How Should Children Fast?
Bishop Atanasije (Rakita)
Some say that children do not need to fast Wednesdays and Fridays and during the four fasting periods until they turn 3 or 7. Others say that children can be allowed to eat dairy. What is correct here and do children need to fast like adult Christians?
The answer to this question (or questions) cannot be based on the holy canons, for there is not one canon that explicitly regulates how children are to fast.
Children do not fast and have no need for fasting as adults. For they do not have sins yet, passions or habits which can be calmed through fasting, for which very reason fasting was commanded by God and was established and prescribed by the Church.
This does not mean children are completely freed from fasting and that they do not need to fast at all.
How children will fast depends on the piety and faith of their parents. And much wisdom and consideration is needed here that we not sin against the spiritual or bodily needs of our children.
It is appropriate to also pose the question: Until when is a “child” a child? We all know that childhood has many phases. The first is infancy. Then comes early childhood (2 to 3 years old), and then preschool age, then elementary school, and so on until boyhood and puberty.
For some parents their child is a “child” until they serve the army and later. Evidently, the same principle of fasting cannot apply to each of these phases of “childhood”.
In solving this issue there exist two extremes which parents are often prone to, at least Serbian parents. Either they will impose upon the child from early childhood a strict fast (as the keep themselves), or they will “spare” them of fasting until they reach adulthood or even further. Both the one and the other are harmful for their spiritual life.
At any case, when an excessive fast is imposed upon a child, it might cause a hostility to fasting
On the other hand, those who do not learn when they are little to fast and do not differentiate between the days, such will have difficulty to later adapt to fasting and will have to force themselves to abstinence, which is also very fatal. Avoiding these two extremes is truly the real art.
Many mothers bring their two month old babies to communion, and throughout childhood. The child that morning, naturally, was breastfed but that is no obstacle for the child and its union with the Lord in the Holy Mystery of Communion. And so the child grows up in the Church of God, being fed bodily at his mother’s breast and spiritually at the Holy Chalice. The child grows accustomed to the church ambiance during its early years, the light of the candles, the smell of the incense, the priest’s vestments (and beard), and growing older, they have a pleasant feeling in the church as they would in their own home.
Parents who worry about the spiritual life of their children will not wait for the child to reach adulthood and then begin to accustom them to fasting. They begin this gradually, from the time they are 3 or 4. Not because the child at that time needs to fast, in the same way that adults need it, but to become accustomed to it – to begin to differentiate from a young age that not all days are the same food-wise, which will remain a priceless treasure for them during their entire lives. What applies to fasting, also applies to the Holy Mystery of Penance, confession.
According to the teaching of the Church, children do not have sin until their 7th year (that is, their sins are not counted). Among our Greek and Russian brothers, parents take their 4 or 5 year old to “confession”, again not because of their sins, but that from a young age they grow accustomed to the one, holy and necessary Christian duty, without which, when they grow older, there is no progress in their spiritual lives. At the same time, to establish trust and freedom in their communications with the priest – their spiritual father.
Parents who truly make an effort to live according to the commandments of God, who make an effort for their personal salvation, led by an experienced spiritual father, will know to find the right expression and that golden middle (between extremes) for their children, their fasting, communing and the Holy mysteries of Penance and Confession.
Bishop Atanasije of Hvosno
Sveotsavke Zvonce [from the Serbian here ]