"Crucify Him, crucify Him!" came the menacing scream of the people of Jerusalem, acted out by half the congregation at a church on Good Friday. A 7-year-old, emotionally overwhelmed, burst into tears and was led out of the service by her mother. I thought, not for the first time, that some special services need to come with a warning label to help parents assess what their child is ready for at Easter. How can we break down this complex, mysterious, and disturbing story in terms our kids can understand, when we ourselves are often at a loss to grasp the depth of the meaning of this critical event of Christendom? Here are some developmental guidelines to keep in mind.

Ages 3-5: The Age of Fantasy

Early childhood is absolutely the wrong time to give realistic and graphic details regarding the violence of the cross. Preschoolers' budding imaginations can build such details into frightening scenes that keep them awake at night. The bloodier depictions are likely to upset kids and breed mistrust in the world. If you introduce the crucifixion to a 3-year-old, try using a cartoon-style storybook or a preschooler Bible to significantly reduce the emotional impact. Saying only that "Jesus died for you" might cause him to feel guilty. Instead, you might say, "Jesus died because He loves you and me," and leave it at that for now. Gentle conversations and softer sermons that emphasize the resurrection are appropriate for younger children. The key message should be, as the well-known song puts it, "Jesus loves me, this I know..."

Talk About It

Typical question: Why was Jesus killed? Did He do something wrong?
"Jesus didn't do anything wrong, but He was willing to be punished for things that other people did, which is why we love Him so much."

Ages 6-9: The Age of Questioning
Latency-age kids can tolerate more depth, detail, and theological explanation. Excruciating details about the nails, scourge, and so forth are still too intense for this age group. However, learning the chronology--Last Supper, Gethsemane, Betrayal, Trial, Crucifixion, and Resurrection--is a helpful sequence that begins to bring order to the story. A detail that kids can relate to is Jesus' concern for His mother, even while He was on the cross, and his request that John be like a son to her. Details like this serve to deepen a child's understanding of Jesus' humanity.

Typical question: Did Jesus want to die?
"No, Jesus did not want to die. That's why He prayed in the garden three times for God the Father to take away 'this cup,' or the suffering that was about to happen. But He was willing to die for us, to take away our sins."

Ages 10-14: The Age of Intensity
Preteens and teens are ready to move to a deeper understanding of the daily commitment of genuine faith. Children this age have a sense of the dramatic, and learn best when their minds and imaginations are engaged. Discussions, questions, books, and Christian services with emotional impact are ideal. For example, the Episcopal or Catholic Passion Service mentioned above, in which the congregation serves as the Jerusalem crowd, saying, "Crucify Him!" can be compelling to a child this age. One evangelical church features a Stations of the Cross Service, in which members of the congregation carry wooden beams to represent the cross.