Living Lent with Children

Family life is by nature chaotic.  Kids are messy, poopy, boogery, and sometimes moody.  We love ’em, but they don’t make life neat and orderly.  In contrast, for some us, our perfect vision of Lent is very quiet, serene, contemplative, even monastic.   Are we parents left outside the gates during Lent, merely admiring the transformation going on inside where the “real” spiritual people are?  Of course not.  Even amidst the chaos of parenting, not only can we fall more in love with Christ during Lent, but so can our children.  I explored this topic today with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their wonderful radio show More2Life on Ave Maria Radio.

Daffodils, the Lent Lily

Daffodils, the Lent Lily

I so appreciated the Popcaks’ immediate focus on the primary purpose of Lent.  They have a way of cutting to the chase, don’t they?  They stated that the primary purpose of Lent for us isn’t suffering and sacrifice; it’s growing in our love for God.  This issue has really bothered me lately.  When I asked the kids in my CCD class “what is Lent” most of them didn’t know what it was.  Unfortunate.  But it’s equally unfortunate that the few who did recognize the word “Lent” described it as something like “oh, that’s when we can’t eat candy” or “that’s when we have to give stuff away”.

I’m going to be frank here.  I believe that if we focus with our kids on sacrifice and suffering during Lent without leading them to a deeper knowledge of Christ’s love, without a deeper knowledge of the blessings awaiting them in friendship with Christ, the sacrifices are pretty pointless.  And if the sacrifices are too painful for children, they will develop a resentment for the faith.  Lent is about responding to God’s call for transformation, not seeing how tough we are and how long we can go without protein.  I mean, our sacrifices can be incredible signs of commitment, but they’re only holy if they are grounded in love.

We can lead our kids through Lent so that their eyes are trained on the beauty of our Faith.  Let’s consider the 3 Pillars of Lent (fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) and how we can live them out with children in a way that draws us into closer relationship and kinship to Christ, our Savior.  I love the framework that the 3 Pillars provides us, because it reminds us that we need to be open to Christ’s love (prayer) and we need to be capable of mercy for others (almsgiving) if we want to live fully the Easter message.  If we live out the 3 Pillars with the goal of connecting with our children so that they can in turn connect with Christ, I think they’ll look forward to Lent every year!


By sacrificing food and things we find pleasurable during Lent, we are participating in Christ’s sacrifice so that we can understand him better and be a better friend to him.   Explain to your kids that the Church isn’t trying to punish us!  Older children comprehend this point, but younger kids will have a hard time with it.  The kids in my CCD class were a little perplexed by this.  What?!  Why would we give up our toys for anyone?  For little ones, we can explain to them that during Lent we all give up something in order to remember what Jesus gave up for us.  They still may not get it this year, but as we return to our family rituals and Lenten traditions each year, rituals & traditions that our grounded in love and joy, they will get it eventually.

Making a family sacrifice:  If your family is new to observing Lent, you can start with making a family sacrifice.  Talk about which pleasure you’d like to give up.  T.V. at least one day a week?  Your Saturday night pizza?  Even if you make individual sacrifices in your family, you can still have one family sacrifice.   This year my family is giving up all technology one day a week.  Sharing a commitment that is challenging shapes the character of your whole family as a unit, not just the individual members.  It’s also a lot easier to give up something you like when you have a team supporting you!

Individual sacrifices:  If your children are old enough, you can begin helping them decide on a sacrifice for Jesus during Lent.   I personally always let my children decide what they want to sacrifice, if anything.  For the littlies, this sacrifice business can be so hard.  Really they’re just practicing a bit at sacrifice, right?  If they’re too little to understand what it’s all about, the sacrifice might be plain torment.  They might fear their special toy will never return or that they’ll never get to eat ice cream ever again.  Having a Lenten calendar or bean counter can be helpful at this age, because they can see clearly that there’s an end to their sacrifice.  Lacy over at Catholic Icing has a nice Lenten calendar that the kids can color each day of Lent.  Lisa Popcak shared how she makes a dough crown with 42 toothpicks inserted at the beginning of Lent, then each day her child pulls out a toothpick for a sacrifice he or she made.  At the end of Lent, they paint the crown gold!  Love that!  Lisa is connecting with her child as a mom, connecting her child’s heart to Christ’s story, and helping her child see the progress she’s made during Lent.


Our sacrifices must always be grounded in prayer, otherwise they can just make us feel smug about our self-control.  If sacrifice is meant to draw us into kinship with Christ, then we need to talk to him, not only alone but as a family.  Make a Lenten family prayer plan.  Praying together regularly will deepen the faith of each family member, and will strengthen your family identity.  Decide where, when, and what you’ll pray.   If you don’t have a plan, family prayer may not happen.

Small children love to have visual aids during prayer. Pretty prayer cards or homemade prayer books are a great way to help children feel connected to what they’re saying.   A few years ago my family began praying the Stations of the Cross in our home during Lent.  The Stations lead us reverantly and rhythmically through the last hours of Christ’s life.  Praying the Stations as a family has been a potent lesson for us in humility and self-giving love.  I have the lovely picture book The Story of the Cross:  The Stations of the Cross for Children by Mary Joslin, which leads children through each station with accompanying prayers.  The images in Joslin’s book bring home the message of Christ’s journey to the Christ, but I’d love to snag this gorgeous Stations of the Cross Tree handcrafted by the talented ladies at Jesse Tree Treasures.

stations of the cross ornaments


Last year during Lent, my teenager also reads The Way of the Cross by the great Catholic mystic Caryll Houselander.  Houselander provides a meditative essay for each Station that draws you into each scene along The Way of the Cross.

Again, our goal is to help our children love Jesus through the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.  So, I try to ensure my kids recall the full Gospel narrative as much as possible — the entire story of Christ’s birth and ministry — as it’s set against the crucifixion and resurrection, so that they understand, or may come to understand, his Story on a visceral, more profound level.


Making a family giving plan for Lent is the third pillar of our family Lenten practice.  Helping the needy is a seems to be a natural impulse for children:  If we present the opportunity they are almost always eager to do something to help the sick or poor.   You can donate money to a charity, but why not raise the money together by having a garage sale – get rid of your excess so you can bless others?  You can donate your time to some cause that’s important to your whole family.

Don’t forget opportunities for “almsgiving” within your own family.  The needy live at your address!  Lisa Popcak pointed out on the show that each day ordinary family life presents us with opportunities to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  Invite your school aged child to practice the works of mercy by feeding her baby sister (feeding the hungry) or bringing soup to her sick brother (caring for the sick) or teaching her little brother his catechism (instructing the ignorant).  This is all Lenten almsgiving, all acts of love.

So there we go, we can live Lent for Real with Our Little Ones, even amidst the gooey diapers and mushy cereal!


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