Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Meaningful Lent, Part 8: Lent with a sensitive child

When Anne-with-an-e was much younger, she was very sensitive. A picture of Jesus on the Cross could reduce her to tears. Singing certain hymns would leave her spent. The idea of forty days of sorrowful mysteries drained her. I sometimes wondered how someone so little could feel things so deeply.

Lent became a difficult time.

I, being an enthusiastic convert, looked forward to doing everything I could during Lent to challenge myself. But, I realized that my vision of Lent and the Lent I needed to provide for my tenderhearted daughter were two different things.

In a way, it was humbling to create a "more relaxed Lent," if I can call it that, than I had previously practiced, but that's what I needed to do. I pulled back, I stopped trying to do things such as Stations of the Cross for children. Anne just couldn't take it; it broke her heart.

One might argue that our Lord's crucifixion is supposed to break our hearts. Yes, it is. It does. But, a soul in formation has to be handled with the utmost care, and I knew that forcing certain practices on this child would not help her to love God more, and it may even have the opposite effect. Clearly, that was not my vision for teaching my child about how fabulous Jesus was.

All of the usual "Lent with Children" practices were good: baking pretzels, putting cottonballs on the Lamb, putting beans in the sacrifice jar for kindnesses and unselfish actions. But anything too raw, too harsh, too weepy, was just plain too hard. (And remember, Holy Mother Church doesn't technically require our children to abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until they are fourteen years old.)

As Anne grew, our practices slowly grew and changed, too. Things that were once too hard are handled now, and I see an extremely sensitive child growing into a beautifully sensitive and perceptive young lady. Now in her teens, Anne chose her own penance for this Lent (and it's something she really loves, so I do believe she's challenging herself) and she also chose to take on a devotion that I hadn't even suggested.

I don't mean to suggest that Lent should be watered down. I offer all of this only to help anyone out there who has found that Lent is "just too much" for their sensitive child. You're not alone, and I can almost assure you that "pulling back" or "taking it easy" or tailoring Lenten practices to make them work for your particular child in your particular situation is not necessarily a compromise. In your case, it's sensitive parenting, and it can bear lovely fruit.

And, the beauty of the Catholic Church's teaching (that the parent is the first educator in a child's life) means that we can and should make careful, prudent decisions about these sorts of things.

Every house, every child, every soul is different.

So is every Lent.

At least, that's been the experience at our house.

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

(Thanks, Fr. H., for tracking down the origin of that expression.)


Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Every house, every child, every soul is different.

This is so true! Thank you from the bottom of this mama-of-a-sensitive-girl's heart!

Melanie B said...

Thank you Karen for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I'm still trying to feel my way into how to introduce Lent to Bella. I don't know how sensitive she'll be but I just can't bring myself to introduce her to stations of the cross yet and I'm still quite hesitant about reading the Easter story, though I have ordered a few books. We'll play those by ear.

Christmas is easy. It's a baby, a birth, a family. She can connect with that. Death, sacrifice, those are thankfully outside her realm of experience and I don't know how to begin to gently unfold those mysteries for her. We have crucifixes in every room of course and she used to kiss the crucifix over her bed every night. But I have no idea what it means to her or what she sees when she looks at Jesus on the cross.

Anyway, for now I'm not doing anything with her for Lent because I just don't feel anything drawing me. I think perhaps we'll just let her dye some eggs, have an Easter basket and some chocolate on Easter Sunday and put the question of Lent on the shelf until next year. By then she might have enough of a grasp of passing time that the cotton balls on the lamb counting down to Easter will be fun and a little bit meaningful.

i'd started to get a little edgy and second-guessing my decision to hold back when everyone seems to be talking about what they are doing. Thank you for the reminder and reassurance that it is also appropriate to relax and hold off.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Karen, oh, this really is more profound than it might seem, especially with your beautiful conclusion, which is such a powerful reminder to us parents, and one I've had to remind myself of quite often, including today when a situation came up at school. Kids are all different. Somehow, we need to find ways to respect those differences and handle our children as God would (and does). Thank you for another lovely reminder. By the way, this need not apply to only kids. A friend recently revealed to me that she is prone to depression and struggles with Lent. We, her circle of friends, suggested she approach Lent slightly differently, and love herself through it. Again, not discounting the sacrifice needed, but taking each person individually in terms of the approach...for what it's worth.

Heidi Saxton said...

This is a timely reminder, Karen. Yesterday I had a conversation with Christopher's teacher, who said that he had been out-of-sorts and unfocused these past few days. She asked him what he was thinking about.

"Lent. I hate Lent."

I turns out giving up all TV AND electronic games had been too much for him. (The TV was my idea for Lent, the DS I limit as a matter of course.)

I realized that I had "imposed Lent" on the entire family, instead of giving them an opportunity to make their own offerings. The last thing I wanted was for faith to become a drudgery.

A friend at school suggested that I ask the kids to choose their own "give up" item, and instead focus the family on doing something positive -- such as making Easter baskets for the social services agency.

So last night we talked about what each of us wants to offer Jesus for Lent. Christopher asked if he could give up walking the dog after school, a much-disliked chore. Then he settled on giving up chips -- his favorite snack.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about gentle parenting, and how harshness can damage the relationship. I grew up with the latter model, so I have to be intentional about choosing gentleness and kindness with my kids. I think this "Lenten offering" (at least for me) falls in the category of "something to discuss, rather than impose."

Thanks, again!

Beck said...

We do Lent very low-key - a few relevant story books, cutting way back on treats, no decorations up - but because one of my children in particular is EXTREMELY sensitive to suffering, we're careful how we handle it. As my kids get older, we'll do things differently.

Jennifer said...

Very good post Karen. You know how I've struggled with this too - especially with so many children's novel starting off with dead parents. I don't remember the last time I tried discussing the crucifixion. I do remember her crying, "I don't want to talk about it!". And we should all feel it so poignantly.