I never thought I’d be dealing with teenagers

Oddly enough, it never crossed my mind when I (and my convert friends) were having multiple children as our small, insular conservative Muslim and extremely pronatalist community vigorously encouraged us to, that… we’d be dealing with a boatload of teenagers and their typical teenage problems down the line.

Oh, a few people tried to tell us that, of course. That these cute babies would be teenagers soon enough, and night feedings and teething and all that sort of thing would seem like a picnic compared to teenage shenanigans. But we would either look at them blankly, or feel smugly superior to them. Because our kids weren’t ever going to be teenagers.

After all, this is what The Cult taught: Historically, there is no such thing as a “teenager”—there were children, and then there were adults. A child is a child until he/she reaches puberty, and then he/she is biologically an adult. “Teenagers” are a modern invention, caused by a godless, indulgent consumerist society, family breakdown, peer pressure, advertising and a lack of discipline in childhood.

Therefore, parents could avoid having their children turn into teenagers by raising them correctly, by instilling the fear of God in them, by teaching them to take on as many adult ritual and behavioral responsibilities as possible when they were still young, and by carefully sheltering them from the wider society. Because if we sheltered our kids, they would never get the idea that supposedly typical teenage behavior is in any way normal or acceptable, so they would be much less likely to act that way. And if we kept them securely inside our conservative, insular Muslim bubble as much as possible, then community expectations that they act maturely would be constantly reinforced, and it would be that much harder for them to be rebellious “teenagers.”

This was part of The Cult’s appeal to young, idealistic (and insecure) parents such as ourselves. We wanted our kids to grow up right. We were extremely worried about ensuring that they would enter paradise. And we had so much to worry about on that score, because it wasn’t just the usual things that parents of teens are concerned about—rebelliousness, unnecessary risk-taking, drinking, premarital sex, drugs, etc—that might keep them out of paradise. We also had to teach them to believe the right things and to take on adult ritual responsibilities, so that by the time they hit puberty (and would be individually held responsible by God for correct belief, prayer five times each day, fasting the entire month of Ramadan, wearing hijab…) that they would be ready and willing to believe and do what was required of them. With absolutely no teenage obstinacy, pushing the boundaries, sulkiness or insistence on making up their own minds.

While The Cult was extreme is their insistence that teenagers don’t really exist, other conservative Muslim communities that I had contact with over the years didn’t really make much allowance for teenagers either. Most of those sermons/talks at Muslim conferences/books on “how to raise your child to be a good Muslim” didn’t have much to say about teenagers or how to deal with them. Rather, the assumption was that if you had done a good job as a parent when your kids were small then you would not have to deal with teenage rebellion or experimentation. While it was acknowledged that teenage hormonally driven behavior (dating, girls not wanting to wear hijab) could still be a problem, the solution for this was said to be inculcating fear of God and encouraging teens to anticipate the day when their parents would help them find a suitably pious Muslim for them to marry. And that day was ideally not to be too far in the future, especially for girls—girls getting married in their late teens or early twenties was strongly promoted.

There were so many ways that conservative Muslim parents who weren’t in The Cult tried to bypass teenagerhood and its pitfalls as much as possible. Limiting teens’ and pre-teens’ exposure to and involvement with the wider society was a common way. While most Muslim kids at that time and place attended public schools, conservative parents could still require them (especially the girls) to come straight home after school, and forbid them from having friends who did not come from the same background. Some families had their own businesses, and expected their kids to work there after school and during the weekends. Others tried to fill up their kids’ time with household chores (especially the girls) and religious classes and Qur’an memorization (especially the boys). Some very conservative families from South Asia even withdrew their daughters from school around age ten and sent them to live with relatives back home, where they would attend all-girls’ madrasas, be sheltered from all types of social contact or influence that was not family-approved, and be married off in their late teens.

Essentially, those parents who, try as they might, ended up with teenagers who behaved like stereotypical teenagers were seen as having failed. Because making mistakes and trying things out weren’t seen as normal stages that teens go through—and that if they are prevented from doing so as teens, they may well do it later as adults, when the stakes are considerably higher. We and the communities we were involved in had so little tolerance for any type of human failure.

Looking back, I now wonder if the way that so many immigrant Muslim men behaved when they came here as students (such as my ex and his friends) had anything to with with this whole dynamic. They had come from very socially conservative societies that did not allow even males much in the way of experimentation, exploring different ways of thinking, much less rebellion. So, once they came to North America, they bolted over the traces—and then, once they had gotten that out of their systems, they got married, settled down, and dismissed their previous wild behavior as having been caused by “not having been taught the true Islam” by their pious Muslim parents! So, they believed that their own “properly raised” children (having been taught “true Islam) would not grow up to behave as they had.

As for myself—why did I buy into the idea that teenagers don’t really exist, and that my kids could be prevented from becoming teenagers if only I raised them carefully enough? One reason for that is probably that I myself was not a stereotypically rebellious teenager. Oh, I was often really moody, and lived in my own little world a lot of the time (books, folk music, long walks, more books, long, aimless bike-rides on the outskirts of town…), much to my mother’s oft-expressed annoyance. But I didn’t rebel. I didn’t even come close to rebelling. I didn’t skip classes, threaten to drop out of school, listen to music my parents couldn’t stand, try drugs, talk back to my parents, sneak out at night, swipe the car and go joy-riding, get into fights, dye my hair weird colors, wear sexy or otherwise shocking clothing, sneak into adult movies, or hang around with kids who were heading for a life of crime. My (few) friends were all good girls who got good grades and behaved themselves. I didn’t date, and wasn’t interested in boys, so my parents had no worries about teen pregnancy or anything like that.

My parents were primarily worried that I seemed to lack direction. (In that, they were correct.) And that I seemed to be far too interested in religion for my own good (after all, they were agnostics who had rejected the religious beliefs they had been raised with). When I became a parent and was hearing all the rhetoric about how teenagehood was avoidable, I assumed that my own teenage moodiness was caused by my parents not providing me with a ready-made religious framework and religious community. I had longed for meaning, for direction in life. And so, if I provided that to my children, then they would not be moody teenagers, I concluded. And as for the rest of the things that teenagers stereotypically do—the rebellion, the brushes with the law, the risk-taking, the experimentation—I hadn’t done it, I thought, so why would my kids? Especially not if I raised them to be good Muslims, and sheltered them from the godless outside world as much as possible??

But of course, things didn’t turn out that way. Not at all.

Anyway. I was still kind of wondering why I didn’t do the teenage rebellion thing—and then realized that in a sense, I did. I just waited until I finished high school, and was no longer living under my mother’s watchful eye. My mother was strict with us throughout high school, and took a number of measures that really doomed our social lives (for purely non-religious reasons—basically, she had no patience with teenage drama). She also didn’t have much tolerance for any messy expressions of emotion.

It was when I had gone to live with my father (who worked long hours, and wasn’t motivated to keep much of an eye on me) that I really started to develop an identity independent of my mother’s. Pretty much opposite to her’s, in fact, because I converted to Islam. And she could not see where on earth this had come from….

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  1. #1 by ayasmom on December 4, 2012 - 5:31 pm

    My goodness- I wish we had been friends as teenagers! I would have felt far less isolated. As always alhamdulillah for sharing.

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