On my first day of university my father had four words of advice. “Don’t talk to boys!” In his mind boys were the root of all evil and the source of much danger. Although I did not follow the letter of his law, the advice stayed in the back of my mind. Flash forward ten years and I am in IKEA with my three-year-old daughter. She is wandering around the children’s section checking out the toys while a two year old boy checks her out. He conspicuously follows her around the toy bins and finally works up the nerve to ask her to play.
Happily, she accepts. After he leaves, my husband decides this fraternizing with the opposite sex is a dangerous portent of things to come and he is going to have none of it. While he still wields some power in this father-daughter relationship, he is going to scare her out of this dangerous precedent. He lifts her up onto a ledge so he can glare deeply into her eyes and leans forward, in an attempt to emphasize the gravity of his words. He growls in a voice two octaves lower than normal, “You. Must. Not. Talk. To. Boys.” Instead, of quaking in her little ballerina flats, my three-year-old also leans forward, so now father and daughter are nose to nose, and simply tells her father, “I hasta. I hasta talk to boys.” While her words may not have been the shot heard ‘round the world, in that moment my husband and I realized that it was a new day that demanded new methods of parenting.
My sister and I were raised by first generation immigrants who brought us up while struggling to find their own equilibrium in a foreign country and culture. Questions of dating, friendly socializing with boys, and boy/girl parties were alien to them and they responded to these threats by creating an atmosphere of “Don’t do that, or else…” They managed to convey the “or else” through some sort of non-verbal osmosis, never specifying the precise nature of the punishment that awaited us. Our vivid imaginations would get the best of us and we would envision outlandish scenarios – chastity belts, Islamic convents, arranged marriages at 13 – that, in hindsight, I realize my mom and dad never would have condoned or implemented. Their strategy proved extremely effective as my sister and I toed the party line and kept a wary eye out for the evil, dangerous boys.
Our daughter’s assertion that she had to talk to boys was yet another tight rope to traverse over the chasm of “Unenlightened Parenting and Negligence.” How to marry the strictures of the Quran with the reality of co-ed classrooms, afterschool activities, buses and birthday parties?
When children are little, fraternization between boys and girls is darling. Two-year-olds giving one another a peck on the cheek is cute. Three-year-olds holding hands are sweet. Not so much when the kids in question are 14. Living in a society which actively encourages dating while coming from a religion and culture that emphatically prohibits it has been the source of much debate in our home. The discussions ultimately led to a grand plan.
The plan builds on the mandates my husband and I believe are important and its success rests in its day to day functionality. We started with two immutable facts. First, we acknowledged that all children are going to notice the opposite sex (or the same sex) with interest at some point in early adolescence. This is both normal and inevitable. Second, we kept in mind that the more restricted a behavior, the more tempting it becomes. Our policy was to accept our children’s friendships with the opposite sex with one caveat- no dating and no school dances. Our reasoning is that school is tantamount to a job and the boy-girl commitment stuff must wait until they complete their education. Like all the best laid plans, ours did go awry occasionally. When our daughter was in the tenth grade, invitations to cotillions started arriving by mail (yes, we live in that kind of community) and the negotiations commenced. Here, the second part of our plan went into effect. It consisted of humor, communication and repetition.
Humor. You learn early on that you can’t raise kids without a healthy sense of humor. Your three-year-old daughter will set out for a sleepover at her friend’s home—and you learn her playmate happens to be male. Your son will douse himself in so much Axe spray that all you can do is hold your breath and pray he doesn’t walk by open flames. Your other son will send out birthday party invitations—to two boys and twelve girls. You can either laugh in all these scenarios or sob manically on your husband’s shoulder.
Communication. We let the kids know our expectations– early on. Clearly, trying to enforce a no-dance rule as your daughter is slipping on her dress is too late. We frequently speak with the kids about differences in cultures and religions, all the while never implying that other faiths are “bad,” but rather underscoring that these are the rules enforced in OUR home. We have also learnt through the years that unilateral orders do not go over well so we do our best to explain the rationale behind our rules.
Repetition. You can’t tell a child once to tidy his room but have to say it repeatedly starting out with a tender, “Sweetie, could you please pick up?” and graduating to a “I’ll use this butter knife to gauge out your internal organs if you do not clean up. NOW!” Similarly we have had the same conversation about expectations and rules in many different contexts and levels of intensity over the years. Some instances are no more than quick comments during movies (when something dating related comes on the screen), while others are long, involved talks during dinner. Our favorite of course is the dialogues that take place when our children are a captive audience during car rides.
So, my daughter is allowed to talk to boys, my sons are allowed to speak with girls and any requests on the dating-dancing front are met with a “Sorry, no,” unless they tell us they “hasta” and then the conversation begins. Again.
(Photo Credit: Jerad Hill)
Nausheena Ahmed was born in England, raised in Canada and is currently living in New Jersey. She is busy raising three kids whose names she never wants to see on a front page with the words “serial killer” or “psychopath” beside them.