Perhaps I’d tried too hard.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Wracking my sleep-deprived brain for ideas of how we could make Lent meaningful for our six-year-old, four-year-old and newly adopted one-year-old twins, I’d discovered ‘Lent candles.’
Rather like the Advent candle which had always gone down well with our brood, Lent candles were designed to be burnt a little each day through the looooong (to a six-year-old) period of Lent. Each day’s burn featured a different name for God or Jesus, so might provide a natural talking point.
All went to plan for a few days. We lit the candle, we thought of Jesus. Then one evening, my husband and I took the twins up to bed (a two-person job in those early days!) immediately after dinner. As we were getting our boys into their babygrows, our older children came running into the room shouting, ‘Emergency!’
‘All went to plan for a few days. We lit the candle, we thought of Jesus.’
Now what you need to know at this point is that two of my family’s values are interruption and melodrama. We are great at both, always have been. But there was something unfamiliar in the words of my older kids that night, and how they spoke them. We immediately rushed to their bedroom to discover a small bonfire making happy progress up the bedroom wall.
Several bowls of water later – and fortunately with no major damage done – we discovered what happened. After lighting our Lent candles, we’d recklessly left the matches within easy reach. Our usually compliant son, whether out of a need to seek attention in our newly expanded family or scientific curiosity, had decided to find out what would happen if he lit a match in his bedroom. He found out, alright.
An unconventional Lent
It wasn’t our finest family moment – but, like all parenting fails, it does make for a good dinner party anecdote.
The truth is that Lent with a family is difficult.
It lasts for a whole 66% longer than your typical Advent calendar – which is a huge length of time to try and maintain a child’s focus – and there’s not even any chocolate.
‘Lent with a family is difficult. It lasts for a whole 66% longer than your typical Advent calendar – and there’s not even any chocolate!’
It’s also traditionally a time of quiet reflection – neither of which are words you’d use to describe my home as it currently stands. And then there’s the aspect of repentance, mourning, recognition of our own unholiness – not to mention the sad and difficult events of Good Friday. (My Parenting for Faith colleague Becky Sedgwick gives some brilliant guidance in her article Good Friday for under-fives.)
None of this is very easy with children. But perhaps thinking a little out of the box is okay. Lent with families will always look a little unconventional. Maybe one day I will become somebody who can mark Lent in a more traditionally sombre way. But for now, I’ll take anything that engages my children with Jesus in new ways.
‘Thinking a little out of the box is okay. Lent with families will always look a little unconventional.’
How we mark Lent as a family
As our family grows and changes, so our traditions adapt too. My kids are now thirteen, eleven, eight and eight, but when they were younger and at home more, we had a ‘Lent basket’ full of Easter story books, colouring and activities, which we used through the season. Nearer to Easter, we used resurrection eggs to tell the story of Jesus’ final week.
We still have little wooden peg dolls that I painted to represent the key players in the Easter story. After all, my kids loved playing with our Nativity set at Christmas, so why not try and do something similar for Easter?
Occasionally, I would buy each of my children a ‘Lent gift’. Their first full-length Bible, perhaps, or a Christian book, presented to them on the morning of Ash Wednesday. Now that they’re older, we try reading books appropriate for their age and stage which help them unpack Jesus’ life and death in a little more depth. Sometimes they choose to give up chocolate and sweets (we always feast on a Sunday though!). For the last few years, we’ve attempted something resembling a Passover meal on Maundy Thursday.
I’ve found that it’s important to pace ourselves. Lent is a long time and encompasses several different unrelated events including Mother’s Day, the end of the school term and perhaps several family birthdays or celebrations. It’s not like we’re laser-focused on the cross for the whole time. Trying to maintain some kind of über-spiritual habit for the whole time is probably not going to bear much fruit – at least not in my family.
So we make a big deal of Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, and ramp things up nearer to Palm Sunday. We’re more relaxed in between.
However you decide to mark Lent, remember it isn’t about doing the ‘expected’ thing or looking super-holy to those around you. Our priority – as it is for the rest of the year – is Jesus: getting to know him better and applying his teaching to our lives. The way you do that is going to make for a pretty good Lent tradition.
‘Trying to maintain some kind of über-spiritual habit for the whole time is probably not going to bear much fruit – at least not in my family.’