I remember my first ever Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha in the Orthodox Church. The reflection and anticipation of Lent, with its dogged mission to bring my sins and need for repentance to the forefront of my mind each day; the solemnity of Holy Week, with its invitation to completely enter into the cosmic events that changed humanity forever; and Pascha, oh Pascha, with its unabashed joy in the proclamation that “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”—all of these confirmed to me that I had truly come Home. And this is the Home that I am raising my children in.
As parents we want to help our children understand and experience Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha; however, daily life can get in the way and make the task seem too large, the burden too heavy. We rationalize, “We go to Liturgy. They’ll get it at Church School.” Or, “My children are too young to really understand, anyway.” And we, I mean I, miss an opportunity to share in the mysteries of Christ and the Church with our children.
Here, then, are a few ideas (gained from my limited experience, from the much more helpful advice of other parents, and from the wise counsel of various spiritual fathers) of simple, yet profound ways to involve our children during Lent:
-If you are not already doing so, begin a time of family prayers in the evening, morning, or both.
-During evening prayers, pray the Prayer of St. Ephraim. Young children, especially, seem to intuitively understand that the entire body should be involved in prayer and enjoy the prostrations. I was surprised and amazed when my (then) three-year-old son was able to learn this beautiful prayer through nightly repetition.
-Conclude your time of prayer with a Lenten hymn. We have often sung “Having Suffered” together, which, again, has prostrations that appeal to children.
-Bring your children along with you to the grocery store and invite them to pick out food or health items to bring to Church on Sunday (if your church collects donations for the needy). Let them place the items in the donation basket.
-Set up a family change jar. Watch it grow throughout Lent and then decide as a family how best to donate it.
-Volunteer together at a local charity (be sure to ask in advance about the policies regarding children). Add that charity to your prayer list in your icon corner.
-There are many different views about how and at what age fasting is appropriate for children. Speak to your spiritual father about this matter first.
-Children can fast from certain excesses such as ice cream, soda, etc.
-Speak to your children about why you are fasting. Read passages in the Scriptures and from the Church Fathers about the importance of fasting.
-Bring your child with you to Forgiveness Sunday Vespers. This service is extremely powerful to children. The prostrations and the repetition of asking others to forgive them can make a deep and lasting impression on a young heart.
-Discuss confession as a family. You can even bring young children with you when you come to confess. One parent can remain in the fellowship hall with the child and answer questions while the other parent confesses.
-Listen to or read Sunday’s Gospel before coming to Church. Children are more likely to pay attention to and retain what they hear twice. Ancient Faith Radio has an excellent series called “The Gospel Told for Younger Children” that families can listen to.
-Sing hymns for the services beforehand so that the child is familiar with them and can participate more fully. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a toddler belt out, “Christ is risen from the dead!
And, finally, give yourself grace. No parent can do it all. We can, however, help our children to feel welcomed in and a part of this Home we share.