How the Prophet ﷺ Broke the Bad Parenting Cycle

By Ustadh Abu Hudhayfah

The following hadith has been recorded in various collections of hadith, albeit with slight variations in the wording:

Abu Huraira reported that “Al-Aqra’ b. Habis saw Allah’s Messenger kissing Hasan. He said: I have ten children, but I have never kissed any one of them, whereupon Allah’s Messenger said: He who does not show mercy (towards his children), no mercy would be shown to him.”[1]

This beautiful narration is frequently referred to because it so eloquently and simply describes the mercy that Allah has for us and which He expects us to have for others. When we read this hadith, the context preluding the Prophet’s (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) statement means that we usually look at it from the perspective of mercy towards children. There is no doubt that this is one of the greatest lessons we can extrapolate from this anecdote.

Upon a closer reading of this hadith, however, it becomes apparent there are many layers of meaning from which we can infer countless pearls of wisdom and Prophetic guidance. When we step away and analyse the first part of the hadith and focus on the reaction of Al-Aqra’ upon seeing the Prophet kissing his beloved grandson, then we can begin to view this hadith from an entirely different, and more insightful, perspective.

1. Adults parent how they were parented

The Prophet affectionately kisses his grandson, and upon seeing this overt display of affection Al-Aqra’ immediately, and somewhat surprisingly, says, “I have ten children, but I have never kissed any one of them”. For many of us, the reasoning behind this statement may be beyond our comprehension, but it is important to not leap to any initial conclusions without considering every possible explanation.

A person’s experiences and relationships, particularly those from their childhood, have an immense influence upon their development and transition into adulthood. Even our parental philosophy is a reflection of our past, in one way or another, and whilst Al-Aqra’s statement was his instinctive reaction to what he had seen, it does not mean that he was disapproving. Rather, he seemed to be taken aback because he was seeing something he had not necessarily witnessed or experienced before.

For Al-Aqra’ to say this, he must have perceived the action of the Prophet kissing his grandson as something strange and out of the ordinary. The easiest explanation would probably be that he has not kissed his children due to a lack of compassion and mercy towards them, but there are times when the easiest explanation is chosen for its convenience rather than its accuracy.

For example, have we ever considered that he was so perplexed because he had not received this level of love and affection himself as a child? There is every chance that he was bemused by the Prophet’s behaviour because it was something, he wasn’t familiar with in his own life and was unaware that it was a perfectly normal expression of love for the vast majority of people.

Alternatively, it could have been that he felt such public demonstrations of tenderness were not a masculine trait, and perhaps his father lacked in showing mercy towards him by way of loving hugs and gentle kisses. It is possible that because he was deprived of parental affection, he internalised this learned behaviour and deprived his children of such compassion – even though it is an essential need at such a delicate stage in life.

At the end of the day, how are we to give something to another person when it is something that we have never possessed ourselves? Ultimately, even though he may have felt love and affection for his children, it could have been that Al-Aqra’ simply never learned how to express such love and affection in his childhood.

2. Unconditional love builds self-esteem

Over the years, countless psychological studies have demonstrated that a child who receives unconditional love from their parents will be less inclined to show symptoms of anxiety and demonstrate higher levels of emotional intelligence and strength[2]. When a child knows that they are appreciated and valued, then they are given the confidence and support they need to pursue their dreams and aspirations, realise their potential, and become the best possible versions of themselves.

Expressing love and affection to a child comprises the basis of their emotional and psychological development. When a child is emotionally secure and stable, they can then learn how to reciprocate these emotions and use their own experiences to build healthy and constructive attachments with their children.

Mercy, in each manifestation, is a beautiful quality that should be treasured and implemented at every opportunity. The only way your child can learn how to be merciful is when you teach them by example. And the beauty of mercy is that it is not about the grand gestures or dramatic attestations of virtue. Something as simple as a kind word to compliment your child’s efforts or gently kissing their forehead constitutes an act of mercy – and is something which will have a lasting impact upon your child throughout their life. Abu Huraira reported: A man came to the Messenger of Allah, and he complained about the hardness of his heart. The Prophet said, “If you want to soften your heart, feed the poor and wipe (your hand) over the head of the orphan.”[3] Here the prophet did not place the emphasis on providing financially for the child but showing mercy and affection in the absence of a father figure. This highlights that what the father gives to their child are love and affection and the act of wiping the head of your child is an act of mercy.  

