Context Matters in Safe Environment and Child Safety

by Kate Wiskus, DMin

As a young mother I wanted my toddlers to come to know our Lord and love him and the Church. At a moms’ group meeting in our parish, I mentioned my concern that I wasn’t sure how to teach my children faith. Several moms shared ideas of things to teach like prayers and behaviors. Then a retired school teacher spoke up. “Context matters as much as content.” Unsure, I timidly asked, “What do you mean?”

She explained to me that context speaks to the conditions, surroundings, mood, and feelings, as well as an event or text. She noted that children receive and respond to an authentically loving and joyful moment with openness and even curiosity. But, she added, if they perceive me as distracted and distant during Mass, the children will act out and perhaps even develop a dislike for the church. She encouraged me to live what I wanted my children to learn. Finally, she summed up her advice with these words: “Enter the church happy, and hold your child or put your arm around her at all times. Whisper to her what is going on. She will hear your joy and love. She may not understand what is going on around her, but she will understand that this is a loving place that makes her mother happy.”

Setting the Context for Safe Environment and Child Safety

Ministering to and with children requires ensuring the environment is safe for them by vetting adults who are supervising, teaching, or accompanying them. We do this through background checks and safe-environment training. While this is crucial, it’s not all that matters.

Creating the Right Conditions and Surroundings

We must also ensure that the conditions and surroundings are welcoming, clean, and safe. We can’t teach the children that they matter if the environment smacks of custodial neglect. Give consideration, also, to the furnishings and decorations. Are they age-appropriate? If the space being used is shared with other groups, do the children feel like they are welcome and belong? Are there provisions for displaying their art or projects?

Establishing the Character of the Community

The adults must be welcoming, joyful, kind, patient, understanding, and loving. We can’t teach children that they are worthy of respect if we are not respectful. We can’t teach them that they have dignity and matter if we are inattentive when in their presence. Do adults greet the children at the entrance door? Do the adults inquire about how the children are doing or how the day went? When a child is experiencing difficulty, do the adults take the time to minister to the child and seek solutions or remedies calmly and patiently? Would a child trust the adults well enough to confide in them if the child felt in danger?

Modeling Right Relationships

We can’t teach children about right relationships if we are not properly engaged and visibly concerned about their wellbeing and happiness. We can’t teach them about personal space and boundaries if we don’t model those things ourselves. There is a poem by Edgar Guest that begins, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; / I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.” Are adults modeling discipleship and Christian love to all in their presence? Are the adults practicing the behaviors being presented to the children as desirable and necessary?

Delivering the Critical Message of Child Safety to Our Children and Youth

Within the context of a Christian community, we have an obligation to provide quality faith formation to our children, which begins with the fact that each is a person loved by God and deserving of respect. The formation must be threefold, providing for:

  1. growth in one’s understanding of and relationship with the Lord;
  2. growth in one’s understanding of self and others and developing safe and right relationships; and
  3. the development of conscience, the skills necessary for making right and moral decisions, and the strategies necessary to keep one’s self safe.

All of this is possible if we begin with a dependence on the Holy Spirit and a commitment to establishing a Christian context that will help children to hear our message.

Kate Wiskus, DMin

Kate Wiskus, DMin

Kate Wiskus, DMin, is an adjunct professor at St. Mary of the Lake University and Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, IL. Previously, Kate served as diocesan director of several offices simultaneously for the Diocese of Madison: Pastoral Services, Diaconate and Lay Formation, Evangelization, and Safe Environment.

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