Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How To Live Lent and Easter With Kids...and Love It

Read to Your Bunny
All of us love our children more than anything in the world. In their first years we feed them so they grow. We bring them to the doctor so they are healthy. We strap them in car seats so they are safe.
But the most important thing in the first years of life is the growth of the mind and spirit. This is when a child learns to love and trust, to speak and listen.
After a child turns two years old, these things are very difficult to learn or teach ever again. Trusting, singing, laughing, and language are the most important things in a young child’s life.
And so they must come first for mothers and fathers, too, because we can never have those years over again.
Every day, make a quiet, restful place for twenty minutes. Put your child in your lap and read a book aloud. In the pages of the book you will find a tiny vacation of privacy and intense love. It costs nothing but twenty minutes and a library card.
Reading to your little one is just like putting gold coins in the bank. It will pay you back tenfold. Your daughter will learn, and imagine, and be strong in herself. Your son will thrive, and give your love back forever.
Rosemary Wells

I first came across this lovely piece of advice about ten years ago, then posted it in the children’s corner of our Pauline Books & Media Center in San Francisco. Here and there I noticed people stop to take it in. Apparently Rosemary’s nudge to get a library card didn’t deter them from buying a book. After all, it’s hard to find our array of titles on faith and Christian values in your typical public library. Whether you buy or borrow, what she says about the indispensable role of parents (and grandparents!) in a child’s early learning can’t be emphasized enough, especially when a book about God’s love for us is included in the cuddling.

That story is easy to tell at Christmas. But during Lent? How do you get past the horror of the Crucifixion? Granted, boys and even some girls are not as squeamish as moms are about this, but the younger the child, the less graphic the story needs to be. Sometimes that will depend on what images they’ve already been exposed to in their churches and homes or what movies they’ve seen, or what they’ve encountered through their older siblings. In any case, you’ll want to reassure them that “Nobody does that anymore,” so that they feel safe.

How do you explain the tragedy of sin to a little person, who has no concept of it yet? Before reading, you may find it helpful to demonstrate the separation of sin to pre-schoolers by coaxing them to try and jump to you from an unreachable distance. Since only the cross can span that distance, the book you’re about to read to them will tell them how Jesus used the cross to do just that. Otherwise, you can let the story say whatever it does without the prep work.

1. Keep it simple. For infants and toddlers, once you find an appropriate book, it will be enough to hold it together and look at the pictures, reading a few words here and there to tell the basic story. Pre-schoolers will be able to understand more and will eventually want to “read” you the story in their own words. One of the best books I’ve ever seen for this purpose is PBM’s own The Road to Easter Day (picture at left). Pain in the illustrations is muted, and joyful colors are vibrant. Every page introduces the next part of the narrative, from Palm Sunday to Jesus’ appearance on the way to Emmaus, as another step “along the road, along the road, the road to Easter day,” conveying the sense that any sadness, while real, is not the end of the story. The Easter Swallows, with its talking animals and birds, creates a safer distance from the tragedy for those primary-age children who may be especially impressed by whatever graphic details they already know of Jesus’ passion.

2. Combine the story with an easy activity or craft. For older kids, The Stations of the Cross Coloring and Activity Book or My First Easter Sticker Book does the trick. The sticker book also simply and happily announces that, “Because Jesus loves us and died for our sins, heaven is open to all of us!” A children’s Bible book, such as My Storytime Bible, with its two-page spread of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, can contextualize that further, if needed.

One of the best activity books around, though, is The Lent-Easter Book—182 pages of stories, games, puzzles, recipes, and crafts that assist parents or teachers in passing on the season’s Catholic traditions…and the faith they express. This spiral-bound treasury also suggests ideas on holding conversations with five- to nine-year-olds and with ten- to fourteen-year-olds.

3. Allow books to teach our little ones to pray and live justly. Even though the cross, backlit by the resurrection, casts its shadow across all of Lent, this liturgical season isn’t just about the cross. Or better, during this reflective time, even children can find in the cross their own reasons for growing in prayer, virtue, and awareness of others’ needs. Books can help them do that.

Primary-age kids are keenly sensitive to the pain of Jesus, especially when they understand how he suffered to forgive and heal them and the whole world of their sins and the sins of others. With its simple, colorful pictures, I Pray the Stations of the Cross stirs their empathy for Jesus’ redemptive suffering and connects that empathy with compassion for others: “Jesus, Mary wanted to be near you, even though it made her sad to see you suffer. Please help me to comfort those in my family who are suffering” (Fourth Station). The Stations of the Cross in My Pocket is a pocket-size version of almost exactly the same text, with a more ornate art style.

Children’s Way of the Cross cleverly adapts for older kids St. Ignatius’s approach to Gospel meditation. It first leads them to imagine themselves right there with Jesus, then to listen to him by means of a passage from the International Children’s Bible, then finally to respond to his love with a sentence from a Psalm. Expressive pen and water color renderings bring the “via crucis” to life.

Of course, Lenten prayer would not be complete without the celebration of the sacraments. The Sacrament of Reconciliation in My Pocket is a pocket-size guide to celebrating the rite and includes an explanation of Reconciliation, a simple examen of conscience on the Ten Commandments, prayers, and a short glossary.

4. With school-age kids, especially with those who are aware that someone has died, any discussion of Jesus’ death can lead to questions about death in general: What happened to them? What will happen to me? What a great opportunity to share hugs and the central message of our faith! Because he rose again, Jesus’ death is a door, not a wall. His death changed death for us all. Because the Son of God, who is human like us, now physically lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we, his brothers and sisters who share in that same Spirit, will live forever, too (cf. Romans 8:11). A related kids’ title would be I Will Remember You: A Catholic Guide Through Grief.

If you would like more resources, updated almost daily, go to You'll find descriptions of PBM titles for kids, book guides, interviews with authors and illustrators, plus spiritual gems for parents and educators. Take a peek, too, behind the scenes at what goes into our kids' books.

For ways to share your finds with other families, look into J-Club, the only Catholic book fair for schools and religious education programs, that couples as a fundraiser.

Looking for something different? For centuries, many Christians trying to exonerate themselves from responsibility for Jesus’ death have pinned it on the Jews. Even after the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the attitude dies hard. We recognize that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” (n. 4). So PBM offers My Jewish Friend, a fictional account of two boys, one Catholic and the other Jewish, who explain their beliefs and rituals to each other, and so grow in their faith and in mutual respect.The narrative is vividly illustrated and masterfully interwoven with information about both Catholicism and Judaism.

Kids aren’t the only ones who try to figure out whose fault it is when something goes wrong. Yet, they’re less equipped than adults are to accept the unfairness of life without assigning blame. So how do you answer the blame question regarding Jesus’ death? If we can’t point fingers at the Romans or the Jews, what about at ourselves? While it’s true that had we not sinned, Jesus would not have died to forgive us. Even so, we could have sinned from our first breath until our last, and still we would not have caused Christ’s death. Love did that. His love. Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). All the books we’ve talked about here say that very thing in one way or another. There could be no greater story to read to your little Easter bunny.

Consultant for this week's blog post: Jamie Stuart Wolfe, assistant children's editor, Pauline Books & Media

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