I know Lent is almost here when fast-food signs start advertising fish sandwiches. But maybe it isn’t something your family traditionally practices. When the kids start asking, “What is Lent?”—you might be scrambling for answers that don’t include “Filet-O-Fish.”

So allow me a brief rundown of lent for kids, in language they (and we) can understand—and some tips to help it sink in. Then, grab FamilyLife’s Lent paper chain, “Countdown to the Cross,” with easy-does-it activities to help you count down to Easter together.

“What is Lent?”: The easy answer

Lent is the 40 days—not including Sundays!—from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter. Christians around the world consider Lent a time to reflect on what Jesus did for us.

Remember how John the Baptist expressed a need to prepare the way for Jesus through repentance and humility? Lent is a time, too, to get our hearts ready to truly appreciate Jesus’ death for us and celebrate Easter.

Because Jesus’ death was the greatest sacrifice ever—some people fast, giving up certain foods or behaviors. Some do it only on Fridays. (Many Catholics historically fast from meat, dairy, or eggs … hence the reason Arby’s needs a fish sandwich every spring).

Less-than-fun fact: Mardi Gras is literally translated “Fat Tuesday.” That’s because some people party it up on the last day before fasting for Lent. It was originally just the last opportunity to feast before fasting, but unfortunately, now it’s more associated with wild partying.

Talk with older kids about ways Christian holidays can sometimes go off the rails. It can be fine to have fun with friends or go on an Easter egg hunt—but keeping Christ the reason for it all is important. Even Lent has, at times, been a path to self-righteousness.

What are the important days in Lent? Got ideas for Lent for kids?

Considering there are 40 days in Lent, the most notable calendar days are at the beginning and end.

Ash Wednesday

This day kicks off Lent. Speaking verses like “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), a priest or pastor applies ashes in the shape of a cross to a person’s forehead. It’s a day for humbling ourselves, for remembering God is great—yet made us from dust.

Family Time Tip: To dig deeper into this day as a family, you could listen to (and even memorize) this song from Seeds Family Worship, written to the words from 1 Peter 1:24-25: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday/Covenant Thursday/etc.

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter. We remember the Thursday when Jesus ate the Last Supper with His twelve disciples and was then betrayed by Judas, arrested, and put on an unjust trial. Check out Matthew 26 for the whole story.

Fun fact: “Maundy” comes from a Latin word for “command”—because it’s on this night that Jesus famously commanded His disciples, “As I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

Family Time Tip: Kids interact with the text far more when they get a chance to act things out. (And who hasn’t secretly wished to arrest a sibling?) Let them use props: bread and juice, flashlights to act as torches, play swords.

Download the Resurrection Eggs printable activity pack in English or Spanish!

Good Friday

Though it may seem ironic to call it “good,” the Friday before Easter is when Christians commemorate Jesus’ death on a Roman cross. Songs and gatherings often carry a sad feeling, to meditate on the sorrow of this day—and the need for Jesus to die because of our sin.

The “good” part describes the incredible gift of God’s forgiveness because of Jesus’ atoning blood and death, paying the price for our wrongdoing (sin) for all who believe: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

Family Time Tip: As a family, wear black on Good Friday to remind you these are sad days, because Jesus needed to die for our sins.

Easter Sunday

Easter is technically not part of Lent (like the other Sundays, which are celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection—so not traditional days of fasting). It’s after the 40 days.

But it is the “happy ending” of Lent: Jesus rose again!

This can be the “party day” in your home—not only did Jesus die for our sins, but He grabbed victory over our worst enemy, death, and every other enemy. We also know that those of us who trust Him to save us will be raised from the dead, too.

Family Time Tip: You probably don’t need many more Easter activity ideas—though you’re encouraged to come up with unique ideas that really make it feel like a celebration!

But in every fun Easter activity, talk about how our Easter celebrations are all because Jesus rising from the dead is worth celebrating. That’s the real reason to whoop it up and chomp a chocolate bunny ear.

But we’re not Catholic. Should we practice Lent?

For lots of Protestants, Lent is still a thing. Some argue it can be tied to self-righteousness or legalism (if we’re trying to gain God’s favor, say, or prove our goodness). But done well, there’s a lot of richness in a season dedicated to prayer, remembering, and self-discipline.

In fact, many Protestants still fast, but not just be from food. This is a great time to introduce the “training wheels” of the discipline of fasting to your kids! Think of it as a spiritual life skill.

We choose against something we really like or crave for a little while so we can be satisfied by him—our true feast—rather than all the pleasures in our lives that dull our appetite for Him. (Like snarfing a bag of Cheetos before a 5-course meal at a snazzy restaurant.)

Rather than fasting being about our own greatness, fasting is a sweet offering to God: He’s the hero. Though God clearly says it’s worthy of reward, Matthew 6:16-18 reminds us fasting is about humbling ourselves privately before God.

Family Time Tip: Lent for kids could look like a fast from complaining, TV or movies, sugar or soda, social media, fast food (sorry, Arby’s), backtalk, even video games. It could mean one night a week, the meal is just vegetables and bread. Fasting chooses to snip the ties of habits that control us. It learns to appreciate the Giver more than our gifts.

To think about a meaningful fast, ask questions like, “What’s one thing that occasionally becomes too important to me. Or even masters me?” Or “What’s one activity that, instead of doing it, I could be hanging out with God?” The answer will probably be different for each of you.

What is Lent? An opportunity for your family to dive deeper

Lent is a prime time to introduce spiritual disciplines—prayer, fasting, remembering, simplicity, celebrating—into your family’s lifestyle and rhythms. You’re modeling and cheering on “lay[ing] aside every weight” in order to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

No, Lent is not an event enforced by the powers that be. But what Lent could be for your family? That’s your happy choice.

Copyright © 2021 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write On Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.