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07 March 2011


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I don't have any answers based on experience with my own kids; but am looking forward to seeing what responses you might get. Even as a cradle Catholic, I'm still struggling with how to approach Lent with my kids.

I think in your situation I'd try to come up with some kid of positive reinforcement every time he successfully navigates making a sacrifice. Perhaps make it generic for any kindness or sacrifice and not just for the specific thing he gives up. I've seen Catholic mom bloggers suggest dropping a bean in a jar every time a sacrifice is performed or a kind deed done to be replaced by m&ms or jellybeans on Easter morning. That way he gets a reward for sharing with his sister or helping with an extra chore or holding his tongue instead of complaining. Perhaps being able to measure his progress in a positive way that gives him encouragement every time he is successful in performing the sacrifice might make it easier to stick with it for the long haul. (And 40 days is a very long haul for adults, I think for kids it seems interminable.) That way you become a cheerleader encouraging success and not a mean cop punishing failure. And isn't praise and encouragement a better model for Christ's love than scolding and guilt?

I also wonder if it might not be helpful for a child to not necessarily give up one thing for the whole 40 days but give up a succession of things. Go without ketchup for one week and without video games the next week and without chocolate the next.


I don't remember my parents ever 'enforcing' or even reminding us of our lenten penances. Of course, as the 5th kid out of 7, there were a lot of siblings to do the reminding. ;-)

For my family, I'd like to have a family lenten observance (we stick to water as a beverage during lent and I don't bake sweet treats) and encourage my kids, when their old enough, to take on their own. I think the family observance can be enforced, but I don't know about the personal one.


It is, perhaps, a question of sacrifice vs. punishment. If the child makes the choices, it is a sacrifice, but if the parent enforces it, it becomes a punishment. A fine line to walk.

Even though there will be inevitable "failures", perhaps it is good to experience those failures--and on the flip side, the true successes that come from making the choices-- rather than being "saved" by Mom or Dad, but never being able to really _choose_ to sacrifice.


I love what Adrienne had to say!

I'm a cradle Catholic, but we didn't do much besides eat fish on Fridays during Lent at home. Husband is a convert. Since we've been married we have slowly evolved from "What should we give up for Lent?" to a general emphasis on sacrifice.

Within our family, we usually eat no meat from M-F during Lent. I usually make a Sunday dessert, but we skip that during Lent in theory, but in practice we usually have two birthdays and a church cake auction, so I guess that's only half the weekends with a dessert.

So, I don't really encourage the children to give up any particular thing for Lent because we make several big sacrifices as a family. One year my daughter decided to give up ice cream, and she did that successfully. If I had one who wanted to do that now, I would make sure they were old enough to really understand, and then ask them to set guidelines in advance. Just your favorite flavor of ice cream, or all ice cream? What about special events such as a birthday party? Do you want me to remind you once if you forget?

But I would agree with Melanie, that if they don't follow through, I would try to emphasize the positive, that they still made several sacrifices, and not that they "failed" by not making it all the way through Lent.


I'm a convert, so this isn't something I've grown up with, but my oldest is 24, so here's my take, for what it's worth.

We have family sacrifices that we do, and we discuss them as a family ahead of time. Not necessarily to get a consensus, but so that the children understand what we are doing and why. These have ranged from giving up desserts, taking on a devotion (extra daily Mass or something) or giving up "play" media (tv/internet for watching stuff/wii).

I've found, depending upon the temperament of the child, they will start taking on their own, for example, I've found my 8 yo (at the time) eating cold leftovers for lunch (instead of warming them up). For a few years (with the 9 and 8 yo) I made a sacrifice chart. I typed up a certain amount of jobs (make Mom's bed, spend a half hour watching your brother, dust a room (only once a day), etc. I assigned a value to them (50 cents or whatever) and they would earn that money to go toward their favorite charity after Easter. One picked the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the other picked CareNet. This way we covered sacrifices AND almsgiving! I made it clear that tracking their sacrifices (with hash marks) was their job and the honesty of it was between them and God. I only had to intervene when they would be fighting over who would make my bed first in the morning (yes, I live a tough life). It worked really well for us, and I didn't have to "enforce" anything, because it was completely voluntary. Well, except when competition reared it's ugly head.

