When your son or daughter has become an adolescent, the situation may already be beyond repair. By that, I mean that it is too late to make fasting an integral part of their lives. There is only one available option, but it is not very likely to dispose your teen towards genuine fasting. Essentially, your teen will have to fast simply because all the rest are fasting. In case I have not made myself clear enough, I mean cooking for the adolescent the same fasting meal as for all the other family meals on fasting days. Just following the plain and simple rule: All are fasting, and you will have to eat the same as we do, whether you like it or not. This seems reasonable, for who would have the time and energy to cook several different meals, especially after a hard day at one or even several jobs, and when getting enough sleep may sometimes be a problem?
This advice, of course, begs the question: Does this kind of fasting make any sense, if it does not come from the heart, but only from necessity? It may not have a meaning for the adolescent, but it sends a message to the parents: they may have missed their opportunity to form in their son or daughter the habit of voluntary fasting. Adolescence is not just the time of rapid hormonal and bodily change. It is also a period of radical and fast change in the adolescent’s inner world. At a young age, your son or daughter share the faith of their parents, family, godparents and significant others. They accept the faith and church life uncritically, as any child would. It is easy, then, to convince the child to fast, pray, go to church and take communion every week. Yet, in adolescence, our child will begin to reflect on churching and faith from the viewpoint of personal necessity. At this stage, they develop personal attitudes to faith, which become essential to their identity. This is a test of the correctness of our approach to his instruction in the faith. The subject of our adolescent’s judgement is not the faith itself, but its meaning to us, and how the practice of our faith was congruent with what we had told him about it. Have we been conscious and conscientious in the way we believe? Have we lived by our faith, or did we believe only out of fear of God’s punishment? Have we avoided confusing faith with superstition? Have we been the same people at home and church, or have we been facetious? Have we been too critical over minor details, but neglected the most important ones? If we have not been up to the mark in any of these aspects, and our children discard our notion of faith, who else do we have to blame for it?
Take fasting, for example. If everybody fasts in the family, the child will accept fasting as a norm of life. Yet parents need to exercise good judgement. Although there is no single, one-size-fits-all recipe for attuning children to the habit of fasting, parents might learn from some useful experiences of others. To me, the ideal age for introducing children to fasting is seven years. It is best to do it one step at a time, by abstaining from some one food, such as meat. Then wait to see this new restriction in food become an accepted habit for our child. From this stage and onwards, we should never neglect talking to our child. We should make it known to our children why we fast, and why they need to do the same; we should teach them to appreciate the value of not acting on all of their wishes, of being able to say ‘no’ to themselves. We should also teach our children to hear their conscience, In fasting and in all other things beyond. They will find it helpful when they have the means and opportunity to break the fast, and their parents are not around to stop them. Never force the process, or make any rash moves. If your child already abstains from eating meat during fasts and on fasting days, do not make him fast also before the Communion. Never use fasting as a form of punishment, and do not disallow any more foods. One practice that I would call very harmful is not to allow sweet treats during fasts. I would be hard-pressed to name a more effective way of instilling a dislike, or even an aversion for fasting in your child. Fasting is time-limited abstention from foods that are otherwise necessary for our bodies, such as meat, milk and eggs; it does not mean ruling out the treats, which one can do without during a fast or outside of it. Conversely, treats can act as effective incentives and rewards in teaching our children to fast.
At fourteen, our children may be ready to fast according to the rule. But this is only possible in families that have healthy relationships, in which faith is practised sensibly and in good conscience, and where all adult members observe the fast. Most importantly, however, such families should have open and sincere communication between parents and children – parents should have the ability to talk and listen to their children.
Admittedly, this might sound like an ideal situation beyond the reach of many families. In some families, only one member is a believer, and the others are not. Sometimes, the injudicious love of the grandparents who live under the same roof with the parents – and their tendency to pamper their grandchildren – could prove a barrier to teaching our children how to fast. The obstacles may be numerous, and parents may not have control over most. Yet, whatever the life circumstances of a faithful family, the parents’ first responsibility is to their children. They should maintain healthy and productive communication with their children at all stages in their development. Only when the parents and children listen and hear each other, will the child’s instruction in faith and, more generally, in life be successful.
To continue fasting as adolescents, children should be accustomed to fasting from an early age. However, even when you have missed the opportunity to do so, do not despair. Communication with your children is your precious asset. Communicating includes listening and hearing. Even if you cannot convince your adolescent to observe the fast, having a dialogue with him is a blessing and a good reward for your time and effort.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds