My 5-year-old daughter most emphatically does NOT believe in “a season for everything.”
At bedtime, she gets to pick two songs for us to sing together before we say goodnight. Every night, it’s the same two songs: Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Every night for the last two years.
If we didn’t put the Christmas movies away, along with the rest of the holiday decorations (after Epiphany, of course!), she’d probably watch them year-round. As it is, she manages to find the Christmas specials on Netflix and watch those… in July.
We’re trying to invite our kids to experience the church calendar as an alternate lived reality, as a way of moving and ordering our lives differently from the world around us. To be fair, as parents we’re only just discovering this alternate reality for ourselves, since neither my wife or I grew up in a liturgical tradition. We didn’t grow up celebrating all 12 days of Christmas; the tree was down by New Year’s Eve in my house. I never received the imposition of ashes until I was almost 30 years old.
It’s probably fairer to say that we’re inviting our kids to go on this journey of discovery with us. Which sounds great… until we come to Lent.
I don’t quite know what to do with Lent for my kids.
Advent is a relatively easy season for us to walk through as a family. There are candles to light (and, if you’re my one-year-old son, to immediately blow out).
There’s a Jesse Tree to decorate with ornaments representing the Bible stories we read each night as a family. There’s an Advent calendar to open, usually with a chocolate or miniature candy cane behind the window, waiting to be consumed.
But Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a sobering reminder of our inevitable death.
The sight of ashes on my daughter’s unwrinkled forehead—the thought of telling her, in word and through ritual, that she is destined for the grave—it seems almost cruel.
I know… it is more cruel to pretend all is well with the world when all is most certainly not. But try locking eyes with an ebullient five-year-old and telling her “to dust you shall return.”
Surely an observance as solemn as Lent isn’t the way to keep our kids in the church. It runs counter to almost everything people say churches must do to attract and retain youth. Keep it fun! Keep them entertained! Keep it relevant!
But maybe the conventional wisdom isn’t so wise after all. A few years ago, the Fuller Youth Institute shared the findings of a six-year study on what makes faith “stick” as children transition to adulthood. Two findings in particular jumped out at me:
1. Churches and families overestimate how prepared their young people are to face the struggles that come with adulthood.
Maybe it’s because we haven’t invited them to walk through the darker valleys with us. Maybe our fear of talking with our kids about the hard things of our faith—death, denial, sacrifice—is misplaced. Maybe that’s what they really need us to share with them.
2. More than anything else, the durability of faith is determined by the degree to which young people are made to feel an integral part of an intergenerational community.
It’s not the youth group. It’s not the programming. All that stuff is great, but it’s not what makes faith stick. What makes it durable is inviting a child to share the journey with you.
To walk through the church calendar together.
To experience all the seasons of faith—Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter—together.
To talk about the hard things together.
To discover what it means to deny ourselves, to lay down our lives for one another—together.
Even to face our inevitable death, together.
This Lent, we’ll talk about the hard things as a family. We’ll consider our mortality, our frailty, our vulnerability. We will lean into the darkness rather than run from it.
Because the painful yet glorious truth that Jesus demonstrated for us is this: the only path to resurrection runs through the grave.
Lent is a time to introduce our kids to the reality of redemption: “Not yet… but.” Like Advent, it’s a time for us to linger over the brokenness of our world and ourselves, so that we might fully experience together how the rest of the story—the triumph of Jesus—really does change everything.
How do you talk with kids about the hard stuff in Lent?