As far as children choosing their own personal sacrifices, that is something I would discuss with them individually before Lent, to see if it was reasonable. A child who doesn't sleep well anyway, shouldn't take on the sacrifice of sleeping without a pillow for example. Or if a sacrifice is going to make it hard for them to act charitably toward everyone else. That would end my "enforcement".


I read an article once and to me it implied that the kids gave up one thing each day. So maybe some variety, but challenging things each day. But here is the kicker: on that day the mom made sure it was a sacrifice. For instance, if the a child gave up popcorn one day, then the mom was sure to make popcorn. I actually really like this idea. I know it could easily turn into seeming to be mean, but I think it also is a bit easier for a child to know that it is temporary. In our house, giving up cheese is a huge deal. But knowing it is only for a day can make it seem a bit easier. So perhaps you could have them pick things for each day (they can of course repeat something); or pick something to give up for a week.

But I would encourage the kids to also focus on "taking up" something; i.e. give up the computer games for a week and take up praying a decade of the rosary.


When I was a child, my family always gave up eating between meals, and since it was a family practice, my mother did remind us of that. Other sacrifices were at our discretion, and I have to say that the siblings were much more likely to "remind" than my parents were.

Now that I have children of my own, I try to have us do something as a family, such as give up desserts except for the big feast days (St. Joseph and Annunciation). This, of course, is pretty easy to enforce without saying anything: I just don't serve dessert. Something that might work in the same way is giving up movies: just remove the DVD player, and there's no chance of watching a movie.

My kids usually choose something to give up, too, which I think is great. I often work with them to figure out a good sacrifice, so that they can pick something that will improve their lives without being too much of a strain for them. (For example, I have suggested giving up whining. :) Nobody's taken that one up, yet, but I can continue to hope.) Thinking back on my own bringing up, I don't think I'd police the sacrifices too heavily, since I learned a lot from figuring out over the years what a real sacrifice was like for me, without having anyone enforce it, and I think that has been a good thing for me to learn. If I noticed that one of my children was habitually not sacrificing what he or she said, I'd have a private discussion about it: what seems to be the going on? Is this sacrifice too much? Should you pick something else? The human element of realizing that we're not strong enough on our own is a good thing to discover, too.

Friends of ours do something different: they make a whole bunch of sacrifice ideas in a jar and pick one for each day. That might be easier for certain personalities to do, because of the novelty and the shorter duration. This also means that they do things that are a bit more strenuous on some days and less strenuous on others. It might be a good exercise to see what sacrifices work for each person, too.

LeeAnn Balbirona

I would simply ask your child if he wants a reminder. "If I see you eating ketchup today or getting the bottle out of the fridge, should I remind you that you are giving it up for Lent? Are you still doing that? Do you want my help to remember?" If he says no, then don't.


I would do as LeeAnn advised. I have also had consultations during Lent with kids who were struggling with their chosen sacrifice. Do they want to try giving up something different each week? Do they want to revise their sacrifice? Do they want to try adding something, like extra prayers, instead?

For years after converting I could NEVER keep up a Lenten penance (usually chocolate). So I know how hard it can be when you're just getting used to it. ... even a "failure" helps teach your weakness without God, and so on. I try to communicate that to my kids as well. Even an inconsistent effort is something to offer.

It might also be helpful to read saints' lives during Lent -- if you are familiar with St Therese's sacrifice beads, that can be a good tactile reinforcement.

Oh, and one more thing! I do cook differently during Lent and we do things somewhat differently so even if the child has trouble thinking up a sacrifice, Lent is still distinct from the other seasons of the year.


This is a great topic to discuss. First, I think it's important to talk about why you give up something, or do something extra during lent. This is a great opportunity to speak of self-discipline and that if you can say no to little things now, you will be strong to say no to bigger things later. We should always look to our motivations. Are we doing this for ourselves or for God? I celebrate it when I see kids 'breaking their lenten promises' because, again, it is a great catechetical moment. Even though we intend to do something, we are human and we mess up sometimes. We all do. But, the important thing is what we do next...do we walk away, or do we try again? Think about Judas and Peter, Judas never asked to be forgiven, Peter did. If we become grumpy because we can't eat that chocolate, is that a good thing? If we keep our lenten observance and then feel self-righteous and proud at the end of lent, is that a good thing? Lent is a great time to teach Jesus to the children, his mercy, his forgiveness, and his love. It's all about desire and motivation. I would encourage the children to do something extra or give something up, because that makes up stronger, but, in the 'messing up' we become humble and know that we must depend on God and not ourselves. Great catechetical opportunites!


