Building a Democracy Starting from the Family: Conversation with Two Passionate Parents

Parenting is arguably one of the most vital jobs in the world, for which however, we get the least amount of training. Indeed, as Mark Walsh once stated, ‘Parenting is the easiest thing in the world to have an opinion about, but the hardest thing in the world to do.’ When it comes to learning the skill of raising children, we are not taught this skill at school, and the knowledge what we have inherited from our mother, father or guardian may not be enough to respond to today’s challenges and dynamics. As a mother therefore, I enjoy looking around me and learning from engaged and wise parents around me.

Today, we will spend time with two of such inspiring parents: Hanan Abdulmalik, whom  I admire for how she is raising her daughters to be in tune with their own feelings and their environment, and Aymeku Ayele, for how she encourages her boys to make thoughtful decisions in their daily lives, by nurturing a positive environment as well.

Aymeku and Hanan have been asked to reflect on the following questions, and here are their responses.

  1. Please share about yourself and your children (and their ages), as well as what your passion in life is professionally 

\"\"Hanan: My name is Hanan Abdulmalik and I have two daughters. Ayah Cassidy is almost 12, and Yasmin Cassidy is almost 10. My passion and professional life have revolved around two main themes: Democracy/ Governance and Education. I am especially passionate about the nexus between democracy and education. I have worked in the field of governance, rule of law and civic participation for over a decade.

My passion in education had grown organically with my children. We have chosen the unconventional path of homeschooling, which requires passion and dedication by both parents.

\"\"Aymeku: I am a mother of two boys, aged 14 and 11.  But I am also a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, and a colleague.  My passion lies in my personal life, in my various “roles”, keeping close bonds with those near and dear to me.  Professionally, working at a pharmaceutical company in the analytics department, I get to learn about life saving therapies and crunch the numbers to measure potential impact to patients.

  1. There is a saying that goes: ‘family is the heart of democracy. Family is where we grow leaders’. How does this resonate with you?

Hanan: The saying “the family is the heart of democracy” really resonates with me and reminds me of the work of Parker J. Palmer, a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. \”Democracy,\” writes Palmer, \”is a non-stop experiment in the strengths and weaknesses of our political institutions, local communities, and the human heart—and its outcome can never be taken for granted. The experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart\’s alchemy that can turn suffering into compassion, conflict into community, and tension into energy for creativity amid democracy\’s demands.\” If we want to “create a politics worthy of the human spirit,” if we want to create a truly democratic society, we must find ways to bridge our differences, and those important lessons start in the family.

The saying that “family is where we grow leaders” resonates less with me, partly because I don’t believe we all share a common understanding of what a leader is. What I look and hope to grow in my children is genuineness, authenticity, and intentionality. This for me are intrinsic traits of a great leader, but I’ll be honest to say that the idea of growing leaders doesn’t pre-occupy me.

Aymeku: I am not familiar with this saying.  My initial reaction is that family may be limiting.  However, if we don’t take the literal meaning of family and instead think of family as a community, then it resonates with me.  There is another saying, “no man is an island” which speaks to the fact that we are all shaped by the many influences around us.  And if those influences are positive, then it allows for the opportunity to develop into a leader.

  1. What major principles guide your parenting, and who inspires you in your journey (writers, thinkers, friends or others)? 

Hanan: There are four things that come to mind. Very early in my mothering journey, I developed a connection with one of my late aunt-in-laws (Maggie Hayes) around parenting. I had read several parenting books, and like every new mother had received lots of advice from people. In one of Maggie’s first visits to meet my first born, a couple of weeks after birth, she gave me a big stack of past issues of the Mothering magazines. I had never heard of this magazine, and through it, I was introduced to the world of what I guess would be called natural parenting. Every page in those magazines resonated with me. I was introduced to concepts like gentle parenting, conscious parenting and attachment parenting. Gentle in its approach; the magazine explored the scenic, slower route of parenting which encourages children to reach milestones in their own time.

So I think it would be safe to say that one of my major guiding principles is the idea of natural parenting, which can mean different things to different people.

I also very often turn to and am inspired by Laura Markham of Aha Parenting, as well as Dr Gabor Maté, and his work on childhood development. Dr Maté is a Hungarian-born Canadian physician. He has a background in family practice and a special interest in childhood development and trauma, and in their potential lifelong impacts on physical and mental health, including autoimmune disease, cancer, ADHD, addictions, and a wide range of other conditions. I have especially been influenced by his book, “Hold on To Your Kids – Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Kids”. This book is written in collaboration with Gordon Neufeld, international authority on child development, and tackles one of the most disturbing trends of our time:  children today increasingly look to their peers for direction — their values, identity, and codes of behavior.  The book explores “peer orientation” undermining family cohesion, interfering with healthy development, and fostering a hostile and sexualized youth culture.

Aymeku: I am not familiar with this saying.  My initial reaction is that family may be limiting.  However, if we don’t take the literal meaning of family and instead think of family as a community, then it resonates with me.  There is another saying, “no man is an island” which speaks to the fact that we are all shaped by the many influences around us.  And if those influences are positive, then it allows for the opportunity to develop into a leader.

