Ash Wednesday, Toddler Edition

Lent table arrangement

Image Credit: Beth Holmes

Very rarely do I leave church feeling holy and peaceful. At this particular point in my life, the words “anxious,” “sweaty,” and “embarrassed” seem much more applicable. Parenting… it’s such a humbling experience.

Ash Wednesday was no exception. I barged into the noon service full of naive optimism. Lights off, crosses veiled, and tables laden with beautifully arranged clay, water, oil, and ash… clearly, this was going to be a contemplative and meaningful experience. My children would just sense the mood and naturally fall in line. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, what a foolish question to ask when you’re dragging a toddler and preschooler out and about around lunch time! During cold and flu season! To be fair, Big Sister was actually quite well-behaved. But Little Bro was a squirming, fractious mess. If he wasn’t begging loudly to go play in the nursery (which wasn’t open midweek), he was coughing and dribbling snot on all and sundry.

The service was arranged such that we had opportunities to interact separately with the displayed clay, water, oil, and ash before we all lined up to receive crosses on our forehead. A lovely idea… but unfortunately Brother’s initial clay-squishing quickly devolved into clay-flinging. Apparently, he was playing baseball in the sanctuary, a fact he announced several times. Loudly.

He is so very, VERY two years old. What’s more, his toddler behavior put my mind squarely on… myself. I started Lent in a self-centered stew. Why was MY child disrupting the meditative mood of the service? Why would he do this to ME? What is so deficient in ME as a mother that I can’t control him? The staff and congregation must think so poorly of MY parenting skills! Look at ME, ruining this for everyone!

What a powerful demonstration of the clay in my own nature. In contrast, how grateful I was for the silent acceptance/tolerance of the congregation. How grateful for the many moments on Ash Wednesday in which both staff and laypeople interacted so thoughtfully with my children.

And when the pastor drew the cross on my kids’ foreheads, my hubris and anxiety (momentarily) fell away. In that moment, I didn’t worry whether or not they were behaving appropriately and what people thought of us. Instead, I realized what a brief time I have to enjoy these little souls temporarily entrusted to my care… and all I felt was a deep sense of gratitude and wonder that God would share them with me in the first place.

To my congregation: thank you for helping me remember that He is God and I am not… and for giving me a gracious space in which to be so very, very human.

It’s certainly not the Ash Wednesday experience I had planned for myself and my family. But maybe that’s the whole point.



Start Small, Start Sensory


Hands down, my favorite all-time parenting book is Wendy Mogel’s The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it to folks of all faith backgrounds (yes, including atheists and agnostics).

Mogel’s purpose in writing is to “help mothers and fathers develop a spiritually based parenting philosophy that will enable them to handle the rough spots in their children’s development themselves rather than feel they must turn to an expert every time a child veers off track” (31).

A bit of background: Mogel is a clinical psychologist who, as an adult, has embraced the religious aspect of her Jewish heritage. She theorizes that many well-intentioned parents end up feeling dissatisfied and/or inadequate because they lack meaningful perspective and purpose. What’s worse, our children may experience our love as both oppressive and conditional because we’re so obsessed with doing things “the right way” to help them get ahead in our mainstream 21st century culture.

It’s the whole trap of treating your kids like they’re your greatest achievement, as opposed to individuals you are blessed to know… and I fall into that trap. Constantly. So I tend to skim through Skinned Knee whenever I feel myself getting sucked into anxious, competitive parenting mode.

Religious practice is integral to the whole book, but Mogel’s final chapter deals specifically with “losing your fear of the G word and introducing your child to spirituality.” She frankly and fully addresses the ambivalence many of us feel regarding religious instruction. After all, we’re struggling with our own faith, trying to foster an adult perspective that may involve both paradox and doubt. We don’t want to “lie” to our kids, but nor do we want to bore or confuse them with our dogmatic musings.

Clearly, children’s religious needs differ greatly from our own. Mogel explains it well, inviting parents to introduce their children to God the same way they would to a new adult acquaintance. “Cousin Becky is a firefighter who really likes chocolate chip cookies,” I might tell my kiddos. I need to give them similarly concrete measures for what God does and what He appreciates.

Mogel elaborates: “The medium is the message. Emotions are evoked and memories etched not with brilliantly argued points of theology but through the senses. This is why religious rituals are designed explicitly to appeal to our senses… children’s delight in the world of the senses is always waiting to bubble out, so religious rituals have a natural and easy appeal for them” (255).

Rereading this chapter helped me focus my perspective. As much as lectionary readings speak to my syllabus-oriented soul, I’m not at a point in my life or my parenting where I can truly commit to organizing our spiritual practice around a specific weekly reading. So for now, I’ll focus home faith formation on (a) incorporating more regular prayer into our home life and (b) celebrating the different seasons of the liturgical church year.

You know, start small so we can experience some success.

What are your favorite parenting books? And what rituals do you enact at home to give your kids a sensory experience of God?