My dc are 16, 14, 11, 9 and 7 and enter into Lent in very diverse ways. We talk about it ahead of time, maybe come up with ideas to help one another grow closer to Christ. A couple of my kids do like to come up with super grandiose sacrifices - which tend to become too hard. I generally don't point it out to them - we might talk about it, but it really depends on individual circumstances. Our focus in general is on little acts of love, and we make a crown of thorns for them to extract thorns (toothpicks) out of when they judge they've pleased Our Lord in some way. We also decorate our prayer place with a purple cloth and add items that remind us of the season. I.E. my ds made a cross out of the Christmas tree trunk. Here is a link about helping children with Lent, which is pretty gentle and helpful: http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Lent/children.html

ground penetrating radar

It will be helpful to read saints' lives during Lent -- if you are familiar with St Therese's sacrifice beads, that can be a good tactile reinforcement.

Robin E

As a cradle Catholic, who also went through all 12 years of Catholic school, I can tell you the way I've generally seen this problem handled by the people around me.

There is usually a great deal of discussion, both at home and at school, about what to give up in the days leading up to Lent. This gives the opportunity for everyone to kind of vett their own plans with those who know them well, and benefit from the experience of older folks who have a lot of Lents behind them. A lot of this is done with humor, but the serious points get woven in as needed.

So, for example, all the kids in class or a group of siblings or cousins are asking each other what each is giving up. One says, "I think I'm gonna give up pop (soda).". "Uh, that'll be easy since you don't ever drink pop ordinarily..." chimes in a concerned onlookers. Laughter ensues. "Yeah, that just means you'll probably be drinking it more, since you get Sundays off," contributes another. "Ok, yeah. Well, what should I give up then?". Here Mom can make a suggestion, analyze suggestions made by others, tell stories (funny or serious) about mistakes she has made in Lents past, and discuss other interesting issues like whether or not to take the Sunday exemption, exemptions in general, types of fasting, and other Lenten practices like adding a practice, almsgiving, etc.

This is easiest when you have an extended family nearby that is Catholic, Catholic friends or neighbors, or are part of a Catholic school. But, even within the household, these discussions should be casual and normal. It is true that you have to draw a bright line beyond which no intrusion into the individual conscience is permitted. For example, make it clear to all that no Lenten practice can be coerced, that failure in one's sacrificial undertaking is not subject to any sort of punitive measures, and that a person has a right to privacy on the matter if for some reason they deem it necessary or helpful.

On the other hand, it is kind of viewed as a kindness to let someone know, gently, and with a touch of humor, that they are breaking their Lent. Usually, it is a simple matter of forgetfulness, and you treat it sort of like you'd treat your spouse who's on a diet. I know I tend to need those little reminders at times. And, I've never seen anyone be mean about it. If they were, people would be openly appalled.

In cases where someone is failing miserably, or making others miserable on account of their sacrifice, it is an excellent opportunity for a parent or older sibling to have a discussion about how setting yourself up for failure by undertaking too hard a task, ( or too many), is not what God wants. You can bring in the saints on these topics as well. The thing is to treat it as natural, and share your own experiences liberally. Sorry so long!


We usually give up things as a family, but we also encourage the kids to make their own sacrifices or efforts to work on a particular virtue. My 7yo gave up listening to audio books last year (something he really likes to do). At first he suggested a sacrifice that really wasn't a sacrifice, but I encouraged him to think of something he was more attached to. I also give the talk about keeping promises. "If your tell Jesus you are going to do something for him, you should try your best to keep your promise to him out of love for him. It will be hard and you might fall/forget, but you have to get right up again (like Jesus did) and keep going." It's a good preparation, I think, for keeping those bigger promises - like marriage vows. So, I wouldn't punish, but I'd definitely make them feel guilty. Guilt is good, especially during Lent.


