Dadajaan’s Academy: Where Character Counts!
By Yasmeen Qadri, Ed.D.
“Mom, why have you and Dad changed? You both were always so strict with us, but we don’t see that happening with your grandchildren!” I hear this a lot—or variants of it—from my children.
My husband Najeeb and I are truly blessed to be living close to my three children. I watch my grandchildren, between the ages of 3 and 11, interacting and playing with each other on nearly a daily basis, which gives me a view into early childhood education away from the classroom. I am known to them as “Dadijaan,” a term meaning—in a clunky translation—“paternal grandmother dearest,” and my husband is called “Dadajaan,” or “paternal grandfather dearest.”
My husband and I emigrated from Hyderabad, India, to Florida nearly four decades ago, and since then have made it our home. Like many immigrants, we initially had expected to find the “American Dream” We assumed everything was going to be perfect—including our children.
Reality was far different. As a teacher in America, I have been concerned about what I have seen as a decline in character, morals, and respect in most classrooms. The growing violence and negativity across cultures and faiths emphasized for me the importance of education at home, the first school for everyone. I decided to help educate my grandchildren, primarily because of this recognition that children need to be taught values at an early age.
There are practical reasons why grandparents are involved in the daily lives of their grandchildren. According to ChildCare Aware of America, approximately 7 million children in the United States are living with their grandparents, which saves families thousands of dollars in child care costs.1 Grandparents play a key role in the lives of their grandchildren and the family at large beyond this financial support. Stephen F. Duncan, on Brigham Young University’s Forever Families website, writes:
Grandparents play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren, though it is often indirect. Most of their significance to children is seen through the support and help they give to their parents. Grandparents are often seen as “stress buffers,” family “watchdogs,” “roots,” “arbitrators,” and “supporters.” Research suggests that children find unique acceptance in their relationships with grandparents, which benefits them emotionally and mentally. Grandparents can be a major support during family disruptions. Sometimes they’re playmates for their grandchildren. They’re very often role models and mentors for younger generations. They are also historians—teaching values, instilling ethnic heritage and passing on family traditions.2
Grandpa and Grandma are often the ones to give instruction, help, and support when needed most, especially when parents are busy enough with just putting food on the table.
It made sense, then, to be more involved in my grandchildren’s lives. There is certainly the necessity of having someone simply watch the children, as lives become busier for parents who are struggling with a rise in cost of living and stagnant wages. My sons and daughters-in-law are working demanding jobs, and so are constantly juggling their full-time careers with family life.
As a college professor, I often find my students demonstrate a lack of respect toward their professors and, indeed, even to their own education. Out of concern about what I was observing, I decided to take the summer away from my work to focus on the character development of my six grandchildren. This was not going to be easy, as any elementary school teacher would know. I was going to be homebound with six children of various ages and temperaments; with the help of my husband, I believed I could pull through. So I advised my sons that they did not need to enroll my grandchildren in a summer program.
And that was how “Dadajaan’s Academy” was born.
The name came about because my husband has a way with children. He used to watch the youngest girl, Hana, when the other children were at school during the year. Since Hana was the only one not attending school, she would feel left out, and so Najeeb told her she was attending “Dadajaan’s Academy.” She believed in this so much that she would tell her parents that she went to school when they asked her what she did that day! We continued to use the name for the character education work we did over the summer.
In order to support my grandchildren in developing empathy, respect, gratitude, and cooperation, we made changes in the following areas:
• Media: My grandchildren love watching television and videos on YouTube. Even if they are uninterested in a show, they will watch it—and complain while they are watching! This need to be watching something, to be constantly entertained, had become an unhealthful priority for them. So we simply stopped watching television!
• Healthy Home-Cooked Meals: What children eat will affect how they feel and how they act, so we cooked healthy meals, avoiding ready-made snacks and processed foods.
• Outdoor Recreation: To replace screen time, we took the children outdoors. We started swimming lessons, trips to the park, and other outdoor activities so my grandchildren could engage with their surroundings and compete in a healthy environment.
• Service Learning: The first step toward service learning is service to one’s family. The older children helped the younger serve meals and wash their plates. They helped their parents and grandparents keep the house clean and served them coffee or tea. Later, we taught them that donating food to the homeless in the community and donating money online to an orphanage is an extension of such service.
• Faith: At Dadajaan’s Academy, Islam is the faith that determines and grounds our character. Dadajaan spent an hour every morning teaching each child Qur’an, the testament of the Muslims, focusing on the value of prayer, respect for parents and other adults, honesty and sincerity, promoting goodness, humility, gratitude, and talking softly.
With these lessons and our efforts in modeling such behaviors, I began to see that my grandchildren were able to demonstrate self-control, conflict resolution, respect, and patience. With six children, fights over toys and activities certainly occurred, but we turned those issues around by reminding the children that, at Dadajaan’s Academy, it is ours—not mine. We helped the children understand the importance of talking about their feelings when arguing in order to find a resolution, and we advised them to ask for help from an older sibling if they could not reach a resolution on their own.
We gave the children many activities to help put these lessons into practice, while having fun. One of the activities we gave them was to write gratitude journals and sit in a count-your-blessings circle. We visited the library, community parks, Sea World, and the Lion Country Safari to learn about animals and social interaction. They learned swimming from their uncles. They learned how to cook and wash dishes with their aunt. (They loved baking their favorite brownies and fruit tarts!). Nighttime stories told by their mothers were in fact tales that reinforced the daytime lessons. As their grandmother and the early childhood education professor, I made sure that the children used their creativity while role playing some scenarios and acting out some skits. At Dadajaan’s Academy, every adult—aunts, uncles, grandparents, and parents—spent quality time with the children. Whatever the children learned, the underlying lessons were about respect, sharing, caring, and appreciating.
We believe nothing can surpass the bonds passed from one generation to the other. My husband and I feel content that our time spent with our grandchildren was worth it. We hope to leave a legacy behind that our future generations can continue: a strong focus on developing character. We hope to create a ripple effect on society through Dadajaan’s Academy. We wish for our grandchildren to contribute positively to the society they live in and also that the character they demonstrate creates a ripple effect with other children. Although the core teachings of our Academy is based on Islamic teachings, there is no doubt that this can be modeled by all—regardless of faith, nationality, or ethnicity. We hope that this type of model will be unique to the advancement of character, peace, and contribute to making U.S. schools safe again! In the beginning of the summer, we had plans to travel, go on a cruise, and visit the beautiful beaches of Florida. But what can be more rewarding than taking our grandchildren on a journey of character development?
Blessed are the parents and grandparents whose children appreciate and show gratitude to the hard work, dedication, and love they receive from their family. After the summer program ended, our children encouraged us to take a well-deserved vacation. So the grandparents took a mini vacation to enjoy Niagra Falls. This was a good time for us to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. It was certainly the best time for us to reconnect and strengthen our own relationship as a couple. I believe that the foundation has to be strong so it can hold the future buildings! Happy parents and grandparents can lead to happy children.
1 Dionne Dobbins, “Celebrating Grandparents and the Important Role They Play in Children’s Lives,” ChildCare Aware of America, 13 Sep. 2017, https://usa.childcareaware.org/2017/09/celebrating-grandparents-important-role-play-childrens-lives/
2 Stephen F. Duncan, “Importance of Grandparents to Their Grandchildren,” BYU, Forever Families. https://foreverfamilies.byu.edu/Pages/importance-of-grandparents-to-grandchildren