Christmas has Santa Claus and costume pageants; Easter has pastel baskets and chocolate bunnies. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that began Tuesday night, has yet to acquire such a sugary, child-pleasing veneer.

During the holy month, many Muslim kids across the country exhibit a self-discipline not often associated with children as they aspire to abstain from food and drink, just as their parents and older siblings do.

While this desire to please God is admirable, Muslim leaders said, young people are not small adults and shouldn't be treated as such. Aware of this, Muslim youth leaders across the country are working especially hard this Ramadan to meet the special needs of young children and teenagers.

Children are obliged to fast only after they reach puberty, according to Islamic law. When they want to join in much earlier, it's up to parents to provide guidance.

"My 6-year-old refuses to eat her lunch some days because she wants to do what everyone else is doing," said Asma Mobbin-Uddin of Columbus, Ohio, a pediatrician and mother of three.

Many parents will allow young children to fast anywhere from an hour to half a day, as a chance to practice the discipline they will later be required to follow for longer periods.

Afeefa Syeed, principal of the Al-Fatih Academy, a private Islamic school in Herndon, said the prophet Muhammad recommended that children younger than 7 learn through play without the threat of discipline.

Between 7 and 14, they need to know that they are not children anymore and that "God takes them seriously," Syeed said. After 14, they are nearly grown-up, and adults should treat them as friends or equals, she said.

To translate that wisdom into practice, Syeed takes her older elementary students to meet and assist poor people in their community during Ramadan.

"At first, I felt I should shelter the kids, because they are young," Syeed said. "But now I see that they are learning about their obligations to the world, so they become less self-centered."

That sense of religious and social obligation was palpable during a pre-Ramadan discussion with fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders at Al-Fatih Academy. All 10 students said they planned to fast every day, from sunrise to sunset, just like adults.

"I want to feel how poor people do when they don't have food," said Yusuf Al-Barzinji, 11.

Muslims must abstain from food, drink, intimate relations and cigarettes during the fast, and they also are urged to avoid getting angry.

For Aisha Farouq, 10, fasting means working hard not to fight with her brother.

"It's a test of my patience," she said. Aisha also said she hopes to read the entire Koran -- more than 6,000 verses -- this month.

For teenagers, who often have rigorous academic and athletic schedules at high school, Ramadan brings greater challenges, requiring students to dig deeper into their faith.

Uneeb Qureshi, a junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, said that fasting not only makes it difficult to concentrate on tests but also hurts him as an athlete when he competes at track meets.

Some Muslim teenagers choose to break their fasts to compete in sporting events. But Qureshi said he accepts the hardship.

"It's my duty, and I just have to live with it. I imagine how it is for people who have no choice, because they have nothing to eat," Qureshi said.

The commitment many young people want to bring to the holy month often is not matched by youth-centered programming at mosques.

"Sometimes adults forget about children because they are just thinking about themselves," said Bambade Abdullah, principal of the Chicago Metropolitan Education Center, a private school that primarily serves Muslim students.

Special evening prayers during Ramadan -- which involve long recitations of the Koran, and sermons interpreting those passages -- can be boring for young people, Abdullah said. "Adults explain the Koran from their own point of view," she said.

At her mosque in Chicago, young people will gather once a week during Ramadan with the imam, or religious leader. "They can talk about how Ramadan is going for them -- not just fasting, but dealing with anger and peer pressure, and all the other things that go on in high school."

Hossam Aljabri, a youth leader and head of the Muslim American Society of Boston, said that for the first time this year, Boston area mosques will host Ramadan evening prayers just for young people.

"The teens will lead the prayers and take turns giving the commentary in between," Aljabri said. "The focus is not so much on having long prayers -- which adults sometimes enjoy -- but having discussions and even contests to keep it interesting for them."

Chapters of the Muslim American Society in Texas, New York and California are organizing similar youth-led evening prayers this year, according to Aljabri, in addition to all-night, youth-only prayer sessions at mosques that resemble sleepover parties.

"The best way to involve kids is to train them and entrust them with leadership," said Russell Madyun, a former imam and teacher at the Sister Clara Muhammad school in Washington. "That doesn't happen enough in our community."

When it does, children often are eager to enter into the sacrifice of the holy month.

"You do something for the sake of your religion, and you feel good about yourself," said Ghazal Kango, 14, who attends a public high school in Rockville.

Fahtamah Arghandiwal, 10, and Amina Abdullah, 11, at Al-Fatih Academy in Herndon. Fahtamah says she first tried fasting for Ramadan in first grade. Amina says she will fast each day of the month and "learn patience."Hakeem Bisyir, 10, and Yusuf Al-Barzinji, 11, at Al-Fatih Academy. Hakeem says he will fast every day of Ramadan this year. Yusuf says he first fasted -- for two hours -- in preschool.Masouna Kochaji, 10, says she will read from the Koran as sunset approaches during Ramadan, "instead of staring at the clock."