A common goal for parishes and schools is to create a healthy environment where children and families thrive. Preventing bullying is a key element to providing a safe and secure community. There are life-skills and patterns of behavior we can practice in order to strengthen our everyday commitment to healthy relating. When members know and agree to social norms of a loving Christian community, we provide an optimal environment for living, learning, and praying together.
Board games and sports activities are good examples of training children in the values of playing by the rules within set boundaries. When players abide by the rules of the game, the play is considered “fair.” Children delight in learning how to play by the rules, testing the boundaries in safe ways, and experiencing the consequences of mistakes and “foul balls.”
There are social and interpersonal boundaries as well. Sometimes these may seem harder to identify than the lines painted on a checkerboard or basketball court. On a checkerboard, the boundary lines and the moves are very simple. Once you learn the rules, fair play is pretty evident; when a player makes a wrong move, their opponent will be quick to say, “Hey, you can’t do that!” This challenges the opponent to reverse their false move and return back to fair play.
In personal relationships, boundary lines are much more complex. Plus, some people have learned different patterns of behavior and may have different social expectations. Much of childhood is a process of learning how we can find successful ways to function within the social and cultural norms of our community.
Coach Children on the Benefits of Healthy Relating
Adults have an important role in helping children learn and experience healthy boundaries. And, like a coach, they have an opportunity to challenge students to practice skills of healthy relating. For example, many catechists and teachers begin the year with a “classroom contract of behavior.” Take the opportunity to make this a living document in the classroom, and bring it out on a regular basis. Together with your students, sit down and discuss how your class is functioning within the boundaries of the agreement. Do members feel respect? What are ways to make the contract easier to follow? What changes need to be made, or is it all working pretty well?
Helping children to identify the way to signal when someone has “crossed the line” is an essential piece of healthy relating, as well as having a plan of response. How do we respond in a loving and forgiving way to help restore relationships when boundaries have been crossed?
In sports and games, we need to practice, practice, practice to improve skills and develop mastery. So too with children and social skills:
- Practice conscious listening in pairs.
- Practice saying, “Please” and “Thank You.”
- Write journal entries on what it means to be a good friend.
- Practice greeting each other in the morning.
- See if you can “catch” each other smiling throughout the day.
- Role-play common playground scenarios so children can experience different outcomes based on what people say, or how they react to conflict.
- Practice serving and being served.
- Invite children to pray for each other.
- Encourage ways to live Gospel values like patience, respect, courage, reconciliation, and justice in the classroom, on the playground, and at home.
Creating an Environment with Healthy Boundaries
When we strengthen our community and provide a healthy environment, it is easier to identify conflict and resolve bullying problems before they go too far. Having a response plan is essential to creating stable social interactions. When members know and agree to social norms of a loving Christian community, we provide an optimal environment for living, learning, and praying together.
Highlight the Positive
Good experiences strengthen healthy bonds and draw attention to the positive aspects of your classroom relationships. Help children internalize the good feelings of living in a healthy environment by asking them to reflect upon these questions:
- How does it feel when a friend or classmate does something nice for you?
- Can you think of a time when someone’s care helped you to feel good?
- What does it feel like when you are affirmed by your friends and get positive attention?
- What can you do to help create a healthy environment?
Identifying everyone’s strengths helps members of the group appreciate one another. However, it is also important to acknowledge when behavior is destructive in order to work through the “false moves” and bring the environment back into fair play.
The beauty of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is that it helps us to clearly identify the right relationship. It helps children know everyone makes mistakes. We all have our moments of weakness. And, instead of staying in our weakness, through the sacrament we receive God’s mercy and loving forgiveness. Once we examine our conscience and know where we have fallen short, we then have the opportunity to reconcile, to make things right and restore relationships with God, others, and ourselves.
Did you ever notice when children receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation there is an air of happiness? Everyone loves to begin again with a clean slate.
God wants all of creation to live in a right relationship. As adults we can help set up healthy boundaries in our classrooms and in our homes so we can all identify healthy relating. By having the intention, and practicing live-giving patterns of relating, we equip children with essential life skills to function successfully with their family, friends, and the world.
RCL Benziger’s Family Life is a helpful resource to provide a safe and healthy environment. It is also a comprehensive moral catechesis for families. Family Life is designed to complement religious education and strengthen Catholic identity in your school or parish. This best-selling program presents the teachings of the Church with clarity, and offers unparalleled support for Catholic families!
Mary A. DuQuaine started working in professional church ministry in 1993, she worked in the Archdioceses of Milwaukee and Chicago. She earned a Master of Theology Degree from Catholic Theological Union as a Bernardin Scholar where she specialized in Spirituality and Ethics. She is the author of several books on liturgical catechesis and spirituality.