Why do I want my teenage Muslim boys to fast in Ramadan?
Like most teenage boys, my sons love to eat. Most nights, my 15year-old polishes off two large servings of dinner before heading directly to the fridge in search of more food. So as a Muslim kid, how does he – and his younger brother – cope with not eating all day during Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset? And what is the point of it for them?
Growing up on a farm in rural Australia, I had no idea about Islam or anything to do with it, including Ramadan, until I went to live in Egypt in 1999 and met my husband, Ahmed.
In a Muslim-majority country like Egypt, it’s easy to get into the spirit of Islam’s holiest month, where everyone around you is fasting. There’s a camaraderie because the community is going without food and water together.
It’s a lot trickier to get that same feeling living in a small seaside town in regional Australia, 140 kilometres from the nearest mosque, as we do now.
It would be easy to put the practice of fasting into the too-hard basket, especially with our kids. So, religious obligation aside, why do we persevere?
My kids have never gone to bed hungry. They live fortunate lives, especially when compared to some of their best friends back in Egypt. I think it’s good for them to go hungry so they can empathise with those less fortunate, even if only for a few hours. But still, at the end of each day they know there’s a hot meal waiting for them, which is a safety net the underprivileged don’t have.
Yes, fasting helps teach compassion for those less fortunate and gratitude for what you have. And it’s good for your physical and spiritual health.
But as the mother of two teenage boys, it’s the hidden benefits of fasting that have taken on greater significance as I navigate this phase of parenting.
Any parent of a teenager knows it can be difficult to get them to do anything they don’t want to do. So how do you force a constantly hungry teenage boy to fast every day for a month?
For us, the answer is simple: we don’t. There is no coercion from us, only encouragement. We lay out the reasons why it’s good for them to fast, and then leave it up to them to decide if they want to do it.
Sometimes they fast the whole day. Sometimes they fast half a day. Sometimes they don’t fast at all. We don’t take an all-or-nothing approach. It’s up to them to do it when they feel they can commit to it. Because of this, everything they gain comes from them, from their internal motivation, and not from us.
But it’s not just food and drink they have to refrain from – anyone fasting is also expected to refrain from negative behaviour such as swearing, lying, gossiping, and speaking or acting unkindly.
The Arabic word for fasting is “sawm”, which means “to refrain” – a skill I want my teenage boys to be proficient in.
When I asked Ahmed why he was on board with not forcing the fasting issue, his response was simple: “I don’t want them to resent their religion. They have to want to do it, otherwise they won’t get any benefit from it.”
By not being forced, they are more drawn to it. Seeing their dad (and sometimes me) fast, they’ve always been keen to give it a go. They started by skipping one meal a day, and now often fast the whole day with no problem. They fast as much as they can, with no pressure from us.
By making the decision of whether to fast their choice, what do we as their parents hope to get out of it?
We hope to get boys – who will soon be men – who are able to control themselves, who are able to wait for things in life, who have selfrestraint and self-discipline when faced with temptation of any kind, who are able to resist the urge to do something they really want to do but shouldn’t, who are able to see something through to the end even if it gets difficult or uncomfortable.
Our 15-year-old son, Ziad, has his own take on it. “When I fast, I feel empowered and in control of myself,” he says. “And it really makes me appreciate food more! It also makes the family closer because we’re doing something together.”
This year, we’ve found that as we have progressed through the month, the boys have become increasingly motivated to fast. They can feel the benefits. They feel a sense of power over themselves and their decisions. It’s helped them develop a strong mindset.
Over the years, they’ve gone from thinking they couldn’t possibly go without food for a whole day to waking up determined to do it – and realising that something that seems impossible can be achieved if they keep at it.
There are times when less really is more; when you achieve a lot by giving something up.
Ultimately, because it’s their choice, it’s their accomplishment. But it’s everyone’s gain. As Ramadan draws to a close for another year, our boys have taken a few more positive steps on the road to good manhood.
• Emily Richardson is a freelance writer
The Arabic word for fasting is “sawm”, which means “to refrain” – a skill I want my teenage boys to be proficient in
‘Any parent of a teenager knows it can be difficult to get them to do anything they don’t want to do. So how do you force a constantly hungry teenage boy to fast every day for a month?’