Young children are better off learning the morals of Ramadan hands-on
Last Ramadan, my eight-year old son came home from school deeply traumatized because he claimed that he was the only Muslim kid in his fourth-grade class who was not fasting. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but nonetheless he was subjected to taunts from the other kids who called him a baby ― and a reprimand from his Arabic teacher, who took it upon herself to outline her interpretation of God’s wrath upon those who do not fast during Ramadan.
Of course, he indignantly claimed it was entirely my fault because I had not told him that he had to fast like the other kids.
In an effort to console him, I assured him that in Islam children are not required to fast until they reach the age of puberty, and that he was by no means violating any religious precepts by not fasting at the age of eight.
After verifying my proclamation with his father, grandparents and older cousins, my son finally believed me and calmed down. He went to school the next morning and confidently told his classmates this newfound revelation about fasting. Most did not initially believe him, but when they went home and asked their parents, there was no doubt about it: The information I had given him was inarguably the truth.
So why is it that we subject our children to fasting at very young ages? I often find parents bragging about how their sons and daughters began fasting as young as six or seven. Most religious scholars proclaim that children should be encouraged to fast as soon as they are physically able to, an age they concede varies from child to child. The common belief is the sooner children fast, the sooner they will get used to fasting so that once they reach puberty and it becomes an obligation it will not pose a problem.
Fasting is usually introduced to children as a half-day ritual. Once they master the half-day they move on to full non-consecutive days until they eventually learn to fast the full month.
While children definitely need to understand Ramadan and to be gradually eased into the concept of fasting before they reach puberty, there are ways to do this without undue pressure to fast before they are ready. It is difficult for many young children to fast when they have to wake up early, concentrate at school, do homework and train in sports. Some have systems that can handle it early on and some just don’t.
Even if they are not fasting, children can cease eating and drinking a few hours before sunset and sit down to iftar with their families. They can participate in communal prayer rituals before or after iftar. And most importantly, they can be asked to directly give charity themselves during the month of Ramadan. I once had my son go out and distribute bags of dates and dried fruits to needy people on our street before iftar. They may also visit orphanages and give away some of their toys and clothing to less fortunate children.
Hands-on activities such as these will illustrate the true meaning of Ramadan to children without having to needlessly put a physical strain on their delicate systems before they are ready for it. When kids should start fasting is a sensitive issue and one that should be left to the discretion of each parent.