My mother likes to tell me how, when I was seven years old and in first grade, I would proudly bring my little prayer rug to the public school classroom, and pray Dhuhr during the class activities period. My teacher was bemused, and my classmates were nonplussed by what they saw as something completely natural to my personal identity. It was just the way things were, molded and shaped by the manner in which I saw my parents treating prayer and faith around me. Faith was simply part of the world I lived in as a child, so it flowed seamlessly into personal identity. Yet it became more of a difficulty in time, as the pressures from the world around me encroached – and it was then that I began to struggle with my identity.
Identity is defined as the “the qualities [and] beliefs that make a particular person…different from others.” In the world of early childhood psychology, it has been found time and again that developing a sense of self starts from day one. Quite simply, “when children feel a sense of belonging and sense of pride in their families, their peers, and their communities, they can be emotionally strong, self-assured, and able to deal with challenges and difficulties.” Given that the Muslim American community is younger, on average, and more diverse than the greater American population, it is safe to say that we have a great deal of work ahead of us to ensure that we instill strong identities in our children.
Yet how can we go about ensuring that we develop lasting, empowered identities in our children today? Just expecting children to figure out the world for themselves or through education will result not only in scattered self-understandings, but a lack of solid foundation. Parents, simply speaking, are solid forces in ensuring a stable self-understanding and foundation for children through conversations, chosen environments and personal engagement. Nowadays, with the plethora of Muslim American childhood education materials and toys, it is easier to incorporate faith and identity into every part of life, rather than just relying on occasional conversations with one’s child or a daily family prayer. When I was growing up, it was difficult to find a good children’s book that originated in America and was not poorly translated – nowadays, that search only takes a few clicks in order to find materials that might have made my childhood that much easier.
We are no longer subjected to a glaring lack of resources or engagement options for children in the Muslim American community today, with a growing number of initiatives sprouting in order to fill what was once significantly absent. Yet forming identity in our community’s children takes more than several isolated efforts. For now, though, it is a solid step in the right direction. Only time will tell how that direction develops with time.
Laila is a marketing consultant for LittleBigKids.com. She is a writer and cultural critic who has been published at The Huffington Post, The Guardian, School Library Journal and PolicyMic, among others, and serves as the founder and president of Coming of Faith LLC. She conducted a study on Muslim American perceptions of belonging, and is based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at @Lulainlife.