When I was growing up, I had not even the faintest idea of what Lent was. If you had asked me, I would have told you “Lent” was the fuzz that gets trapped in the dryer. It’s not that I wasn’t raised in a Christian home–I was–or that my church didn’t observe Lent–it did. The problem, I think, came from the timing of Lent. I mean really, how on earth is a child supposed to think about fasting a mere month and a half after Christmas? By February, most kids are still coming down from the present-induced ecstasy of December. God bless those ancient Christians, but I’m not sure they designed the calendar with consumeristic elementary school children in mind!
Or did they?
On the heels of Christmas, Lent can feel like a tough sell to kids. However, it’s a great opportunity to talk about the deeper parts of our faith, and to recalibrate their perspectives. That’s why, depending on the age of your kids, Lent can be a great tradition to incorporate into your family.
For those who are unfamiliar with the season, Lent is the 40 days prior to Easter. This allotment of 40 days is symbolic of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested. Historically, Christians have observed this season in different ways, but the most common form is fasting. During this time, we prepare our hearts for Easter, consider what Jesus sacrificed on our behalf, and give serious consideration to our own brokenness.
However, that is not what I first learned about Lent. As a young adult, I knew Lent as the season to give up chocolate. Back then, Lent sounded like a great way to get serious about your New Year’s resolutions. It was a God-ordained diet plan. Or, it was an opportunity to exercise self-discipline, to see if you could grit your way through it.
As you think through Lent, and how you want to communicate it to your kids, it’s important to avoid some of these pitfalls, which make fasting more about you than about God. Instead, fasting is a time to remember what Jesus gave up out of his love for us. When we fast from something, and we feel the pain of its absence in our lives, that pain is a reminder. It alerts our hearts and minds to the difficulty of sacrifice, and draws our attention more directly to Christ.
Fasting also reminds us of our weakness. In a world in which everything we need is at our fingertips, it’s easy to feel invincible. It’s easy to forget just how much we need God. But fasting unmasks that lie, and shows us our human frailty.
The question is, how do we communicate this to our kids? Depending on their ages, this will look different. Children under the age of 7 or 8 will probably struggle to grasp the concept of long-term fasting, but elementary school is a great time to begin talking about it. As you observe Lent yourself, talk to your kids about why you are fasting, what you have chosen to fast from, and what it’s like: Has it been hard? Have you missed the thing you’ve given up? What is God teaching you through it?
As your children get older, you can help them to choose something they will fast from during Lent. Maybe it’s a tv show. Maybe it’s a certain kind of toy or activity. Maybe it’s a favorite dessert. It doesn’t have to be arduous, but simply a first step. Then, as the days go on, you can explore their own thoughts and feelings. If they miss the toy or dessert, talk about what Jesus sacrificed for them. Or, read Matthew 4–the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness–
and talk with your kids about what that must have been like.
One of the mercies of Lent is that it doesn’t include Sundays. Every Sunday during Lent, you can break the fast and indulge a little. This part seems designed for kids! It’s a little encouragement along the way.
Recalling my childhood obsession with Christmas–and my total obliviousness to Lent–parents shouldn’t get too discouraged about Lent. Some kids will get it, and some will not, but it’s the habit that matters. Christians have long practiced Lent because they believed there was something about it that shapes our souls to look like Jesus. But this is not instant gratification formation. Through seasons like Lent, we are sewing into our children’s hearts the lessons and practices that will bear fruit in years to come. It’s the long game we’re after, and Lent plays a powerful part in it.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, and mom. She is a regular contributor to Her.meneutics, and has also written for Propel, (in)courage, Relevant, Gifted for Leadership, The Gospel Project, and Christianity Today. To read more of her writing, visit her blog at SheWorships.com.