In the liturgical life of a parent, Advent is easy. How lovely it is, to go through the ‘waiting with joyful anticipation’ for the birth of a sweet and beloved baby. Ah, but Lent. Lent is harder.
Persecution, betrayal, torture and agonizing death are not the things of contented bedtime stories, or heart-warming conversation around the dinner table. And when you’re a parent of small children, it can feel awkward and just plain hard to try to explain these things to little ones. It’s mighty tempting to just gloss over the whole thing to just wake up on Easter morning to say “He is risen!” and hand out the Easter baskets.
And yet, we know that these words ring hollow without the back-story, and that Easter isn’t about eggs and rabbits. So we enter into this season of reflection and hard conversations; we straddle that line of keeping things age appropriate while also letting our little ones know the dire situation, and even the sad and painful events, that lead us to the joy of Easter.
Recently I was chatting about the basic reasons ‘why’ we bring our littlests into church traditions with a group of young mothers at my church. Some of us were born into the Episcopal Church, while others joined as adults and are learning the liturgical season along with their young families.
“It’s important to me that my kids know this tradition,” my friend Kyleigh said. “The outside world will always try to influence them. But I want them to have this spiritual foundation and know what’s really important.”
And so we bring our children to the Eucharist, and to services such as Ash Wednesday or Easter Vigil. In order to give our children ‘the whole story’, we have been known to load them into the car in their pajamas so that they can attend an evening service and then doze off on the ride home.
My friend Bonnie, a life-long Episcopalian, stressed that she wants her young girls “to really get it—the reason for the season. It’s about more than pretty dresses and eggs.”
Some wonderful kid-friendly conversations about this tough season take place in “Godly Play” in our preschool or Sunday School classes, or during Children’s Chapel during the Sunday service. These extra classes and conversations are so helpful in explaining Lent—and other lessons—to our children. But most of all, just being allowed to be present for the special services of this season, especially the Easter Vigil, can be both memorable and moving to our children.
“I like going to the Easter Vigil service, it’s one of my very favorite days,” my nine-year old-daughter told me. “It’s exciting. It makes Easter feel special.” She’s been attending this service since toddlerhood, and now she is old enough to acolyte for it. And when she does, she will feel at home in the ceremony, and truly understand what is happening.
These special, memorable moments are what keep me bringing my children back to church during Lent. Sure, my son won’t remember the first Ash Wednesday service he attended—he ended up going naked aside from a diaper and a nursing cover, because he’d had a spectacularly dirty diaper mere seconds before the whole thing started—but the repetition of going will seep into his memory.
With each season that comes and goes, he and his sister will remember more about the events we speak and pray about; the rhythm will get into their bones; they will come to expect and anticipate it. It will become, slowly, the comforting rhythm of their lives.
And if I can aid in giving them this comfort and spiritual foundation, then I consider my job done. I will continue to bring them to the table, even if sometimes it’s messy or hard. Because in the end, there is beauty, and they can appreciate the Light even more after experiencing the shadow of Lent.
How do you approach Lent with young children?