Many years ago, I was inspired by some friends to do something I had never done … run a race. I fell in love with the idea. But at that point in my life, I was not exercising regularly — and I hate running. Despite my lack of athletic prowess, I decided to register for a half-marathon. About two months into my training, my ankles swelled to the size of grapefruits and the doctor advised me to rest. I was overjoyed to have a “medical” reason to abandon my running days. The truth is, my body was not ready for that level of intensity. A couch to 5K would have been a more prudential path to take. Learning how to gradually increase weight and intensity to build strength and endurance is vital to training one’s body.
I tend to see Lent as this type of spiritual training ground. A time to make incremental changes to my life that will lead to a deeper relationship with Christ. However, at times I still make the same mistake of trying to exponentially increase the weight and intensity of my spiritual practices that often end just like my running attempt — a good effort at the start that ends in an inability to finish. I am still learning how to temper my desire for greater intensity and focus on the next best step to take in my spiritual growth. I find that having someone to walk alongside me, giving guidance or “coaching” me helps my Lenten journey be more fruitful.
Lent is hard for many people, and this is particularly true of children. They may have difficulty understanding the devotions of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that are fundamental practices of the Church during this time. Because there are several ways to apply these spiritual exercises to our lives, it can be a challenge deciding what to do. As a parent, you are in the perfect position to be that “coach” to your children in this Lenten season.
Keep in mind that the goal of this time for you and your children is a turning away from sin and to recommit your lives to Christ as you reflect on his Passion and prepare to celebrate his resurrection. Significant spiritual growth can occur in us and our children by staying steady and moving forward step-by-step, instead of trying to take drastic leaps.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church even says this: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness.” (1435)
To help facilitate this spiritual training for your children so they can get the most out of Lent, consider these three strategies:
Begin your Lenten time together by reading and discussing Jesus’ journey in the desert found in Matthew 4:1-11 and what he said about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in Matthew 6. Use these passages to help you explain the significance of Lent, Lenten devotions, and resisting temptations, all with the purpose of drawing closer to God. There are many wonderful children’s resources like stories, books, podcasts, or videos to explain Lenten traditions and their meanings. It is well worth the time exploring these resources and tailoring your presentation of them to fit your child’s age and level of understanding.
Set meaningful goals:
You know your children better than anyone else. Encourage your children to set personal goals for spiritual growth that are achievable but meaningful. These could include acts of kindness, prayers, giving up a habit, or doing something extra to help others. Work together to identify age-appropriate fasting or abstaining practices that your children can participate in. Foster an environment where your child feels comfortable discussing their experience with you, acknowledging their achievements and being merciful and encouraging if they fail. If your child wants to choose something quite challenging, let them. Failing can lead to a real change of heart if it’s accepted in true humility with a resolve to do better. The interest and involvement you show in your children’s journey can be crucial in helping them embrace the Lenten season more deeply.
Establish a routine that incorporates specific Lenten practices that involve the whole family. This could include praying a specific prayer at a particular time together; attending an additional church liturgy together (daily Mass, Stations of the Cross, penance service, Holy Hour); giving up the same thing during Lent like sweets or television time; or engaging in acts of charity together (collecting canned goods for a soup kitchen, saving money throughout Lent to donate to a ministry at your church, cleaning the church/campus grounds, etc.). There are many things that can be done, and when done together it can ease the burden and awaken a joy that contributes to family unity and solidarity. Children learn well by example, so demonstrate your commitment to Lenten practices. Your own participation and dedication will likely inspire them.
By integrating these approaches, you can help your children experience Lent as a time of personal growth, reflection, and spiritual development, all while making it a positive and enriching experience for them. In his 2004 Lenten message, Pope St. John Paul II said, “Let us set out with trust on our Lenten journey, sustained by fervent prayer, penance and concern for those in need. In particular, may this Lent be a time of ever greater concern for the needs of children, in our own families and in society as a whole: for they are the future of humanity.” May these words give parents and care-givers a renewed fervor to focus more intentionally on those precious souls God has placed in their care.