What is one essential lesson I can teach my kids during Lent?

There is so much we can gain from the experience of Lent. Luckily, we don’t have to learn it all at once, we have 40 days and, God willing, we will have next Lent to learn a little more.

What or who is the lesson?

As a parent, remember you are not just teaching your kids a lesson, you ARE the lesson. You already realize your kids imitate and listen to whatever you say and do. If you say a 40-degree day in Wisconsin is just “so warm!”, they will also say that a 40-degree day is “so warm!” If you say something derogatory about the Chicago Bears, they will say it, too. You get the point.

Here is the secret and the difficulty about imparting life’s greatest lessons to our children. Since we are the

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lesson — a walking, talking, opinionated, stressed out, creative, resourceful, cool, calm and collected, or not, lesson — we can teach what we want by changing the way that we behave, speak and think.

Essentially, we need to pray and struggle and stretch and grow so that we can become the lessons we wish our children to learn.

The challenge

This is also the challenge, because we want our children to learn the lessons we never did. There is a saying that goes, “You cannot teach what you do not know; you cannot lead where you do not go.”

Whatever is the good lesson we are trying to teach our children this year about Lent, whether it has to do with prayer, fasting, almsgiving or sacrifice, service or hope, we need to learn that lesson ourselves.  And not just learn it intellectually, but live it and incorporate it into our lives.

It is one thing to say to a child, “You should give to the poor,” and it is another for them to observe you going through your own closet and your own drawers and carefully removing items, washing them and thoughtfully packing them to donate to a local charity or homeless shelter.

Ideally they would observe you driving to the shelter and see you turning over your own clothing to others who need it more. When they see you taking out a shirt, they will have natural questions. “Why are you getting rid of that shirt?”, “Why do we have to help people we don’t know?”, “Why can’t they just go to the store and buy some clothes like us?” etc.

This affords a natural occasion to do as we learn in the first letter of Peter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” 1 Pt 3:15.

If you have allowed the Lenten practice of prayer and almsgiving to penetrate your heart, you will have thoughtful answers to these questions beside “we are supposed to give to others.” The seed you want to see bloom in your child first must bloom in you.

Tend your garden

This seed will grow from your own prayer time, your own sacrifices, your own selfless surrender to doing the will of God. This seed will start to produce spiritual fruit, and although we do not like to bare our souls to others, parents have a duty, a right and a privilege to bare their souls to their children.

Therefore, in the intimacy of the family, they will start to learn what faith really means, they will learn that love has legs, they will see that hope changes lives and they will know that if God can change you — you with all your failings and foibles — then he can change them, too.

The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree

Children will continue to pay attention to see if the lessons of Lent fade with the joy of Easter. They will remain vigilant to see if the lessons are heartfelt or only skin deep. They will look to see if you are happy and joyful and fulfilled even though you don’t have all the possessions you want or even though you never got that promotion you deserved.

They will know from your example if God is enough or if they should look elsewhere for these things. Our goal as parents is to allow the Lord to transform us day by day, Lent by Lent, so that our children will see us and form a new goal. Whether overtly or in their hearts, they will know that this is their goal and aspiration: to become a deep man or woman of faith, hope and love, just like their old man or just like their ma’.

Every family must have an example to follow; why not you? Allow the Lord to transform you this Lent. Let yourself be used. Let him increase and you decrease. It is worth it. The next generation is watching.

(Henry, his wife, Dr. Patricia Cabral, and their five children belong to St. Patrick Parish, Milwaukee. Reyes, a doctoral candidate at Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Ill., is also in the deacon formation program for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.)