Teaching Through Principles

Precise and Consistent Language

Amira Kunbargi


I wanted to reiterate the importance of precise and consistent language use and the impact this has when shaping the paradigms of our children-or for that matter any person.

Precision of language provides clarity to often ambiguous terms where meaning is taken for granted, For example, when a child behaves vulgarly we may retort with “have good adab” Although this is spoken in the affirmative (which is significantly more effective than speaking in the negative), our statement can have greater impact if more precise language is used, such as : “have grace in your movements” or “have gentleness in your tone” or “use proper language” You may not always succeed in altering the immediate behavior of your child; however, you will have shaped their definition of what good adab IS—and that will have a far reaching impact on your child.

Teaching Through Principles :

To take it even further, the Prophet Salla Allahu Alayhi Wasalam, would often respond to actions by citing principles, without reproach, As we know, for 10 years he did not reprimand Anas b Malik (R) with why did you or why didn’t you do this.

When we reproach a child, our goal is to change the behavior of the child, However, the style of the reproach will effect whether a teachable moment has in fact transpired as each style (negative, positive/affirmative, principles) incites a different reaction in the child.

Reaction to negative reproach : incites the child to want to do more of the action (the forbidden is often intriguing) and causes confusion as to what to do.

Reaction to positive reproach : although the instruction is clear, the resulting change of action stems from the command rather than the child (i.e the cause of the action is extrinsic rather than intrinsic).

Reaction to principles :

The action stems from the child’s want to instill the principle, therefore the cause is intrinsic and a sense of choice and control is given to the child.

A clarifying example :

Negative : don’t touch the fire

Reaction : “maybe I can just stand close to it or put my hand over it”

Positive : stay away from the fire

Reaction : “I was told to stay away so I will not come close to it”

Principle : fire burns

Reaction: “I don’t want to burn, I wills stay away from the fire”

For young children mixing positive reproach with principles is important because children often need clear instruction, However, for youth, principles are more effective than positive reproach because they do not insight the nafs, they do do not humiliate the child, and they allow the child to own his/her action.

The following examples highlight the different levels of reproach :

If a child falls and cries, one can say

don’t cry (negative),

be patient (positive), or

falling is part of learning (principle)

If a child is stingy with food, one can say

don’t be greedy (negative),

be generous (positive), or

we only show what we can share (principle).

If a child is backbiting or slandering, one can say

stop committing a sin (negative),

clean your tongue (positive), or

we speak nice or remain silent (principle).

If a child is clumsy or obnoxious, once can say

don’t be clumsy/vulgar (negative),

Have grace (positive), or

Beauty comes from grace — beauty is grace (principle).

If a child is comparing with what others have, one can say

don’t compare (negative),

look at yourself and not others (positive), or

comparing kills happiness (principle).

For precision of language to be effective, there must be consistency, If we apply specific terms to certain events or behaviors consistently at home and at school, we succeed in shaping deliberate paradigms for our children, Correct paradigms—paradigms in line with Islamic teachings and overall well-being—are the greatest treasures we can pass to our children.

‘Habits’ not ‘bad deeds’…yet :

During a pod meeting we briefly discussed the usage of the word ‘habit’ versus ‘bad deed.’ It came up when one of the children asked “do kids get bad deeds?” My answer to them was no, however they get bad habits and bad habits become bad deeds when they are older.

I wanted to encourage you as a parent and teacher to emphasize the word ‘habit’ when they engage in a wrongful act (bad words, bullying, fighting, lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, lying about wudu or prayer, etc.), Children, as we all know, do not get bad deeds as they are not Mukalaf (held accountable), However, children know this as well and will sometimes use it to their advantage.

With gentle reminders that they are building a bad habit when they do a wrongful act that will translate into bad deeds when they are older, we can guide them to consciously make better choices.

Some useful catch-phrases:

A habit today is a sin tomorrow (for non-mukalafs)–this is for ‘bad’ habits (i.e sinful actions)

You are building your habits; make them good.

You are your habits

Choose your habits, they make you.

Choose your habits before they choose you (i.e. be conscious of your actions)

A habit is made (and broken) one action at a time

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