When you incorporate mercy into your every action and word as a parent, the effect of these small expressions of mercy will accumulate with the passage of time and your child will learn to associate mercy with unconditional love. After all, it will have such a positive and uplifting influence on their confidence and self-esteem that they will want to pass on such a wonderful legacy to their children.

As a parent, the ripple effect of your behaviour should never be underestimated. Not only are you teaching your child how to be merciful and compassionate, but you are also teaching them how to interact with your grandchildren and your progeny to come thereafter. This creates a beautiful intergenerational legacy that will only become stronger and stronger as it is transmitted through subsequent generations.

If you do not teach your children mercy, then how will they ever know how to be merciful to others, as we can see with Al-Aqra’?

3. A parent is a shepherd and shepherds must be merciful

Abdullah ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, said, “Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader of people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects. A man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them. A woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children and she is responsible for them. The servant of a man is a guardian of the property of his master and he is responsible for it. No doubt, every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock.”[4]

From this hadith, we learn about the link between parenting and leadership. Linked to the topic of leadership a similar incident to that of Al-Aqra’ occurred during the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab when one of his governors came to see him and saw ‘Umar kiss one of his children who was sitting on his lap. His governor responded to ‘Umar by saying, “O Commander of the Believers, do you kiss your child, while you are the Commander of the Believers?!”

The parallels between the reactions of the governor of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and Al-Aqra’ in the hadith are startling. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s governor believed that such a public display of affection was not befitting for someone in a position of leadership. Fatherly love is such a natural and instinctual behaviour for the overwhelming majority of people, and yet the governor found it strange enough to ask whether someone of such authority should be even kissing their child in the first place.

In response, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab says, “What can I do if Allah has deprived you of mercy?”. Consequently, ‘Umar removed this governor from his position by saying, “If you cannot have mercy on your own children, then how will you have mercy upon those who you are responsible for (as a governor)?”.

From ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s statement, we can infer another important observation. It is expected that someone should be merciful to their children, above all else. If this mercy is absent, then it is inevitable that doubts will emerge regarding that person’s capacity to be merciful in any other context and towards anyone else they may interact with. We also can see a clear link between parenting and leadership both of which require mercy as a key trait.

4. Mercy begets mercy

At the conclusion of the hadith, the Prophet conveys a serious warning with the words, “He who does not show mercy (towards his children), no mercy would be shown to him.”. The Prophet taught us that as imperfect people we will always be inclined to shortcomings and mistakes, and it is for this reason that we will only enter Paradise by way of Allah’s Mercy.

This means that if a person cannot show mercy to others, and especially his children, then how can they possibly expect to enter Paradise when it would be impossible without receiving the Mercy of Allah?

As the Prophet narrated, “The merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.”[5]  Allah is the Most Merciful, and because we have been given the capacity for free will, He expects that we should demonstrate such mercy to His creation to honour our obedience and commitment to Him. Considering that the family forms the cornerstone of society, mercy must begin at home for it to be reflected outside of the home as well.

5. Love needs to be expressed in different ways

Love is an incredibly meaningful and powerful emotion that has a presence in the heart of every sentient creature. Whether it is the love a believer has for Allah, the love between a husband and wife, the love a child has for their parents, or the love a parent has for their child – it is a feeling with so many layers of meaning and expression that even language is not enough to convey the depth of what love is.

Love is the emotional string which ties our families and societies together – and love is something that needs to be expressed physically, verbally, and emotionally. Through daily affirmations and attestations of love with our children, including kissing and hugging them whenever we have the opportunity, we are creating an emotional bond that will always anchor them to what is pure, wholesome, and good.

May Allah make us those who possess a merciful heart and demonstrate that in our words and actions.

[1] Sahih Muslim, The Book Pertaining to the Excellent Qualities of the Prophet and his companions, Book 30, Hadith 5736

[2] Rivero, E. (2013), Lack of parental warmth, abuse in childhood linked to multiple health risks in adulthood, UCLA

[3] Musnad Aḥmad 7522

[4] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 7138, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1829

[5] Sunan Abi Da’ud, Chapter of General Behaviour, Book 42, Hadith 4923

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