Why do I want my teenage Mus­lim boys to fast in Ra­madan?

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Emily Richard­son

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

Pho­to­graph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

‘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?’

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