“I’m such a glutton,” sighed my daughter Helen, leaning her slender frame closer to the pepperoni pizza. A slip of a lass whose vital statistics have hovered at the third percentile for all of her eleven years, Helen boasts a super power which allows her to pack away pizza like a kid triple her size.
“You know what’s the hardest part of Lent?” she asked, lifting yet another slice of pizza onto her plate. “Giving up the stuff I like to eat.”
No doubt, “giving up stuff” for Lent is hard. What may be harder still is for a parent to get his kids to give up stuff for Lent.
But let’s be fair – not all ages are equally resistant to the practice of self-denial.
“Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” said William Wordsworth in his Intimations of Immortality. Watching small children offer up their little Lenten sacrifices makes me suspect that Wordsworth’s “infancy” is our “early childhood.” Children who have matured beyond the “It’s mine, you can’t have it, go away or I’ll scream my lungs out” stage often exhibit a sweet willingness to deny themselves for others’ sake. In our family, this natural altruism is encouraged during the Lenten season by playing The Bean Game. Here’s how it works: When a child voluntarily does a good deed or makes a sacrifice, he drops a lentil into a small cup labeled with his name. Then, sometime between the Vigil Mass and Easter morning, the accumulated dry beans are “transformed” into jelly beans. It’s a custom our family has kept for many years and, although it may not do much to instill a spirit of genuine selflessness, it does give just enough of an incentive to young ones whose spirit of self-denial may be flagging. And the rising level of beans in a child’s cup provides both the child and the parent with visible evidence of progress.
But for some children, the promise of beans for deeds may not be much of an inducement to sacrifice. Maybe these children feel that they are beyond game-playing. Maybe they don’t want to be bothered with dropping beans into a jar. Maybe they just don’t like jelly beans. How can the parents of these children – in fact, the parents of any children, regardless of their age or attitude – get their kids to give up something meaningful for Lent?
Don’t do what I did.
Like all mothers, I wanted my children to be strong, filled with wisdom, and favored by God. Above all I wanted my children to be virtuous. But I didn’t realize that I couldn’t force them to be virtuous.
I was on a mission to make my kids into the most virtuous creatures ever to touch the earth. To that end, I decided one November day that my two oldest children, who at the time were barely of school age, should offer a Mass for the Poor Souls. After all, I had been teaching the children about the Poor Souls’ sufferings, and the relief that a Mass would give them. I was sure that my poignant descriptions of the Souls’ torment had touched the tender hearts of my children, who would certainly love nothing more than to scrape together their little bits of savings and toddle over to the rectory to arrange for a Mass.
I bundled up the kiddies and brought them to the rectory, where they obediently handed over their nickels and dimes to the parish receptionist, never to be seen again. My daughter Grace was okay with this. My son Ben was not. In fact, it took a while for Ben to get over his resentment at my misappropriation of his funds. And you know what? I don’t think that Ben’s good deed on the Poor Souls’ behalf caused Ben to grow in virtue.
I recall that incident with some amusement, but mostly with vast embarrassment at my own pride and presumption. (I’d rather not think of how Ben must remember it.) Eighteen years and as many Lenten seasons later, I’ve learned that “getting my kids to give up something meaningful for Lent” should not be my goal, but rather, a means to an end. There are gentler and more effective ways to encourage a spirit of self-denial in our children than by demanding it.
Setting up a “Lent table” is one of these ways. Our own Lent table is simply a side table covered in purple cloth. It holds a Lenten calendar for each family member, a clutter of the aforementioned bean cups, plus a basket filled with a selection of spiritual reading ranging from short tracts to books. Because the table stands close to both the dining room and the kitchen, it gets considerable attention from family members who may be idling nearby in anticipation of dinner, or waiting for the “ready” signal on their microwave popcorn. Time and again I’ve seen a kid absentmindedly pick up a booklet from the basket and end up completely absorbed in his reading. Kindling an awareness of Lent through appropriate spiritual reading can no doubt be the first step in a child’s fruitful Lenten journey.
The calendars on our Lent table, produced by Dumb Ox Publications and available through Emmanuel Books, are available for both children and adults. The children’s calendars include prayers, Scripture passages, beautiful line drawings, and hands-on sticker activities that really motivate our younger kids. One year the children were inspired to make (very) original Lenten placemats by copying calendar illustrations of scourging tools onto construction paper. They made extras for guests so that everyone dining at our table could have a placemat bearing images of whips and flails. Although the adults’ version of the calendar has not inspired any similar artistry in our family, it has nonetheless been a boon to our older children. The calendar features the Seven Penitential Psalms as the basis for weekly meditations, and is a powerful aid in forming the habit of daily prayer.
But what about those teens who thoughtlessly chow down burgers on Lenten Fridays? I’m not talking about kids who are wayward or heretical; I’m talking about those who just don’t want to be bothered. All the Lenten resources in Christendom won’t get these kids to slip a quarter into the poor box, or even think about taking a six-week hiatus from Facebook. How can a parent motivate them to practice Lenten disciplines?
Try living out those disciplines as a family! Here are some suggestions for things your family can do, and which have worked for us:
- Watch only those movies with a religious theme. In our family, Mom is the holder of the secret Netflix password, so she gets to choose the titles. But suggestions from family members are always welcome.
- Go meatless for all of Lent. Here are some weekly menu plans and shopping lists.
- Attend daily Mass and weekly Confession as a family. Add a little incentive by enjoying a small treat at home afterwards. (My teens would do almost anything for a cup of flavored coffee.)
There are endless possibilities for sanctifying your family during this holy season. The ones I’ve mentioned are just those that have helped Mike and me to bring home the message of Lent to our children.
I was encouraged by something that eight-year-old Gerard said last week. Gerard, Helen, and I we were talking about the meaning of Lent, and the purpose of making sacrifices. Remarked Gerard, “Lent can make me feel dehydrated. It makes me feel sort of sad and, you know, dry. But when I make a sacrifice for Jesus and I put a bean in the cup, I feel refreshed and holy.”
I think he’s got the idea!
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