Teaching healthy boundaries - Safe Environment program provides children with the tools to stay safe
Healthy boundaries are essential for all of God’s children. Whether at church, on a playground, in school, at a friend’s house, or even in their own home, children need to understand what is appropriate and what is not in their day-to-day lives.
To help children comprehend what a healthy boundary looks like, and to tell an adult if someone violates those boundaries, is at the core of the Safe Environment training offered by the Diocese of Fort Worth. This training is taught at every level from pre-K through 12th grade at Catholic schools and in religious education classes or youth ministry at parishes within the diocese.
“Teaching them the concept of healthy boundaries regarding the personal space around them and with their own person is essential for them to comprehend what is right from wrong,” said Lisa Pilch, Safe Environment coordinator and assistant coordinator of religious education at Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls.
The program, titled Empowering God’s Children (EGC), is a very effective method of equipping all God’s children — especially young children — with a proper understanding of what is appropriate and safe, Pilch said.
“EGC aptly conveys the important fact to the children that they have a voice and will be heard. The videos they view are brief but provide a rich amount of age-appropriate vocabulary for their comprehension,” she said. “This program is NOT a church version of a health or sex-ed class at all. The common buzzword throughout the EGC program is ‘boundaries’ along with the knowledge that it is okay to set them yourself. The children are filled with an awareness going forward in their lives for their protection.”
Pilch said after viewing the EGC videos, discussions are held in a relaxed atmosphere among their peers, enabling the seeds that were just planted to germinate in a way that is beneficial to each child, and can be further developed as they mature throughout their youth.
“The children joyfully participate! It is a wonderful program to meet the needs of children at whatever level of understanding they may be [at] and send them into society with a wonderful amount of edification to draw from as needed,” Pilch said.
Sandra Schrader-Farry, director of the diocesan Office of Safe Environment, said the idea is that when children enter pre-K they will have lessons they can take through grade 12 and never have to take the same lesson twice.
“They build on what they learn,” Schrader-Farry said. “It’s a solid educational plan.”
Schrader-Farry encourages parents to ask questions or ask to see a lesson plan.
“By being transparent with the material, we hope parents will support the lesson plan at home and help continue the discussion,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want our children to learn what healthy boundaries are, how to speak up and who to talk to, and to think about what a good and healthy relationship should look like.
“We want them to engage in looking out for themselves and friends, and when something isn’t right, to speak up.”
Schrader-Farry said that more often than not, sexual abuse happens from within a close circle.
“Stranger danger is still a problem, but makes up less than 10 percent [of abuse cases],” she said. “More often it’s someone a child has a trusting relationship with.”
Adrian Garcia, director of religious education at St. George Parish in Fort Worth, facilitates classes for the youth. He also prefers not to use the words “stranger danger,” because often strangers are there to help — such as police officers, firefighters, and other emergency personnel.
Garcia said whether at home or in a public setting, the more knowledge youth have, the more they are empowered.
“You can say ‘no’ to anybody. Speak up,” he tells his students. “Never be ashamed … we pray it doesn’t happen, but if it does, just know you are never at fault.”
“They shouldn’t have to face an ordeal that could be traumatizing for the rest of their life,” Garcia said.
Cheyenne Marrinan, coordinator and facilitator of the Safe Environment program at Holy Family of Nazareth in Vernon, St. Joseph in Crowell, and St. Mary in Quanah, has been involved with the program for 20 years.
“Seeing the growth for us, it’s really been a great tool and a jumping off point to start the conversation at home,” Marrinan said. “We host the classes on Wednesday night. We encourage parents to stay and watch the video. We want them to go home and continue the conversation.”
Marrinan said it is all about protection, understanding, and teaching children boundaries.
“It’s great education for parents and children. It’s not scary; it’s good material,” she said. “Our job is to be an advocate for those around us, and what better way than to educate everyone starting when they are young. It teaches the child some empowerment of their own.”