The story of Holy Week is not exactly family-friendly, but that doesn't mean we can skip the part about Jesus' journey to the cross when sharing our faith with our children.
"I think it's important for parents to share the whole story of Holy Week," says Kathy Schmucker, Spiritual Formation Director at Faith United Methodist Church in North Canton, Ohio. "Often children are in worship on Palm Sunday and then not again until Easter Sunday and they miss out on these important stories of our faith."
Mark Burrows, Director of Children's Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas agrees. "One of my mantras around here is, Children need more, and want more, than rainbows and butterflies… Without the Holy Week experiences," he continues, "the story is incomplete."
Adults should be mindful of how they tell children the difficult and sad story of Jesus' death, but children are capable of processing it when shared appropriately.
"Children are open to the cycle of life and the reality that everything has birth and dies," Melanie Gordon, former Director of Ministry with Children with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church explains. "We only need to make it simple for them. Talk to them in terms they will understand."
Holy Week services for children at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, are highly experiential. The Maundy Thursday service includes foot washing. Photo courtesy of Mark Burrows.
Taking pictures: "One way to engage children in looking at the cycle of life during Lent," Gordon offers, "is through a camera lens by seeking out images that help us turn to God." Rethink Church's Lent Photo-a-Day practice offers a Scripture-inspired word that you can consider as a family. When you see something that reminds you of the word, snap a photo and post it on social media as a way of encouraging others.
Donating coats: Holy Week begins with a celebration. On Palm Sunday, Jesus' followers cheer him as he enters Jerusalem, laying their cloaks on the ground for Jesus' animal to walk on. Schmucker's congregation uses this story as an opportunity to serve.
"We invite the congregation to bring coats to worship on Palm Sunday," she explains. "During the Parade of Palms the children gather all the coats and bring them to the altar as an offering."
In our homes, after sharing the Palm Sunday story, parents and children can go to their closets to select coats and clothes they no longer need. Donate the clothes and teach your children how giving to others is a way of giving to Jesus (see Matthew 25:31-40).
Maundy (Holy) Thursday
Water and washing: During Holy Week, Burrows holds special children's worship services at First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth. He describes these gatherings as "highly experiential."
"For example, we do a foot washing on Maundy Thursday," the night Jesus washed his disciples' feet (John 13). "Kids always get to pass if they want to," he continues, "but we find most of them aren't weirded out yet about having their feet ceremonially washed."
Schmucker also designs tactile experiences. One year she witnessed a special moment at a prayer station reflecting on Jesus washing his disciples' feet.
"It was a beautiful, tender moment shared between father and son as they washed each other's hands and prayed for each other," she remembers.
We can create similar moments in the home at bath time, while washing the dishes, or watching rain or snow fall. As the water makes everything clean, Jesus makes us clean and new through the forgiveness of our sins.
A family meal: Dinner on Holy Thursday can also be a teaching moment. Share with your children how when Jesus gathered his disciples for that special meal, he told them he was excited to be with them before things got difficult (see Luke 22:15).
Tell your children how much you enjoy eating dinner together. Remind them that they can come to you when things are hard, and that you and Jesus will always be there for them.
Acknowledge sadness: Sharing the painful and sad story of Good Friday with your children can be challenging.
"We talk about the day Jesus died, that he died on a cross, and that it hurt," Burrows explains. "But we don't focus on what people did to Jesus. Instead, we focus on what Jesus was doing for them—blessing the people, asking God to forgive, he even blesses another who is on the cross."
Burrows reminds parents that "children can't un-see images or un-hear words." He continues, "I work very hard to be honest without being graphic."
It is a good time to remind children that sometimes we feel sad, and that is OK. God is with us even in our sadness.
Legos and butterflies: One year, Schmucker taught children about grief by telling them about the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. She shared people's sadness at the destruction of the Temple, an image Jesus used to talk about his death (John 2:18-22). She also told them that people today write prayers and place them in the crevices in the wall.
The children then helped help her build a prayer wall out of Legos. When it was complete, they put their prayers in the wall.
Later they "took the prayers from the Wailing Wall and folded them into butterflies," Schmucker explains. "The butterfly prayers were then strung across the ceiling of the worship space for Easter morning" as a symbol of resurrection and new life.
We can set aside places in our homes for our families to write their prayers on scraps of colored paper each day during Holy Week. Then on Easter Sunday, the family can work together to make a colorful butterfly collage with the prayers.
After sharing the difficult story of Holy Week, your children will be ready to celebrate Easter with a new understanding.
"I believe it's important … that [parents] also share the Resurrection story so that children are learning the whole story, that this is a story of God's amazing love for us," Schmucker concludes. "The events of Maundy Thursday and Holy Week may be hard to hear and tell, but they are important to our understanding Easter."
This feature was originally published on March 3, 2016 and was updated on February 17, 2023.
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email.