Najelaa Shihab: Reflections on Being a Mother

I have been a big fan of her dad’s, Quraish Shihab, so when I saw a Twitter account with Shihab on it (@najelaashihab), I immediately checked it and glanced through it. And I’m so glad I clicked on it because there I found inspiring tweets after tweets. Not a typical tweet about wisdom or happiness but tweets about kids development, education, motherhood and how we can become a better parent for our kids. She shows how a trip to the mall can be educational for kids and how you can show to your daughters that there’s more to see in the princess stories are not always about pretty faces and shiny shoes.

Of course, I clicked follow right away :).

In between her busy days as the head of Sekolah Cikal (where she was the founder), she took the time to share us her experience as a mother of three (Fathi, Nihlah and Nishrin)

What have you learned as a mother?

As a mother, I’m learning something new everyday. Learning more about my children and learning more about myself. It would take more than 100 pages to describe how much my 13 years of parenting teach me. But if I need to sum it up I think the most important things that I’ve learned are:

  • In parenting, we should always aim for long term goal
  • Parenting should be fun for the parents and the children

The most challenging part of this journey for me is to keep doing it with that two missions in mind. Like most parents, sometimes I fell into the trap of finding short term solution to a problem or stress intervening with my parenting goal, and at the end affecting how I interact with my children. I guess, one thing that I always try to remember is that, in parenting, you’ll always have a choice and nothing should be taken for granted. We need to choose to be a great parent even though it means taking a more difficult route.

Do you have rules that you set for your kids?

Our family have essential agreement, so I don’t use rules for the sake of rules. This shows that how our family interacts are decided together. I believe that discipline comes from a strong understanding of values and ethics. So it is the values of respect, collaboration, integrity, caring and commitment that is the backbone of our essential agreement. We talk about any issues, brainstorm a possible solution, try it out, discuss whether it’s working or not. Problem solving are part of our daily conversation. So this agreement is flexible and not a one set of recipe that’s decided once and forever.

This doesn’t mean that we are inconsistent, but it means that we are consistent to one goal, a happy, safe and respectful interaction in any situation.

Fathi, Nihlah, Nishrin

What do you think about Quality Vs Quantity? Do you think quantity matters too?

I think, I believe and this is proved by a consistent number of researches, that you can not have a quality interaction without the quantity. And this is true, not only in parenting, but in any other relationship. With children, having enough time to interact with parents are essential part of their development. Instillation of values, acquiring good reading, healthy eating and other lifelong habits all needs constant interaction with adults that share the same quality. The problem is when parents are not around often enough, the children will need a parent-substitute to them develop their potential. And unless you’re very very very lucky, it’s nearly impossible to find someone else who’ll be as good as the parents in doing this.

The bottom line is parenting comes with many privileges and lots of responsibilities, and commuting time for your children is one of foundations of this great role.

Most of the time it is about being there when it really matters. So I try to understand each of my child’s needs. One may needs me in the morning while she is getting ready to school, one needs me the most in the evening to help him with the homework, the other loves having me on her side when she goes to sleep at night. I try to have enough time to do all of these. There is no easy answer in what’s the minimum number of hours you need to dedicate to be a good parent, but I believe sensitive parent will develop their own “alarm system” that warn them when they are not spending enough time with their children. In this case, do listen to your guilt :)

How do you define as quality time with your kids?

Quality time is anytime or anywhere we have positive interaction. Even our 10 minutes ride to school is quality time when we sing together and discuss the lyrics. But a two hours together watching movie can be meaningless if the only interaction going on is between each of us with the TV.

I have a weekly date with each kids. Two to three hours of time only for the two of us where he/she can have undivided attention, not even interrupted by a phone call. I put it in my agenda and respect this time as sacred as an appointment with the most important person in the world (whom they are :) ). Overall, I try to balance my time with the children– fun time with the whole family, individual time with mom & dad, brother & sisters hangout time, a get-together with extended family (grandparents, cousins, etc).

Where do you usually take them out on the weekend?

My husband loves sailing and we are all beach-lovers. So Pulau Seribu is our favorite part of Jakarta. We are also very outdoor-oriented, we have our family Sunday jogging, and we enjoy rafting, hiking, camping. When we eat out we usually choose Japanese food. We love to go to bookstores and movies together.

I also enjoy having friends and family at our house on the weekends, so we are regularly hosting breakfast/lunch/dinners.

Any proud mommy moments you want to share?

I try to be enthusiastic about my children’s development along the way. It’s getting more difficult when you have 3 children. But a first walk, first day of school or first performance is a first for that child, even though you’ve witnessed it before with your first born. So it’s all a proud moment for me. But I try to define proud moments beyond my children’s achievement, I celebrate every little things, because I want the children to understand that improvements do matters. So we cheer when Nihlah try to swim without board, Nishrin makes her first cupcakes or Fathi improves his best time on swimming practices.

Our family has what we call “gratitude circle” (it is one of many -massage circle, kisses circle, etc) and one night that I remember the most in this past few months was when Fathi said, “Thank you mom, for giving me what I need, even though it is not always what I want”.

As a mother, what product or item you can’t live without?

I am dependent on so many things, that makes my life easier. Motherhood will be more challenging without the internet and my Blackberry, it helps me communicate with the office while staying at home with my children and it helps me stay in touch with my social circle. I am grateful for other child-rearing products as well, ready to wear cotton nappies or one-click stroller. My first and my third is ten years apart, so I can really see the innovation in the products.

What traits do your children possess that definitely came from you?

Well, this is a difficult one to answer without my husband objecting to it :) I believe in the influence of nature and nurture in everyone’s personality. I would say that at least one aspect of my childrens’ temperament, which is their in-born tendency to be more sensitive emotionally comes from me.

What do you want to teach your children?

There are so many things that I want to teach my children that I am sure I wouldn’t have enough time in my life to do it. It becomes even more complicated because we are teaching them to be ready for a future that is so unpredictable. So one thing that I am aiming right now is for them to have the ability to keep on learning independently, without me around. To be a lifelong learner they will need to be an inquirer, have an emotional and spiritual maturity, self-discipline, sense of responsibility to their community. I want them to find what they love doing, be good at it and make a difference to the world.


Wow, don’t you just love the way she answers everything? Calm, full of reflection and at the same time we can also feel the enthusiastic and energy she has for the future generation. Reading this truly motivated me to be a better mom for my kids.  Thank you for sharing with us, Mbak Elaa, you’re truly an inspiration :)

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