It was a Good Friday service I will never forget.
I was perhaps eight or nine years old and since children in my church rarely joined the adults in the sanctuary for any part of worship, my going to worship on Good Friday was a very big deal for me. I wanted to see everything that went on in this place, so I shuffled my stacking chair out into the aisle as much as my Mom would allow and then I craned my neck the remaining few inches around the man in front of me to watch all that was going on.
Our minister stood high up on the platform at the front of the auditorium describing in vivid detail the specifics of crucifixion to all of the worshippers in attendance. In his hand he held a rusty railroad spike, pumping it in the air to give emphasis to his words. As he finished declaring that we, like the scribes and the Pharisees, were responsible for Jesus’ death he cast the iron spike with great gusto down the cement centre aisle of our sacred space where it ultimately landed under my chair with a resounding clatter and then heavy silence. For a minute or so I sat frozen in my seat, and then with a cry I ran out of the sanctuary and into the hallway where I collapsed in tears. I felt responsible. If I had not been so bad, Jesus would never have had to die. It was all my fault and until that moment I hadn’t known I had done such a horrid thing.
For many children Holy Week worship experiences and stories often include overly graphic images and theologically loaded phrases and concepts that are far from appropriate for our children if not for all who are in our midst. Never quite sure what to expect, parents will act out of an abundance of caution and skip church altogether during Holy Week ‘just in case’. Our families should never have to make ‘just in case’ decisions when it comes to participating in worship as a family and other church activities.
So, what will we tell the children?
We certainly do not want to skip over the significant texts that frame our journey from Palm Sunday to Easter morning, but nor should we need to place a PG-13 rating on Holy Week. We need to strive to present these complicated texts simply, but not simplistically, in ways that are suitable for all ages.
As we consider what we will say, we first need to better understand how children at various ages understand death and so hear the stories of this week.
Infants,Toddlers, and Kindergarteners
For our youngest children death is understood primarily as separation from someone they love. Toddlers do not understand that death is any different from a loved one going away on a lengthy trip or a parent going to sleep at night in another room. Even after being told that death is permanent, young children will continue to ask for and anticipate their friend’s return. Eventually, perceiving that the person is ‘all gone’, children of this age may experience feelings of insecurity, abandonment and fear. Young children should be reassured that they will be cared for and that the person who has died, while gone, loves them and did not leave because of anything they said or did.
For these reasons toddlers and pre-schoolers best understand and celebrate the story of the crucifixion and resurrection as a story of someone they love going away and then unexpectedly returning; the miracle is not that Jesus was brought back to life (in a young child’s mind death is quite reversible), but that their best friend unexpectedly returned to be with them once again.
Outline the passion stories sparingly for young children; they should hear that Jesus did nothing wrong, but that a group of people who did not like what Jesus was doing called him names and hurt him. These people had him arrested and he was nailed to a cross and he died. Don’t stop there; reassure young children that the story is not over and that it will end well very soon.
Primary-aged children gradually grow to understand death as inevitable and final, but do not yet see it as a part of the cycle of life. It is viewed as an evil and violent taker that might also come and take them away. In light of this, primary-aged children experience more fear and anxiety around death than any other age group.
While they know that death is real, six to ten year olds will also try and apply magical powers over death to gain control over it and keep it at bay. Do you remember creating rules that demanded you leap from the threshold of your bedroom onto your bed each night to prevent ‘it’ reaching out to grab you? That was one of those occasions you exercised magical power and reason over your fears.
Some children will ask for all the graphic details surrounding a death, causing some caregivers to provide more than is really desired or needed at this age. In asking, children are seeking to gain control by rationalizing the circumstances that scare them, yet adults may assume that because they asked they are mature enough to handle the gory details and may unintentionally increase their fears rather than allay them. Simple facts can be explained without going into the distressing details.
Primary-aged children are trying to reason out the meaning of life, heaven and life after death. They worry about who God is and what God will do to them. Some may also worry that they are somehow responsible for the death of the person they loved, causing deep feelings of guilt.
In speaking about the experiences of Holy Week we must keep all of this in mind when we teach primary-aged children and worship together. Keep violent language, imagery and dramatic illustrations spare. Focus instead on the feelings and love of Mary, the disciples and Jesus for his closest followers. Also keep in mind that the language of substitutionary atonement feeds into deep feelings of guilt and responsibility that cannot be understood or rationalized at this age, leaving children to wrestle, often alone, with a loving God who made his Son suffer and die not only for us, but because of us.
Pre-teens understand death biologically and emotionally, knowing it to be final and irreversible. It is no longer a person who comes to take you away, but is often the result of natural causes and is a part of the cycle of life. It is considered as terrible, sad, and dark and may still cause responses of fear, guilt and panic.
Death can also be viewed as deserved; rationalizing bad lifestyle choices or bad actions. Conversations and participation in worship services, studies and discussions help young people grapple with their grief, loss and understanding.
Middle-schoolers have empathy for the person who has died and worry for the suffering of family members and close friends as well as themselves. This is an age for hearing the passion narrative and considering ways we can serve in response to Jesus’ service to us.
At this age we might assume that pre-teens are able to handle the stories of Holy Week much like adults, but while they are looking and acting much older, continue to keep in mind the damage that graphic imagery and atonement language can cause.
As you plan for all the teachable moments you will encounter with children this Holy Week do no harm; do not ask them to bear more than is appropriate for their age and instead present the love of Jesus and the passion stories in ways that are simple, meaningful and life-giving.