When we teach the skills of childhood, such as riding a bicycle or crossing the street, we give children the training and tools to be safe. We provide a helmet to the biker and practice looking both ways before crossing the street. We want them to be aware of possible dangers without causing undue fear.
The same principles apply when teaching our children to be safe from someone who might harm them or make them feel uncomfortable in schools, parishes, or even online, said Richard Mathews, diocesan director of safe environment.
Beginning this fall, the Diocese of Fort Worth will implement a new program to help parents, teachers, catechists, and youth ministers effectively teach children to be aware of and to protect themselves from potential harm.
“Ensuring children’s safety is a challenging undertaking and requires more than adult awareness, education, and training,” Mathews explained.
To achieve that, Empowering God’s Children® (EGC) offers a different approach than the program the diocese previously used, he added.
“This is really a safety program,” Mathews said. “The key is to make sure that our children understand there are certain risks out there. This role, especially for younger children, is focused on teaching some basic, easy principles, guidelines, and simple rules they can use as tools so they can protect themselves.
“We want to make them watchful and aware — but not afraid of anyone,” he added. “We don’t want to generate that fear.”
Mathews explained that EGC works in partnership with parents, beginning with their permission.
“The Church has always affirmed that parents have the duty and the right to be the first and principal educators of their children,” he said. “We supplement that.”
Mathews wants parents and guardians to understand that the message and materials are appropriate for each age group “so we’re not using language or teaching principles to kindergarteners that wouldn’t be appropriate for their age and their development.”
He said the crux of the program is reflected in its name because it is empowering children to be aware, to say “No,” and then tell a trusted adult.
“Children need to know they can rely on their own sense of what feels okay and what they’re comfortable or not comfortable with. And if they’re not comfortable with something that was said, a touch, or a particular environment, they need to say ‘No’ and then talk openly about it with a trusted adult.”
Mathews said talking about personal space and personal boundaries is a large part of the EGC curriculum. He explained that boundaries change over time as children grow and develop, so the conversation with high school students will be completely different than with elementary students.
He stressed that EGC is neither sex education nor another version of the Adult Safe Environment Awareness training required of all diocesan and parish staff and volunteers.
“If a parent has seen the adult program, they might be concerned that this will be too powerful, scary, or too strong for a child. But this is not the same program. It’s a very specific children’s program that is age appropriate.”
If parents are not comfortable with their children participating in EGC, they may opt out and still receive materials to teach their children at home.
“We honor and respect that because they know their children better than we do,” he said.
The curriculum, which is also available in Spanish, is divided into four age groups: grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Though the same concept is taught every year, students receive entirely new and different lessons and activities each year.
“In the previous program … students were seeing the same thing three years in a row and it was wearing out the kids and wearing out the adults,” Mathews noted.
Mathews also said the new program will be easy to deliver because lesson plans are detailed, specific, and include 5- to 11-minute videos introducing each topic in a non-threatening way.
Lesson leaders and even parents may not be sure about how to introduce a sensitive topic, so the videos serve as an icebreaker to help start discussion, exercises, and activities.
An overview of all program information and instructional content is available to parents “so they can be aware of it, be comfortable with it, and further engage their child about it in conversation,” Mathews said.