There are numerous recorded instances of the love of Prophet Muhammad r for children. In his book, ‘Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman’, the Orientalist W. Montgomery Watt writes (page 229):
“He (Prophet Muhammad) seems to have been specially fond of children and to have got on well with them. He was also attached to his younger cousin 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, who had been a member of his household. For a time a grand-daughter called Umamah was a favourite. He would carry her on his shoulder during the public prayers, setting her down when he bowed or prostrated, then picking her up again. On one occasion he teased his wives by showing them a necklace and saying he would give it to the one who was dearest to him; when he thought their feelings were sufficiently agitated, he presented it not to any of them, but to Umamah.
He was able to enter into the spirit of childish games and had many friends among children. He had fun with the children who came back from Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and spoke Abyssinian. In one house in Madinah there was a small boy with whom he was accustomed to have jokes. One day he found the small boy looking very sad, and asked what was the matter. When he was told that his pet nightingale had died, he did what he could to comfort him.
One of the Prophet’s closest companions, Anas ibn Malik said: “I never saw anyone who was more compassionate towards children than Allah’s Messenger. His son Ibrahim was in the care of a wet nurse in the hills around Al-Madinah. He would go there, and we would go with him, and he would enter the house, pick up his son and kiss him, then come back”. Similarly, Usamah ibn Zayd who was the son of the Prophet’s servant, Zayd ibn Harithah narrated: “The Messenger of Allah used to put me on (one of) his thighs and put Al-Hasan ibn `Ali on his other thigh, and then embrace us and say: ‘O Allah! Please be merciful to them, as I am merciful to them’.”
The Prophet was demonstrative and publicly expressed his affection for children at a time when a tender disposition was considered a sign of weakness. Once, the Prophet r kissed his grandson Al-Hasan ibn `Ali while Al-Aqra` ibn Habis At-Tamimi t was sitting with him. Al-Aqra` t said: “I have ten children and have never kissed one of them.” The Prophet r cast a look at him and said: “Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully.”
The Prophet r loved his grandchildren – he embraced and kissed them frequently, went after them while they raced ahead of him, sometimes he prolonged his prostrations in prayer because they clambered onto his back and he “disliked hurrying them before they had finished playing.”
Once, he r even left the pulpit in the middle of a discourse with the Companions, when he saw his grandsons tottering towards him, until he seated them by his side.
Love for all children
The Prophet’s affection for children extended to all the children in the community, and was not limited to his own family. He was so concerned about them that he once said: “(It happens that) I start the prayer intending to prolong it, but on hearing the cries of a child, I shorten the prayer…”
New-born children in the community were brought to him and he cuddled them, named them and supplicated for them. ‘A’isha narrated, that: "The Prophet r took a child in his lap, and then the child urinated on him, so he asked for water and poured it over the place of the urine."
Children were never too intimidated to approach him, because he took an interest in them and dealt with them at their intellectual level.
Umm Khalid reported that: “I (the daughter of Khalid ibn Sa’eed t) went to Allah’s Messenger r with my father and I was wearing a yellow shirt. Allah’s Messenger said: “Sanah, Sanah!” (sanah meant “good” in the Ethiopian language). I then started playing with the seal of Prophethood (between the Prophet’s shoulders) and my father rebuked me harshly for that. Allah’s Messenger r said, “Leave her.” The Prophet, then, invoked Allah to grant her a long life thrice.
Another Companion whilst recalling his childhood said: "In my childhood I used to knock down dates by throwing stones at palm trees. Somebody took me to the Prophet r who advised me to pick up the dates lying on the ground but not to knock them down with stones. He r then patted me and blessed me."
At other times, we hear of the Prophet r inviting children to sit with him on his mount (whether a mule or a camel) and offering them rides when he returned to the city. In fact, when he returned to Makkah at the head of a large, conquering army, there were two children who sat with him and shared his mount.
Interacting at the child’s intellectual level
The Prophet r interacted with children at their own level of intelligence and was not above making jokes with them. The son of the female Companion Umm Sulaym had a pet nightingale that he was very fond of. The Prophet r would ask him: “O Abu Umayr! Where is the Nughayr (nightingale)?” At other times he spoke to the children of the early emigrants who had been to Abyssinia and knew a little of the Abyssinian language.
Fostering dignity and self-respect
The Prophet r also encouraged giving children a kunyah (patronymic) and calling them by it in order to help them develop a sense of dignity and self-respect. He also advocated teaching them sports like archery and horse-riding so that they would be physically active and useful members of the community when they grew up. The Prophet r once took an oath of allegiance from a group of young children in Al-Madinah, and praised them for their initiative.
The Prophet’s relations with children, just like every other aspect of his life, were marked by kindness and balance. He related to them at their level, while encouraging them to develop their personalities and acquire skills that would make them useful members of the community.