Why Lent Is Good for Your Family

Filed under: Religion & Spirituality, Opinions, Just for You

For many, the word Lent conjures up images of stern nuns, hair shirts and Catholic schools circa 1951, but it's a ritual and tradition American families need now, more than ever.

In our family, Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) marks the beginning of a 40-day challenge to give up stuff we love. Despite the ritual pre-Ash Wednesday dinner discussions ("What are you giving up this year?"), year after year, we always end up with the same boring and predictable sacrifices. Mom: coffee, dessert. Dad: beer. Kids: candy.

This year is different.

Instead of using this holy season as a personal weight-loss boot camp where I purge my pantry and refrigerator of all the things I shouldn't be eating anyway, our family is attempting to work on more serious virtues: gratitude, patience, love.

It started with an episode of "60 Minutes" my mom told me about, featuring the heartbreaking stories of middle-class American families dealing with job loss, foreclosure and homelessness.

My kids watched an articulate 12-year-old girl talk about the embarrassment and humiliation of sleeping in the family minivan and praying her friends wouldn't recognize her dad holding up a handmade cardboard sign on the side of the road -- "Family of 5. Please Help."

As my children watched, I realized this brave little girl accomplished what my countless reminders about the starving children in Africa could not: She inspired in my kids a genuine spirit of gratitude for the things they commonly take for granted. Things like our house, electricity, lunch money and parents blessed with jobs.

The conversations these touching stories generated opened my kids' hearts to take on bigger, and more meaningful, sacrifices this Lenten season; sacrifices that I hope will have more lasting and character-building effects.

One of our kids is challenging himself to be more patient by not getting angry when his little sister (our resident teaser) provokes him. My 6- and 11-year-oldd are giving up television and devoting more time to reading. The whole family has made a Lenten commitment to be more grateful by counting our blessings each evening during prayer time and taking on a charity project.

From obesity to consumerism and an epidemic of debt, there's no question we live in an age of excess. What family couldn't benefit from a period of reflection, self denial, charity and prayer?

So, bust out the purple candles, carve time out for family prayer, download the "stations of the cross for kids," and don't forget about meatless Fridays and Friday night fish fry (if you're blessed to live in Wisconsin!).

Lent is an ancient tradition tailor-made for the problems of a modern world and busy families. Sure, it's old school, but it's never been more relevant ... or needed.

Share your Lenten thoughts and traditions.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.