them to ‘abi’. As I see it, it is essential to bring up children to respect their father as the head of the family. That same father who rolls on the grass with them will discipline them if he has to. Many times, just being sent to ‘abi’ to be talked to is enough for the children.
Where the learning takes place outside the home, I could rely on my husband to fulfil that role. He would take the boys to pray in the masjid and to attend Qur’an halaqas and talks. I fondly recall when my husband was presented a gift for being a dedicated father although he was never in the boys’ Qur’an halaqa. One teacher had noticed him waiting outside in the car every lesson throughout the semester and thought he deserved the recognition, mashaAllah.
My husband could not be my supporter and partner in the daunting task of bringing up our children if our goals and aims were not the same. Even if there were minor differences in a given situation when dealing with a child, we had a tacit agreement never to question each other’s decision in front of the children. As far as the children saw, we were always united in our sentiment. This is important for the children so they learn to accept the decisions of both parents without always thinking that they can get a different ruling if they went to the other parent.
9) Each of your children is also engaged in developing and mastering a hobby, mashaAllah! Tell us about their hobbies, and how did you ensure they each picked up something productive to do for leisure?
The truth is, I didn’t ensure that each child had a hobby. My husband and I had decided that we would bring up our children without a TV in the house, so I just made sure that the children are occupied from the time they were little. Hence, we spent a lot of time doing craft and being creative.
The early stages were sticking, cutting and gluing and making things out of play dough. Then as they got a bit older, we ventured into painting, clay modelling and making things out of anything and everything; origami, paper flowers, beads, cards, glass jars etc. We also made our own books, writing stories and making our own book covers. Except for really girly things, in many of these activities, I didn’t differentiate between the boys and the girls. The boys took part and had just as much fun. Then I taught the girls simple embroidery, cross stitches and sewing. Finally, as they became young teenagers, the girls learnt to use the sewing machine to make pretty things, re-purposed some things, sewed their own curtains and started a small business selling hand-made bag-sand hair bands in one cultural fair in Riyadh. People thought they were really pretty, mashaAllah.
At this current stage, they have become more advanced in knitting, crocheting and baking. One of my daughters, who is the artist, because of her love for colours, is also talented in doing make-up. Another daughter is keen in architecture and loves designing buildings from paper. Obviously, these are skills beyond my knowledge, so Youtube has been very useful.
I would like to stress that whatever the children have acquired in terms of skills and hobbies, mashaAllah, has been born not just out of the love to be creative. More significantly, growing up without television naturally gave them the mind and desire to occupy themselves. Of course they also discover the added joy that being skilful makes you independent. The boys also had hobbies like photography, graffiti art, T-shirt writing, carpentry and they are all keen football players, mashaAllah.
10) You were working as a teacher but stopped once you began having children and dedicated all of your time to them. After your last child finished her hifdh, you yourself became a haafidhah mashaAllah. You then went on to teach English at King Saud University in Riyadh, and enrolled in a post-graduate English-teaching diploma course (DELTA) at the same time while working, and you are now teaching at Prince Sultan University. What motivated you to continue pursuing your own education and career after all these years?
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen as gloriously as your question presented it to be. My motivation for going back to work was not to pursue the career I left behind for two reasons. First, I have always been happy and fulfilled as a busy and teaching mum. I never stopped teaching in the 19 years I was at home before I started working.
In 1998, when my number five was ready to start our home-school programme, I opened a school at the request of some friends who wanted to follow my teaching programme. We got together and turned every available room in my house into classrooms and taught our children. Each class had a 1:2 student teacher ratio and the results were amazing, mashaAllah. The school grew and other parents asked to enroll their children into our school and we started charging fees. It was a very successful school in terms of inculcating spiritual and academic excellence in the children. We called it Dar alQur’an and I was both teacher-trainer and the ‘head-mystery’ (as one child once called me) of the school. The mothers who came to learn from me became the teachers who were very committed to the cause and made the school a success.
As the students graduated and had to go to primary school, sadly, the teachers had to leave the school too, to be at home for their children when they come home from school. After five years, I continued running the school by myself until my last daughter went to school. In the last year of Dar alQur’an, I had the joy of training my eldest daughter who joined me to teach in the school. It was only after that year that I started working at the university.
With my children all in school, I took up a new job because it was very close to my house and I could leave after the children and be home before them. Again, having a career was far from my mind. It took me a long time to adjust being a working mother.
As for doing DELTA, it was a requirement that came with the job. It was both mentally and physically strenuous; working and studying while trying to run a family. For the first time in my life, I felt unhappy in not having time for my children and husband. Working and studying took up most of my time and energy. Alhamdulillah, the older children stepped in with the Qur’an of my youngest who enrolled in the intensive mubakkir programme. It was a hifdh programme wherein the child finishes memorising the Qur’an at grade 4. The most painful thing for me was when I find myself being too tired to listen to the children talking about school or when I had to sit by myself because I was trying to study or had an assignment to submit. Alhamdulillah, I completed the DELTA after two years.
I decided not to pursue further studies after my DELTA because I don’t want to neglect the family the way I did. I am now teaching in Prince Sultan University and here I feel I could combine motherhood and working in a much better way, Alhamdulillah.
11) I recall a profound statement you’d made at a gathering once: “the education of a child begins twenty years before it is born.” Do elaborate this for our readers.
It simply means that before you can teach your children, you need to gain knowledge yourself. Some of you may think it’s too late and too difficult at your stage of parenting. It’s never too late to seek knowledge and to correct ourselves. Furthermore, you have every opportunity now to make it right for your children. Prepare your children to be upright parents by giving them knowledge from now. Don’t just focus on excellent university degrees and the means to earn a good job. Give them sound knowledge in their deen and make sure they know the Qur’an. This means the knowledge to read, to understand and to live by it. Prepare your children to be educated and pious parents.
12) Do you and your husband follow any particular spiritual routine that you feel increases the barakah in your day?
I don’t think we do anything different or special to merit any mention here. However I do remember reading a book about bringing up children in Arabic many years ago, forgot its author and title. He said, ‘Your children will not do what you tell them to do. They will do what you do.” In other words, you need to set the example in everything that you want them to be. Be a pious and filial son and daughter to your own parents and your children will do the same for you. So, be an example to your children especially in your ibadah.
13) Finally, what is the best advice you have for anyone aspiring to be parents someday, In sha Allah?
Read all of the above and try for yourself what you feel is right. Allah does not burden you with more than what you can bear. This was my journey and I’m still on the road, only further down. Those of you who are reading this will choose your own path and I pray whatever path you choose for yourself, the aim is the same: that you want to bring up pious children who will benefit the ummah. Also remember that without correct Islamic knowledge, your children will not be able to serve the ummah.