  1. In your views, what are the greatest challenges and opportunities our children/ teens are facing in today’s world?

Hanan: I feel like the challenges that children face are similar to what we are facing as adults, one of being able to create and sustain authentic human connections at a time of unimaginable distractions. Children these days are more connected than ever, yet research after research also shows that they are more socially isolated and therefore prone to anxiety and depression. Face-to-face interactions foster key human experiences like vulnerability, intimacy, and empathy—experiences that technology simply cannot offer. 

Aymeku:  There is information overload at all times, communication is instant and constant which can be both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing because it can connect people in ways that were previously not possible.  My children are close to their grandparents because they can Skype and keep in touch even though they may not see each other for years at a time. Children can collaborate virtually; they all do not have to be in the same space which allows for a great deal of learning to take place.

The flip side is that children always seem to be on some device and there is so much content out there, it is nearly impossible to filter what they are exposed to.  There is a lot of negative material out there and how to shield our children from this is a real challenge.  And forgetting the negative materials, there is simply no more downtime. Downtime has to be planned, to be able to unplug, let your mind wander, even be bored.  That is why mindfulness is becoming so popular.

  1. As a parent, what helps you to grow and evolve? What is your support system?

Hanan: What helps me grow and evolve is firstly, the lived experience with my children. Even almost 12 years into the journey of motherhood, I am struck at how innately different one child is from the other, and the different challenges and opportunities that are present at different stages of their lives. The amount of evolution as a person and as a parent that is required from me is phenomenal and a real opportunity for continuous self-reflection and self-improvement.

A lot of my support is digital in nature, through homeschooling support groups, natural living groups, etc. My lifestyle is very nomadic by nature, and I find myself in a different city every few years. Everywhere I’ve lived I have also been able to find one or two people that share similar values and have therefore become an intrinsic part of my support system.

Aymeku: I have found parenting to be a journey with a lot of unexpected twists and turns, that stretches you in ways you never expected to be stretched or makes you see sides of you that you didn’t think ever existed.  A few things have helped me evolve.  To begin with, understanding that I am not alone– there have been many, many parents before me and there will be many, many parents to come so I take comfort in knowing that my challenges are not unique to me.  Also, understanding that I will not always know what to do, or how to react. I have faith, and I have learned trust in my intentions, that ultimately, I just want the best for the boys even though sometimes I second guess myself.  I find it key to acknowledge that perhaps I could have handled

something differently but not to wear myself down with guilt, but rather keep in mind for next time, as a learning, to do better.

I am blessed to be surrounded by a support system by friends and family alike.  My husband and I are on the same page when it comes to parenting, so being a united front is priceless.  Our families are my rock; the emotional support they provide is constant, they feel like our own personal cheerleaders!  No one lives physically close by, but I never really feel far away from them.  And our friends may as well be family, those near and far; those who I’m in touch with on a regular basis and those with whom I have a rare conversation with but always from the heart.  I would not have made it through the early years without our wonderful neighbors whose kids and mine all grew up together, playing in the street.  The adults would take turns watching them but oftentimes it ended up being all of us getting to know one another and building a tight knit community among ourselves, strong to this day.

  1. Anything else about your parenting journey that you would like to share with us?

Hanan: I think I have shared above what some of my aspirations and inspirations are. Things don’t always work out as planned. My efforts don’t always have the outcome that I would like. Being present to that reality, and submitting and accepting things as they are, has been one of the greatest challenges and blessings of my parenthood journey.

While learning from such reflections, I draw from Aymeku’s and Hanan’s reflections on ‘family being the heart of democracy. I connect their words to Professor Nossrat Peseschian, author of ‘Positive Family Therapy’. He writes that the family, ‘as the site for biological and social reproduction, it occupies a unique and central role in the events within society. If we ask about the source of a person’s unique qualities, views, and values, we probably end up talking about the environment he grew up in – namely, his family. In addition, the continuity of society depends on rules that one acquires within the family, and in the common values that hold the society together.’ How we raise our children therefore, influences how they express their values in the societies and democracies they may build. 

In addition, I am struck by how both Aymeku and Hanan feel affirmed by like-minded individuals, who are part of their support systems.

It is interesting how both are present to the challenges and negative distractions modern day technology can provide to our children, and us all (even though it also has its gifts). Nurturing human connection, and presence to each other, seem to require more and more intention, it seems.

In addition, the family can be a source of individual growth, where our sons and daughters can push boundaries and evolve, ultimately being ready to contribute to society and the notion of democracy. And that applies to us as parents too, since it is our own transformation, our own evolution that can model what we wish to see in our progeny and community.

What I am also realizing from our mothers is that when faced with breakdowns in our parenthood journey, we can also trust that we can try our best: trust and let go.

And perhaps, it is not us who is raising our boys and girls, but the other way around? As Dr. Shefali Tsabary says, ‘A Conscious Parent is not the one who seeks to fix or create the perfect child. The parent understands that this child has been called forth to raise the parent itself

There is plenty of food for thought here, and I am grateful for Hanan’s and Aymeku’s precious thoughts and passionate motherhood, which can accompany us in this gorgeous and exciting journey called parenthood.