While parents certainly have responsibilities towards their children, they will be rewarded and punished according to the sincerity of their efforts, not held responsible for the deeds of their offspring. When a youth displays inappropriate behavior, some are quick to blame the parents: “They didn’t do a good job with their children – look at them! They didn’t bring their children up properly!” After all, the apple doesn’t land far from the tree – or does it?
It is incorrect to place all the blame on the parents for a misguided youth, because there are so many influencing factors over an individual. Of course, there are cases in which the parents could definitely have done a better job in bringing up their children – but if a youth chooses to stray away from the Right Path after having been guided by their parents, the parents should not be the ones taking full responsibility for the end result.
That is not to say that parents have no hand in the upbringing of their children. The rights of a child are presented by Imam Zainul Abideen (peace be upon him) in Risalatal Huquq:
“It is the right of your child to know that he is from you and, with all his virtue and vice, is connected to you in this world, and that you are responsible for instructing him in good manners, guiding him towards his Lord, helping him to follow His commands which concern you or him; and you will be rewarded or punished [according to your success or failure in this guidance].
“Therefore, you should endeavor in his training like the person who is going to be adorned by his good influence [upon his child] in this world, [and who wants to be] vindicated in the presence of his Lord concerning his responsibility about the child by his good guardianship and by taking Allah’s dues from that child. And there is no power but with Allah.”
While the parents certainly have responsibilities towards the children that Allah has gifted them, and while they will be rewarded and punished according to the sincerity of their efforts, they will not be held responsible for the deeds of their offspring.
There are countless influences that affect the development of a child’s behavior, and it is usually a combination of those influences which produce the result – not solely the parental influences. Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) has said, “Take action in teaching traditions (of Ahlul-Bayt) to your children before the corrupted persons precede in corrupting them.” (Usul al-Kafi, vol. 6, p. 47) Therefore it is up to the parents to teach their children about Islam, about the Ahlul Bayt, and about the differences between right and wrong – however, once a child has grown to the age of being capable to differentiate between right and wrong, they must use that knowledge themselves.
No parent can completely control the influences over their child – they may be protected from the “outside world” for a while, but eventually the child will have to venture out on their own. Children leave the exclusive shelter of their parents when they are sent to school from the tender age of four – sometimes even from the easily impressionable age of two at the youngest! The entire educational system – from kindergarten to the end of earning a degree – takes nearly 20 years! In those years, a person comes into contact with numerous ideas, people, and behaviors; it is only natural then that a person will have adopted some of those concepts themselves.
The effect of a person’s friends on their behavior has been a topic often spoken about, as well as the phrase “peer pressure”. Besides the influence of a child’s friends, the child is also surrounded by his/her peers – there is no choice as there is in friendship. Children may feel a common bond with their peers because they are all the same age and share similar experiences; thus, when presented with a challenge, the child may look to those around them and attempt to overcome it in the same manner.
One needs also to look at the lifestyle circumstances: the neighborhood may be dangerous, the city or country may be war-torn, etc. The surroundings also affect the decision-making abilities of a person. Parents try to do their best for their children; however, they may not all be able to give them the life they desire. Therefore, any financial, housing, and political difficulties are also contributing factors when a youth chooses between doing what is right and wrong.
Another quite obvious influence is the ever-surrounding media. Immoral behaviors are widely portrayed and glorified through the various forms of media, and it is practically impossible to escape exposure. The teachings of the media also reach children through their peers, their toys, and even through the food they eat which they see advertised on television. The media plays a large role in the development of a child’s behaviour, and try as they might, parents cannot completely cut off the inappropriate messages from reaching their children.
There is also the “7-7-7” rule recommended in traditions. During the first seven years of a child’s life, their wishes which are not harmful should be fulfilled as though they are masters; during the second seven years, roles reverse, and it is the parents who become masters and discipline their child; during the third seven years, the youth become like a friend to their parents in the role of advisor. By the last stage, the parents and youth consult each other, give opinions, and discuss issues, but that’s it – in the end, the parents can only advise their youth, but the final decisions which are made are up to the individual themselves. That being said, it only makes sense that the final decision-maker be held responsible for the decisions they themselves made.
A misconception among some Muslims is that parents are given the burden of bearing the brunt for their children’s sins. On the Day of Judgment, every individual will be questioned about how they alone spent their lifetime. The verse “No person shall bear the burden (sins) of another” (6:164) is repeated five times throughout the Holy Book! Surely the Justice of Allah is undeniable: He would not hold anyone responsible for the deeds of another.
The concept of Buloogh also sheds some light on the psychology of the issue: according to the teachings of Islam, a person is not held responsible for his/her deeds until (s)he reaches the age of maturity. While some may say that the age of maturity is purely a physical determination, that is logically not so – if that were the case, then the All-Just Lord would not also start an account of deeds from that age. The simple fact that the age of maturity occurs at a young age is proof that they do have the mental capacity to understand what is right and wrong. It is important to realize that parents are never held responsible for the deeds of their children either before or after the age of maturity.
As always, even in this situation we are given guidance from the lives of our Prophets and Imams. Prophet Adam and one of his sons, Prophet Nuh and his son, Prophet Yaqoob and his ten sons, Imam Ali al-Naqi (peace be upon him) and his other son are all relevant examples. They – despite being Prophets and Imams chosen by the Almighty – had children who strayed from the Right Path. Their upbringing was doubtless exemplary, yet their children succumbed to the whispers of Shaitan. In the end, Allah will not punish the Prophets and Imam for their children’s misdeeds; rather, He will punish those who committed the misdeeds.
It is the parents’ duty to bring their children up according to the teachings of Islam, but there are many other influencing factors at play as well. We need to keep in mind that no one person has such power over another that they can be blamed for someone else’s misdeeds. Allah knows whether parents have tried to fulfill their responsibilities to the best of their abilities, and He is the ultimate Judge of who is to be held accountable.