As a young college graduate, I spent four years teaching elementary school and enjoyed the many days with a classroom full of beautiful and energetic children. During that time, I came to a deeper appreciation for the many ways in which our Church traditions lend themselves to the understanding of children—even very young children.
One such season where children may benefit immensely from Church practices is during the season of Lent.
1. Nurture Empathy
It would seem that children are especially suited to this season due to the truth that children are empathetic by nature. They are able to show compassion and enter into another’s sorrow both innocently and disarmingly. I am taught again what it means to show compassion when I perceive the worry and sadness in my daughter’s eyes when she sees Mommy or Daddy upset.
By helping our children experience the sorrow of Christ’s agony and death, we teach them a fundamental lesson about love: that true love often involves suffering, and that this is okay, because the example of Jesus shows us the right way to experience joy and sorrow.
2. Stations of the Cross
When we pray the Stations of the Cross, we can include our children in following the sorrowful way of Jesus along with us. If we choose to pray the stations by moving from one to the next, this is even better for the active natures of little ones. Since they enjoy movements, and especially enjoy imitating Mom and Dad, they will find all of the kneeling and standing quite exciting.
We can give them pictures to look at, and can provoke their instinct of compassion by asking them questions, such as: “How do you think Jesus felt when he fell down?” or “How to you feel when someone is unkind to you; do you think that it made Jesus feel sad”? In this way, we are not trying to make our children feel unhappy, but we are teaching them how to unite their sorrows to the sorrow of Christ, and to see with the eyes of their imagination how Jesus really was like us in all things.
When children grow up knowing that Christ understands their pain and sorrow, they will have begun a fundamental step in forming a true, personal relationship with Him.
3. Model Prayer
Another way in which we can lead children to Christ during the season of Lent is to model prayer for them. We can make a point to stop at noon to pray the Angelus, or at 3:00 p.m. to kneel and pray “Lord, have mercy on us.”
Any kind of prayer that involves movement and words will appeal to small children. It would seem that in our generation, more young Catholics need to be taught how to pray. We often tell others, “Just pray about it,” and yet, do we begin at a young age to teach them what it looks like, or sounds like, to talk to God?
We should never be embarrassed in the company of our children to speak our prayers aloud, as it provides a foundation in their own minds of what it means to talk to God, and this will prove a great blessing for them in their future.
Do we provide opportunities, as our children grow, for them to experience different types of prayer?
4. Beautiful Picture Books
Another way to teach young children about Christ’s passion and death is through beautiful picture books. We can read slowly and stop along the way to ask questions about what they see.
Imagination is pivotal in the moral formation of young children. Since they thrive on things which are special and unique, we can incorporate events during Lent which especially appeal to them, such as coloring a picture of the word “Alleluia” and letting the children hide it somewhere in the house.
After Easter, they will have fun trying to rediscover the picture they hid, and proudly display it on the mantle for the Easter season. Another idea is to create a “crown of thorns” from which we remove a thorn each time we do a good deed.
There are many beautiful ideas available on how to involve our children in our life of faith. With the dawn of the internet age, the ideas can be overwhelming. The quantity then, is not as important as the quality, as well as the emphasis which we place on such activities. Making it an event of grand importance will cause the idea to really stick in little minds.
Perhaps we should pick only a limited number of ideas that we commit to living out, as a family, and then we can continue to practice these activities every year until they become traditions in our home.
5. A Liturgical Experience
Most importantly, we should never assume that children cannot or will not benefit from a liturgical experience. Of course, our intuition will tell us when it is best for our child not to attend Mass today, or when they need to need to be at home rather than attending Stations of the Cross in a church.
My point here is that young children are like sponges which often absorb much more than we realize. We may find ourselves continually amazed at things which they remember or understand. We should assume, then, that Christ will have a message for them this Lent, and that He can touch their hearts in significant ways here and now in their childhood.
When begun early in life, memories from their family observances will hopefully become a part of our children’s faith. They will identify these experiences as good and important, and will continue to incorporate them into their own families someday.
The tradition of the Church can and should be passed down through the first school of virtue, the family. Because children learn best through a relationship, the things which your children do with you, their parents, will impact them more than any book which they read or class they attend.
May we learn to see with the eyes of a child during this Lenten season.