Lent is an important time in the liturgical year. Six and a half weeks of preparation through prayer, fasting and almsgiving sets us up for Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In his letter on Lenten Penance, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP writes that “all who have completed their eighteenth year and have not yet begun their sixtieth year are bound to fast,” and that those who have completed their fourteenth year are bound to abstain.”
But what practices can be used for families with children under 14? What can we do as families that allow us to, as the Archbishop writes, to “experience our need for mercy” during Lent?
We have compiled a list of 10 ways to engage children in the message of Lent, preparing together for the celebration and miracle of Easter.
1. Talk about Lent.
A great way to begin Lent is to talk with your kids about what Lent is. The roots of Lent go back to the early Church, when those wishing to become Christian would undergo a period of preparation before their baptism. Eventually, the whole Church adopted the practice of renewing baptismal promises through a period of penance and recommitment to the Christian life. We are not called just to abstain during Lent, but to true conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ, after all!
For younger kids, Lent is a time when we practice new ways of giving up sin, and doing good, so we can be closer to God.
2. Give up something you enjoy.
Jesus fasted for forty days. That is no small amount of time! Fasting and abstinence are the practice of giving up something in order to draw closer to God. Not only does giving something up make room for God, but it puts us in solidarity with those less fortunate around us. For the little ones, maybe give up your favourite type of chocolate or lollies for Lent. For those a little older, try giving something up such as your favourite drinks and soft drinks and just drink water through the day in solidarity with those who have no access to clean water.
3. Give up your place.
If your kids are fighting about who gets to sit where, or who gets to be first, then maybe Mark 10:41-45 is a good start. Challenge your kids to live out Jesus’ words about the “first” and the “last”. This could mean allowing others to serve their dinner plates first, or taking the back seat in the car and allowing their siblings to call shotgun.
4. Serve 40 ways in 40 days.
Get creative about ways in which you can help those who you interact with every day. This could be as simple as helping mum bring the shopping bags in from the car after a shopping trip, or volunteering to take the rubbish out, or even just cleaning up a room in the house without bragging about it. Doing it secretly makes it more fun, anyway!
5. Practice being present
This one applies especially to older kids and young teens. Commit to putting down your phones (or other electronic device) whenever someone is present with them. Even better, create phone-free zones around the house, like the dinner table or living rooms. Learn to spend good quality time with those around you.
6. Make a Lenten piggy bank
Have a small jar or Project Compassion box where your kids can put in a coin a day to put towards their favourite charity. If cash isn’t something that is normally lying around, then keep a list of small acts of giving that your kids can perform through the day. Encourage them to keep track of these acts of giving. By Good Friday, count up their acts of kindness and donate a dollar for every act of giving.
7. Do an examen at the end of the day
An examination of conscience is one of the most powerful practices in our daily lives. Set aside 5-10 minutes at the end of every day to “examine” your day to see where God was present, and to try and discern how God wants you to grow. Practicing this is a great way to prepare for receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, too!
8. Get to know Jesus
Get to know more about Jesus by reading the Gospels this Lent. Or, listen to one of the many great Bible stories on podcasts or YouTube! Fr Mike Schmitz’s The Bible in a Year is great for the 12-14 range. Make a visit to the Stations of the Cross at your local church, and stop for a minute or two before each station. Take a look at what is happening in Jesus’ life, and say a little prayer before each. Click here to find out more!
Plus a few fun ones for the really little ones…
9. Make a set of Resurrection Eggs
If you’ve never seen resurrection eggs, they look like a simple set of plastic Easter eggs in various colours. But inside each egg is a symbol of the Easter story — a donkey for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a die to represent the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes, etc. These are a perfect way to teach the mysteries of the Lenten and Easter season. Find out how here!
10. Build a Lenten Cross
Similar to an Advent wreath, build a small cross out of 6 candles, one for each week of Lent. Light one each night, adding one every week until all are lit in Holy Week. This can be done as part of your nightly examen. Find out how here!