Is Fasting too Hard for my Kids?

I’ve heard many times over the years, “It’s too hard for my kids” when someone brings up the topic of fasting and children. Let’s consider for a moment our children’s education. I don’t know of any parent who would present a college math textbook to their toddler and expect them to be able to work the problems in the book – let alone with perfection. We all understand that higher level math is beyond the abilities of a small child, but at the same time it doesn’t mean that we hold off on teaching our children math concepts. We have a goal and through the years we feed them little bits at a time in order to help them make progress towards that goal. Many of us will start out by counting snaps on a onesie in an attempt to calm a squirming baby as we re-dress them. As they get older, we count aloud the steps on a set of stairs as we help them learn to go up and down them. Later we’ll have them hold up their fingers showing their age and listen to them as they mimic us counting out loud. Math is a part of our children’s lives from a very young age. We wouldn’t dream of limiting our children to stories about mathematicians, letting them put together puzzles about math, completing crossword puzzles of math definitions, let them explore and play with manipulatives, bring them to watch mathematicians completing equations and then consider our children prepared for taking a college entrance exam or even prepared for life on their own. Are any of these efforts wrong in and of themselves? No. Are these methods alone going to enable them to reach the goal of understanding AND being able to solve an equation on their own? Probably not.
What is the key difference? Participation. Think of how much prep we do with them before we even begin to think about introducing the simplest of equations to them. We guide our children through ever increasingly more difficult levels of math and then we explain to them how to work an equation when the time is right. We start off by teaching them how to solve simple equations on their own such as 2 + 2 = 4. Holding off on teaching math through participation simply because the end goal is too difficult for young children is only going to make learning math harder for our child in the long run. Can you imagine our child sitting down in a college classroom and the professor asking why the student cannot complete the simplest of equations? Our child would respond, “Well…I’ve been around math all my life but I’ve never actually tried working on or completing any math problems. My parents thought it would be too hard for me, so they told me to wait until I was older.” The “catch up” factor for our children would be overwhelming! 
The same is true about teaching our children to be Orthodox Christians. If we do not introduce them to living their faith from a young age, it will become increasingly foreign and overwhelming to them as they get older. There is a rhythm to our ecclesiastical year that involves participation from young and old alike. Within this rhythm we are taught not only about our faith but are also shown how to live it. This is the important part – we need to live our faith every single day in the manner in which we are capable of at that very moment.
Here are some ideas when approaching Great Lent this year:
*As always, please talk to your parish priest or spiritual father for individual or family guidance. These are simply ideas to discuss with your priest from one parent sharing her journey to the next parent.
Every family will have their own unique circumstances when it comes to fasting – medical conditions, mom’s pregnant, financial situations, new to Orthodoxy, special needs children or family member, odd work hours, etc. Keep this in mind, especially if you are at the beginning of your journey with fasting. Make the transitions small and gradual for your children (and yourself, as the case may be) but always progressing towards the end goal.
– Give your child(ren) a scoop of whatever fasting foods you’ve made for yourself along with the rest of their meal. This way, the fasting foods are not foreign to them and you are simply supplementing the meal with a bit of meat or dairy until you feel they are ready to take the next step.
– Consider having your children eat vegetarian on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent and all of Holy Week.
– Consider having your children eat vegetarian for all of Lent.
– Consider having your children eat vegan for Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent.
You know your child best. Think about where you and your family are at on your spiritual journey. How much are you and your children fasting now? What can your family do to take the next step forward this Lent?
Part of fasting is learning discipline and self control – learning to tell ourselves we cannot have everything we desire. This is especially important for children who tend to want everything that catches their eye. Fasting teaches kids moderation as well as they need to be patient and wait for something. It builds strength!
Another part of fasting is spending less money on food and giving that money to those in need. (The foods we are asked to abstain from have traditionally been the expensive foods – meat, oil, dairy) In this respect, substituting cow milk with non-dairy milk, which costs the same amount or more, negates our ability to give more to those in need. It’s not about finding substitutions in order to avoid going without our favorite foods. It’s about sacrifice. It’s not strictly about rules. (Although, they are there for a reason.) It’s about seeing the needs of others before your own wants and desires. It’s about going without in order to give more.
Growing up, my parents had us put our OCMC mission boxes in the middle of our kitchen table and that is where we collected our money to give to others. With my own children, we put a jar in the middle of our kitchen table and collect money throughout Lent. We have given the money to various people and places throughout the years but it’s always been something we decide as a family. We work towards a common goal during Lent and my kids know that in order to help others, we do not buy all of our favorite foods for awhile. It’s all the more special for them on Pascha when they take that first bite of meat and chocolate.
Almsgiving is also about giving more of one’s time. Do grandma and grandpa need help with some yard work or cleaning because it’s hard for them to do themselves these days? Is there a shut-in in your parish? Bring your kids to visit them along with a coffee and dessert to share with this person. You would bring such joy to these people along with teaching your children about compassion and kindness!
I talk about prayer within our family in greater detail here. It was a presentation I gave for a webinar several years ago.
My spiritual father once told me, “You need to start where you’re at. If making the sign of the cross before you go to bed is all you can do, then that’s where you start. Don’t compare yourself to others. Start – now – and move forward.”
– Include all of your kids for family bedtime prayers. Keep the prayers short to start until your kids can handle something longer. For example, teach them the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner” or simply “Lord have mercy”.
– Start by saying a meal prayer before dinner every night. With time, expand to saying prayers before every meal.
– While pregnant, trace the sign of the cross over your belly every morning as you get ready for your day.
– For babies, help them to make the sign of the cross by guiding their hand to their forehead, shoulders, and chest during your family prayers.
– Trace the sign of the cross over your sleeping child’s forehead as you check on them at night before going to sleep yourself.
– Turn off the radio and ask your kids to help you say a prayer as you drive by an accident.
Attending Church Services
I fully understand that it can be hard taking little ones to church sometimes. From this mom who was determined to bring five boys under the age of five (four of them with special needs!) to church every Sunday – even when my husband was on business trips – I get how difficult it can be sometimes!!! I do.
But…every Sunday morning, I’d hear my mom’s words whispering in my ear, “Kids learn to be in church by being in church.” Those beginning years were rough, but with time…my boys learned to be engaged in the service more often than with each other.
During Lent, my husband and I decide which extra services we’re going to attend as a family. What are your goals this Lent? Attend one Lenten service with your kids? Attend one of each of the different services? Attend one service each week? Attend one Holy Week service? Attend all of the evening Holy Week services? Attend all of Holy Friday and Pascha?
Holy Confession
As a child, I vividly remember sitting in the back of the church with my mom and brothers as we watched my dad from afar going to confession in the front of the church, as we each waited quietly for our own turn.
There’s something about seeing your parents with watery eyes and beaming smiles on their faces as they walk towards you after confession. There’s something about going together as a family – knowing that you are participating in something your parents find important. There’s something about going home and savoring the joy amongst everyone in your family.
“The religious education of children is mainly brought about by example, and by the atmosphere of love and prayer in the home.” (Sister Magdalen, Children in the Church Today) 
“You can only teach that which you have made your own…” (Sophie Koulomzin, Our Church & Our Children)
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