I think it is helpful to have penances that the whole family embarks on together. There is encouragement, accountability, and camaraderie when 'we're all in it together.' There is also guaranteed success - no one is going to eat cookies out of a mistake or by weakness if there aren't any in the house. If you go to a party and your whole family is declining the cake, it's much easier for everyone to have that solidarity. But in addition, we take on devotions, work on particular virtues, and perhaps even additional penances that remain private. For example, I suspect some of my children pray the Stations every night during Lent, but I don't even ask them about it as it is their personal devotion and I respect their privacy. The family practices might seem easier because everyone is doing it together, but it also inspires and strengthens them to do more on their own as they get older.


Forty days is soooo long for a kid. I can't really remember when I started giving stuff up, but I do remember that we as a family gave up sweets one Lent.

I know other families with young kids usually gave up something together.

I think you're right that if you keep trying to enforce it, it'll just turn into a punishment. You can just try re-explaining why we do it. Or sharing a personal story about how when you say "just this once" it turns into "just once a day" to "nevermind I didn't say I was gonna give that up" (like me with coffee two years ago!)

I think a lot of people observe the first two weeks of Lent. After that it gets harder. There's no real way to make a kid observe, but I would keep encouraging and reminding that God appreciates what he is doing.


Just thought of something else - we make our Lenten promises to God, not to our moms!

Noreen Beardmore

I'm a cradle Catholic and have been a mom for over 25years, but our Lenten practices are still evolving. Most years each individual kid will give up something they feel is difficult, (pop, candy, etc.)and after all this time this is finally seeming too random to me. Our youngest kids are 9, 8 and 5 and I've been talking to them about what the 40 days meant to Jesus -being lonely, hungry, thirsty - without comforts. So our reference point this year for the younger kids is "How can we show Jesus we are his friends and we would keep him company in the desert if we could?" (They LOVED this idea.)

So we're trying the "keep Him company" (put away the XBox) or "make Him feel less lonely" (count our kindnesses to each other) ideas in our practices this year. We'll also probably cut back on the junk food that is available - in the spirit of letting Jesus know we're in this with Him. That is something we're still chatting about.

Don't know how this will work out, but our preparation has at least been better and the kids seem to have more buy in than in our previous, more random years.

For our teenagers, we've been talking a little more about the virtues we're looking to grow into. With them I see Lent as more of a process, with adaptations coming with each passing week. That seems to work best with them.

I like many of your ideas about keeping track of things for the little kids. We haven't done much of that in the past, and I think we'll give that more of a try.

Thanks for all the great ideas!


When my children were young, I created a "board" game which was a spiral path drawn on poster board with Easter at the end. Each night, they moved forward based on the day's successes. The younger ones loved the game. The older ones played along because the younger ones loved the game. No matter; it was a daily reminder for all. Competition is a grand thing!


I am not a cradle Catholic, but a Baptist turned Lutheran who is still learning about how to observe Lent. I just wanted to share what we're doing for Lent in our family for the third year now. We choose one evening a week when we "fast," that is eat only rice, or plain pasta. And we decide together where we would like to give the money we save. During that meal, we read a portion of Mark's account of Jesus' passion, and we memorize a verse each week. This year we'll be learning Psalm 23 together. I agree with Kate above about the family observance being the one that can be enforced... Personal sacrifices should be personal...


I'd be curious to hear what Mark has to say about his memories of how Mom and Dad approached this subject when we were little. I don't remember them ever mentioning anything about giving things up - on their part or our part. In fact, this is the first year I've truly given something up for Lent.


When my 4 kids were young, I used to make a big exciting thing of Lent preparations. I bought little cards, like plain postcards, and we'd sit at the table with our colour pens and each of us would design something like Jesus on the cross on the card and add to it 'This year, I am giving up.................... for Lent.' They liked the ritual. It pleased them to prepare something important , with actual adults. (They always managed to give up sweets/chocolate/crisps - I was very proud of how strong they were.) The postcards were attached to the fridge and were always visible to talk about.


That is a good idea, Lesley!

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