Building willpower is not only key to becoming a better Muslim, but it offers tangible rewards in other aspects of our life. Consider the “marshmallow study” by Stanford University social scientist Walter Mischel in 1972 which showed how young children who decided to delay gratification by waiting to have a second marshmallow instead of succumbing to the temptation to have it right away ended up with more success in life, at least in terms of their education and career.
Youth is a time of intensity and immediate gratification. Building willpower is harder than ever. But it is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, and it is necessary for their development as good Muslims in the future. Here are a few simple ways to start.
1. Establish Fajr in your household every day
Praying five times a day seems like a herculean task for many Muslims. But Fajr is especially difficult. It is also the best tool in your willpower building kit. If you can resist precious sleep for Fajr, you are one step ahead in building better habits for life. Starting tomorrow, make Fajr a priority, waking everyone up for it and praying it in congregation at home or at the Masjid.
2. Take care of them physically and emotionally
We are more likely to succumb to temptations when we are tired, hungry, or upset. Oftentimes, we justify indulging in our weaknesses to make ourselves feel better in these circumstances. Whether it’s quietly offering a snack after school or planning some alone time doing something fun to figure out why your teen seems angry, do what you can to avoid situations where willpower becomes weaker.
3. Hold your hand up at the next interruption
Too many of us tolerate our children interrupting our conversations, whether that is on the phone or when face-to-face with others. While this may be understandable with very young children or in emergencies, it is not otherwise. Next time this happens, put your hand up and calmly explain to your son or daughter that you will answer them once you’re done. Then, keep your word after a minute or two, building the time to longer as their willpower increases.
4. Deprive them of their technology for at least a few hours a day
Teens are synonymous with texting nowadays. It’s the primary way they communicate with friends, and in many cases, even family. But one drawback of this medium is its need for immediate responses. The situation is exacerbated once iPhones are involved, making Facebook and other social media easily available via phone. For a few hours every day, take the cellphones away so they build the willpower to resist this latest tool of immediate gratification.
5. Reward willpower
The ultimate reward of exercising willpower is in the Hereafter. But it’s helpful to offer some tangible or intangible rewards in this life as well to encourage the repetition of good behavior. Whether your young Muslim was able to resist cursing, flirting with a classmate, or talking back to parents, reward this with some time doing something fun together or a reasonable request or gift.
6. Take on a willpower challenge together
Taking on a difficult task is easier when you’ve got company. If you and your young Muslim share a common weakness, be it television, chocolate, or shopping sprees, work together to curb at least one habit together. It could be agreeing to watch only x hours of television a week; it could be skipping a latte three mornings a week at Starbucks. Whatever challenge you choose, do it together to build each other’s strength and some great memories in the process.
This is the ultimate willpower building exercise, and it’s one Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, did regularly, even outside of Ramadan. Make a commitment to fast once a month with your young Muslim, then twice a month, until you build up to once a week. Then, watch how being able to control food consumption helps you control many other aspects of your life.