How should parents navigate the Great Lent with their children? Should they make them fast? Can they decide on the fasting rules together with their children? And how could they plan their celebration of the Pascha? Father Konstantin Parkhomenko and his wife, Matushka Elizaveta, share their thoughts on these and other questions.
Father Konstantin is the content manager of the Russian-speaking Orthodox web resource azbuka.ru, and Matushka Elizaveta is a practising family psychologist. Together, they co-authored a best-seller titled “Inheritance of God. A priest and his wife share their thoughts on raising children”. They speak from their rich parenting experience. Four years ago, they had their sixth child on the eve of the Great Lent.
“Children are flexible, and they can fast with great enthusiasm. But it helps to be creative!”
“We have a ten-year-old daughter. We never made her abstain from meat or dairy throughout the Great Lent. Nevertheless, she kept all the fasting rules for two straight weeks because she wanted to fast like an adult. For the remainder of the Great Lent, she avoided treats, sweets or entertainments like the rest of children.”
(Father Konstantin and Matushka Elizaveta)
“Consult with your children to establish the fasting rules most appropriate for them. That way, you can make your child’s lenten journey an enjoyable experience. Even if your children are as young as three or five, they can still view fasting as their voluntary sacrifice to God, not as an unnecessary pain or burden.”
“To children, fasting should mean a sacrifice of something they like or enjoy. But mindless avoidance of all non-lenten foods is neither useful nor necessary. In fact, it is one of the saddest and most common mistakes for parents to make their children fast in this manner.”
“It is counterproductive when parents decide for their children what to give up during Lent. It is one thing when children sacrifice voluntarily to please God and show Him they love Him more than their privileges. But it is quite another to give up their privileges for nothing. That would hardly increase their devotion to God.
One way to ease the Lenten journey and make it more exciting and fun for our children is to use the "lenten ladder”. On a piece of paper, we draw a ladder similar to the Ladder of Saint John Climacus. We write the names of the weeks on its steps, divide the weeks into days and make several figures of men from paper. The children move their figures up the ladder or mark off the days left before the Pascha with a cross or a plus if they prefer.
(Father Constantin and Matushka Elizaveta)
From Father Konstantin’s conversation with a young parishioner:
“I will not keep the fast this year!”
“Fine. But you do understand that without fasting, you cannot experience the joys of the Pascha - the gifts, the services, the celebration, the cake and the eggs? Maybe we could decide what you could realistically do to observe the fast. Is there anything that you could give up as your sacrifice for the sake of God? What do you enjoy most?"
“So could you stop playing them altogether during the Lent?”
“How about playing computer games only on Saturdays and Sundays, but not on other days? We can decide later which day it will be. I could tell your mother that you agree to play computer games for no more than two hours on weekends and not to play during the week.”
“Yes, I think that’s doable.”
The boy set his own fasting rules and went home happy. Later, when I met him at the church, he ran up to me and said: “I’m keeping my fast! I’m trying hard!” He chose the measure of the fast that he found realistic. He endured and reaped his reward on the Pascha.
Preparing for the feast is an extra responsibility, of course. I like to talk to the children about the Liturgy and the Sundays of the Lenten weeks. I read to them from the Gospel and have a discussion. Sadly, I do not always have the time to fulfil all my plans. But to me, the great lent is always an opportunity to do something together. What matters is not the Easter cakes or the other treats - you can buy all these easily nowadays. It is all about having a sense of celebration!
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