It's a significant milestone in a Muslim child's life: fasting through their first, full Ramadan. For children who plan to abstain from food and drink for the entire 29 or 30 days, the month looms large. The prospect of 15-or-so hours of fasting every day is often daunting for able adults, let alone young children, who also have to contend with school days.
Islam stipulates that when a child reaches puberty, Islamic injunctions – such as prayer five times a day and fasting for the month of Ramadan – become obligatory, to the best of each child's ability. But the aim is to avoid having a dehydrated, listless, disorientated and faint child on your hands. That's what could happen, warns Dr Nashwa El Din, a paediatrician at Abu Dhabi's Burjeel Hospital, if parents insist on their children fasting before they are ready, or if children and teenagers are not properly prepared to face the rigours of the fast.
Be proud of their efforts
“Children who have watched their parents fast and feel the spirit of Ramadan are always eager to take part, and kids as young as 6 or 7 years old begin begging their parents to fast,” she says. It’s the parent’s job, explains El Din, to manage a child’s expectations when it comes to fasting, by reaching a compromise.
“For really young children, have them fast from 4pm onwards, for example, after they’ve returned from school and had a meal. Older kids, age 9 or so, can try fasting one day during the weekend, or half a day; let them have a good breakfast, then they can fast from noon.”
Setting children up to attempt these practice fasts will help them later on, once they have to fast the entire month. “It is important to keep the experience very positive for them,” says Nasif Kayed, managing director of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai. He urges parents to remember that younger children should never be pressured into fasting, so that it becomes something they do by their own choice. And neither should they be discouraged from trying to fast, even if they’re very young; just help them along by devising a mini-fast.
“You should show children a positive and proud reaction to their efforts to fast, make a big deal out of it and celebrate them,” he says. “Any amount of fasting that they manage before they reach puberty is a huge achievement and should be rewarded as such.”
Instil healthy fasting habits
For Palestinian mother-of-two Maei Jeneidi, prepping her daughters to fast for the holy month has been years in the making. It's not something they were ready to tackle overnight, she says. "I used to tell them, fast only if you can. If you want to try it, you can try it, but we start small."
When her daughters were younger, Jeneidi would have them fast for a few hours after school or the first part of the day on weekends. “We’d increase the time, bit by bit, on days when they didn’t have exams or physical activities, or would be out in the heat. It’s important to take all of that into account, but I didn’t want to say an outright ‘no’ to them when they would show interest in the beauty of this month,” she says.
Masa Abu Zeid is now 12 and eager to fast the full month, and 9-year-old Sama wants to fast as many days as she can. Now that Masa is ready to tackle her first fast, Jeneidi is adamant that it is her responsibility as a parent to help her daughter.
“Waking up for the suhoor meal before dawn has become an essential. I used to skip it, but no more. For the girls, I always wake up to insist they have a healthy meal that will sustain them. I insist that they eat a banana right before they go to sleep, for example, and I make sure they hydrate.”
The focus of the holy month, to think of those in need, and those who don’t have enough, and who suffer from hunger all year long, are messages Jeneidi makes sure her daughters are aware of. “I also teach them to be considerate. If they aren’t fasting, they shouldn’t eat and drink in front of those who are, out of respect,” she explains.
And breaking the fast with a date is a habit she wants to instil in her children, says Jeneidi. “It’s difficult the first few days of Ramadan, because they are starving and just want to eat their favourite meals, but eventually I’ll remind them to eat a date and drink some yogurt.” These were habits and traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, and are considered sunnah – which means that replicating his way of life through these habits is an appreciated choice.
As founder of an online medjool date delivery service with her husband, Yazan Abu Zeid, Jeneidi is well-versed in the benefits of dates, and considers them vital in preparing her children to approach Ramadan in the right way.
"I want them to continue to be healthy and make the right choices. The benefits of dates are well known, providing energy and sustenance, and stabilising blood sugar when you first break your fast."
That's not to say that Masa's favourite dishes will not be at the forefront of the iftar meal this year. Jeneidi has been meal-planning ahead of Ramadan based on what her daughter likes and wants to eat, as a special treat and positive reward to help her get through the month.
Islamic teachings call for Muslims to start fasting about the time they reach puberty, which is interpreted differently depending on culture and adherence, and can range from the age of 9 to the late teens.
The thing to remember, points out Yusuf Jha, an imam at the Masjid Maryam bint Sultan in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen, is that fasting is more difficult for some children than it is for others. Children who have a weak constitution might not be able to fast. Likewise, children who normally need to eat frequently can find fasting difficult, as do children who are extra-active in their play or are involved in athletic after-school activities. It’s the parents’ job to determine whether or not their child is ready to fast.
“This doesn’t mean that parents should be lax in the matter. As long as a child is in good health, he or she can be introduced to fasting in some way,” says Jha.
Jha provides some advice on how to make Ramadan easier for children attempting their first fast:
- For younger children, those between the ages of 7 and 9, gradually introduce them to fasting. Let them fast until 10am then increase that time until the duhr or noontime prayer, then so on until afternoon's asr prayer. Eventually, if you feel them able, encourage your child to keep going until sunset.
- Medically, a healthy 10-year-old can handle the fast. Parents can challenge a child that age and say something along the lines of: "Come on. Let's be brave today. Try to fast the whole day."
- For kids to get the maximum benefit from their fasting attempts, parents need to instil the desire to fast into their heart, rather than forcing or pressuring them into it. Compulsion should be out of the question.
- Positive reinforcement works wonders and can make it much easier to get children to fast. Praise and encouragement go a long way, and prizes – both material and honorary – are highly recommended. Don't think of this as bribery. Think of it as a proud parent rewarding a brave child. And give the child recognition in front of others; be vocal about your pride.
- Always work in increments. Jumping into fasting for a whole 15 hours is not feasible – start small and gradually work up to a full day.
- If a child is caught eating or drinking and yet still claims to be fasting, do not consider punishment or call the child a liar. Instead, talk indirectly, by using stories of others, just how serious it is to break the Ramadan fast and to lie.