As parents of young children know, Lent can seem so “heavy” in comparison to the anticipation and excitement of preparing for Christmas. What can this season of conversion and preparation “to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed” mean for little children? For many of us growing up, Lent meant, “giving up candy.” That wasn’t a bad way to introduce us to the notion of self-discipline, but simply giving up something for Lent, without a whole spirituality that children can enter into, can leave kids dreading Lent more than looking forward to it.
The first and most important help for little children is that we as adults understand Lent and enter into it ourselves with real devotion and joy. If Lent makes its way into our home and into our conversations and practices that children can see, they will naturally grow up in a culture that embraces Lent as a season of grace.
Lenten symbols are very important. (Holy pictures, crucifixes, holy water and candles.) Children need a context; they need to explore and understand what we just take for granted, and sometimes forget. When we put something in a central place in our home, and call attention to it, it naturally leads children to ask “why” it is there and what it means. In their curiosity, they want to know what has changed and what difference it makes for them.
Depending upon the age of our children, we can have the older children help the younger children with Lent. A family “meeting” could be scheduled each week, in which we could say a prayer, and then plan out what each person in the family can do in the upcoming week, to help the whole family out and what the whole family could do to help the poor. For example, each child could be assigned one small “duty” to do, to help out the family this week.
Perhaps at this family meeting, the family plan for eating during Lent could be discussed. How will we abstain from meat this coming Friday? Why are we doing it? It’s a sacrifice and it is a remembrance of the day our Lord died for us on Good Friday. And, avoiding meat on Fridays puts us in union with all the Catholics through out the world who are doing the same. One practice a family might take up together is to find out about a meal program for the homeless in the area and to make a meal to bring to the program each week. Children can help in making a big pot of chili or soup and come along on the trip in delivering it to the meal program. This kind of family Lenten practice can transform a child’s experience of Lent.
The most important part of Lent can be how children are helped to make this a time to practice being more loving. Children naturally love, but they can get into really bad habits of fighting with brothers and sisters or being disobedient or even talking back. Lent is a great time to build in some family practices, which can also be an outstanding renewal for parents and adults in the family. Children will notice if part of my Lenten journey is to choose to fast from my crabby-ness or busy-ness and to spend more time with them. They will notice, if we set the example of choosing to compliment others in the family more, highlighting the good things I notice in them. If our family Lenten practice is to focus on being nicer, kinder and more generous in helping each other, the children will take part in it. And, if we fail on a given day, we can quickly apologize and ask forgiveness. It is a good idea to go as a family to Confession during Lent.
During Lent, a family could choose a number of things to make a huge difference in a child’s experience of Lent. All they take are a commitment of time and some creativity.
One possibility is to go to the Stations of the Cross together as a family. Before attending, describing each of the stations will help them understand all that Jesus had to suffer for love of us.
Perhaps as part of our special Lenten practices, a family could look at the upcoming Sunday’s gospel together on Saturday, to prepare for Sunday. The more the story of the gospel enters the children’s imagination, the more the children can get out of celebrating the Sunday liturgy with the family. And, it will be great to talk about the homily, in practical terms for the family, sometime during the day on Sunday.
Finally, the most important days to prepare children are: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – the three days Lent builds up to. It would be wonderful to prepare children for the great liturgies these days, but if it is not possible to celebrate these liturgies in person, it is possible to make those times special at home.
On Holy Thursday, a special meal can be prepared and the family can remember the meal Jesus had with his disciples, the night before he died for us, and how he gave us his body and blood that night. Perhaps lamb can be prepared, along with pita bread and some wine, so that the whole Passover story can be explained and shared with the children. This connection with every Eucharist can be a great and memorable time for the children.
On Good Friday, we can plan to observe the day in many special ways. We can plan our meals carefully, to explain fasting and abstinence. We ourselves can demonstrate fasting to them, and explain its meaning: to make us more alert and hungry for God’s graces. The time between Noon and 3 o’clock should be particularly quiet and reflective. We can read the Passion story – from John’s Gospel – and add our own words here and there to fill out the story and let children ask questions. We can pray our petitions for all of God’s people, especially the ten groups we traditionally pray for on Good Friday. It is a wonderful time to do the Stations of the Cross together. It can also be a time to do a veneration of the cross together – embracing or kissing a family crucifix.
On Holy Saturday, we can make the day a time of waiting. We can remember that it is the only day of the church year on which there is no liturgy. We are conscious all day of the memory of Jesus in the tomb. If we really reflect upon that tomb, which held the body of Jesus, we can really understand the power of our Easter joy – that the tomb is empty forever.
In this spirit, every family can do something to make Lent special for the youngest of children.
– Adapted from Creighton University Online Ministries