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3 Ways to introduce Lenten fasting to your children

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Cecilia Pigg - published on 02/20/24

The Church encourages us to make sure our kids are “taught the true meaning of penance,” even though fasting rules don't apply to them.

It’s Lent — time for fasting, for no meat Fridays, and for almsgiving. But do kids have to fast? Or abstain from meat? No! Canon law says that only those from ages 18 to 59 have to fast, while those 14 and older have to abstain from meat. However, at the end of the paragraph about fasting and abstinence in canon law, there is a note for parents I had never noticed before. Parents are supposed to ensure that their children are “taught the true meaning of penance” once they reach the age of reason, even though children are “not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence” (Canon Law 1252).

Why would kids need to know the true meaning of fasting and penance? Also, what is the true meaning of fasting and penance? My answer to both of these questions goes back to one evening at an Indian restaurant a few years ago. My family and I were deciding what to eat from the menu with my husband’s parents, and it was a Friday. We discussed which options did not have meat, and our Indian server overheard us.

“Oh, you don’t eat meat on Fridays then?” she asked.

 “No, we don’t,” we responded.

 She quickly replied, asking “Ah, you do it for Jesus?”

 “Yes, that’s right!” was our resounding reply.

That moment comes back to me every time I am having a hard time making a decision regarding fasting and abstinence, like when I am struggling to figure out what meatless meals we will eat this Friday. Why am I doing this thing, making this sacrifice? Is it because it is just an arbitrary rule that I have to follow if I call myself Catholic? No! It’s for Jesus! I’m doing this for Jesus — the God who loves me and died for me and who becomes present in the Eucharist just so He can be close to me. 

If we can teach our kids that Lent is a time to grow closer to Jesus, and one way we do that is by giving up meat or our normal meal schedule, I think we are well on our way to teaching them the true meaning of penance. And if they learn that lesson now, while they are small, then perhaps it will just be the normal fabric of life by the time they reach their teenage years, rather than a burdensome or arbitrary rule with no context.

Here are a few ideas on how to introduce penance and fasting to your children. Be sure to explain why you are fasting, even if it is as simple as, “We are doing this for Jesus! He loves us and we want to love Him better!”

Fasting from food

Invite your kids to give up meat with you on Fridays. It also promotes family unity if you are all eating the same meal, rather than eating different things. OR give up one snack time during the day or give up dessert or sweets on Fridays.

Fasting from our preferences

Show them how to choose between two things, where you choose something that you like less instead of what you like the most. For example, explain that maybe your favorite breakfast food is cereal, but instead of choosing your favorite food for breakfast, let’s choose eggs and toast today as a way to love Jesus. OR you can show them how to let their sibling choose what show you watch. OR let someone else pick out the bedtime story even if it is rightfully that child’s turn.

Fasting from screen time or a favorite activity

On Fridays, you could all fast from screens in your free time. There is beauty and built-in accountability in solidarity, so if you are all doing the same thing together, it helps. Fill that free time with something you can all enjoy instead, like taking a walk together or playing together.

As always, feel free to share your ideas below.

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