Keeping Lent in our Families

Prodigal Son (Contemporary Icon: St Pachomius Brotherhood, Mt Athos)

Let’s be honest: how do we parents feel when we suddenly realize, while attending Liturgy, that the Gospel reading for the Sunday is the Prodigal Son, reminding us that Lent is around the corner? If you’re like me, you start doing a mental checklist of all the meat that needs to be used up in the next few weeks, and what upcoming events are going to conflict with the fast and services. When does Holy Week fall? And whose birthday is getting trumped by Lent? (Three of our children have birthdays in late February and early March!)

Perhaps some of these collected words of wisdom from other moms and dads will be encouraging.

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Most parents find it’s better to resist the temptation to read labels while shopping in the store, or to try to monitor what our older kids are choosing to eat when they aren’t at home. Let’s not set up standards of perfection that will end up succumbing to the practical realities of family life. The overall goal is that we and our children will cleanse our souls, simplify our lives, practice a greater degree of love and self sacrifice, and prepare for the Feast of Pascha. Our own father confessors can best guide us as to how to do this without ruining the atmosphere in our homes with Lenten grumpiness.
  • Do create a Lent-friendly kitchen. We can keep our pantries free of dairy-heavy snacks and Beef Jerky. Our food purchases can set an example and help us make good choices. But then, we also need to remember that our children are still children! I’ll never forget His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph’s exhortation when, at a women’s retreat, a mother asked him, “How do we handle the fast with our children?” “Your fasting should be more rigorous than your childrens’ fasting,” he said. He went on to explain that what we do while they are watching is more important than what we make them do. Also, as the cooks, we can help them along by finding tasty, albeit simple recipes that they enjoy. Try the book When You Fast: Recipes for Lenten Seasons by Catherine Mandell.
  • Do put thought into managing the family calendar. During Lent, life relentlessly marches on with baseball playoff games, school plays, family weddings and birthday celebrations, and western Easter gatherings. We have to decide at the beginning of each Lenten week what to do, and what to forgo. In this, there are two temptations: to try to attend each and every service and live as if nothing else is happening, or to resign ourselves to not participating at all. With the former, we get after our kids if they complain about fasting and church attendance. With the latter, we end up ignoring the holy season because of our kids’ resistance or our own laziness. As always, we need to strive for balance.

Sister Magdalen reminds us in Children in the Church Today, being a wise parent “sometimes involves letting go temporarily of secondary aspects in order to concentrate on central things (faith, love, freedom, truth). We know that ‘secondary’ things contribute to the essentials, and we try to live in a way that makes this manifest, and to explain it to our young people. However, we may have to wait patiently while our children go through the experience of sorting out the central meaning of life for themselves.” This good counsel extends to all of the Lenten disciplines. Let’s go forward into this journey with enthusiasm, knowing that in due season we will “reap, if we faint not.”

Practical suggestions for observing Lent: 

  • Attend an extra service each week, but be sensitive to the family schedule and the patience and endurance levels of each child.
  • Volunteer during Lent and Holy Week for special activities—prosphora baking, egg dyeing, decorating the temple.
  • Talk about it! After dinner, ask, why do we fast? Discuss the Sunday observance that’s upcoming.
  • Pick an alms project, the more hands-on the better–perhaps your parish offers Lenten outreach opportunities, or your family can collect money in a jar for the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).
  • Put up this creative fridge poster: “My Lenten Journey;” it suggests one simple way to keep Lent during each of the 40 days.
  • Read good books and listen to sacred music with your kids–try listening to Ancient Faith Radio, or ordering resources from SVS Press.
  • Get off screens and go outdoors! Turn off the TV. Unhook cable. Hide the X-box. Instead, take family nature walks or plant a garden.


Virginia Nieuwsma grew up in the Philippines with her missionary parents, and later graduated from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. Since 1981, she has worked in Christian media, both as an editor and writer, as well as a spokesperson for pro life organizations. Twenty two years ago she discovered Orthodoxy, and subsequently she edited Conciliar Press’ book, Our Heart’s True Home, and served as journal editor to The Handmaiden as well as Conciliar’s acquisitions editor. This reflection is used with the kind permission of Virginia Nieuwsma and the Antiochian Archdiocese.