Friday, March 7, 2014

Some thoughts on fasting and children

Fasting during Lent can be a great way to make more room for God in our lives. I say "can be", because Lenten fasting can quickly become just another meaningless ritual or a rule that one has to follow. I confess that my first Lenten fast took place when I was in college, and I did it mainly to lose weight!!  So how do we teach our kids about fasting in a non-legalistic way? How do we follow the Montessori principle of "helping the child to help him/herself" in drawing closer to God and the great mystery of Easter?  

(Before I go further, I want to clarify what I mean by "fasting". Historical church traditions define this as abstaining from a particular foodstuff such as meat or butter, or eating one modest meal instead of three full ones on a particular fasting day such as Good Friday. Other modern interpretations include abstaining from an activity, such as Facebook or computer time. I am, however, most definitely NOT referring to the practice of abstaining from food altogether or only drinking water for one or more days. This is dangerous for a child's developing body and I would not recommend this under any circumstances. I would not even allow teenagers to do this, having seen how quickly fasting can enable eating disorders.)

First of all, I think Lenten fasting has to be modeled by the parents and mentors in the child's life. Those parents and mentors need to do it joyfully and willingly, but at the same time completely honest about how difficult it can be. Also, they need to understand why we fast in the first place. 

Secondly, children need to be able to make some decisions for themselves about what and if they want to fast from something. In our family, the first few years, we told our children that we, the parents, were fasting from meat and sugar. (My husband is from Texas, so fasting from meat is a huge sacrifice!) We allowed our children to eat whatever they wanted at breakfast and school. (Cultural note: In Berlin, many people eat open-faced sandwiches with sliced meat or cheese for breakfast. My son has an aversion to cold, sliced cheese, so banning meat from the breakfast table would have taken away his ability to choose.) In the evenings, I simply made vegetarian meals, but since we had always had the principle in place that we eat whatever Mom & Dad cook, there was never any question about it. 

As my son got older, he started voluntarily fasting and could articulate why he was doing this. Last year, he fasted from sugar during the week. This year, he came up with another idea involving limiting a favorite activity during Lent. My daughter, who is younger,  has not yet expressed an interest in fasting on her own. But in giving them choices and allowing them freedom to choose to fast or not to fast, we are  hopefully encouraging a life long spiritual practice that will not turn into an empty ritual. 

This year's fasting will also involve lots of prayer for the situation between Russia and the Ukraine! Please read Asmic's thoughts on this here

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