As I walked into a church for the first time with my young kids recently, within the first two minutes of walking into the church, we were approached by four older men (who I assume were greeters) who persistently got in their personal space and touched them (or tried to touch them), even when my kids made it clear they didn't want to be touched. One put his hands all over their faces and another told my four year old daughter she's pretty and keep asking for a hug, even though she backed away and didn't want to give a hug. Another made my kids shake his hands and (playfully) wouldn’t let go. I firmly (and also politely) stepped in front of my kids and said, “No thanks” and kept my kids close to me. At another church we visited, one of the outside greeters got in my daughter's face and continually told her she's pretty and asked lots of questions while within half and inch from her face, and touched her head, even though my daughter backed away. The woman was so persistent that she followed us as we walked to the parking lot, while still in my daughter's face.
I assume all these greeters were pure and innocent with good intentions of simply being friendly, but as a parent, it's my job to protect my kids, and not all people are pure. It's important for kids to know they are the boss of their bodies, and they don't have to let someone get too close or touch if they don't want them to. Kids need to have healthy boundaries, and it's just as important for adults to respect their boundaries.
Don't neglect to train your greeters (and all volunteers) about respecting kids' personal space and boundaries. These are a few reasons this is important:
So how can you train your volunteers to respect kids' personal space and boundaries? These five things are important to keep in mind:
1. Teach volunteers and greeters that all physical contact with kids should be initiated by kids.
I know as a children's ministry leader, we like kids (hopefully!). It can be easy to overlook physical boundaries with kids we know and love, but it's important for all physical contact between kids and grownups to be initiated by the kids. If a volunteer does offer a physical greeting, the adult should ask permission first and respect the child's answer. No response should be treated as a "No."
2. Create safe-touch policies and train all volunteers in appropriate vs. inappropriate touch.
If you don't already have a church policy about appropriate and inappropriate touch, create one and put it in writing. Teach it to your volunteers. If you don't have one, a good place to start is:
Do not assume your volunteers know all of these are inappropriate. Some of the actions listed are often innocent forms of showing affection that many of us wouldn't think twice about, but it's important to have clear and firm policies that apply to all volunteers and all kids, even kids you know well.
3. Be aware of how volunteers are interacting with kids, and be willing to have tough conversations when needed.
Watch and listen in your classrooms, hallways, lobbies, entryways, and even your parking lot. If a volunteer is violating any of the policies or making kids feel uncomfortable in any way, be willing to pull the volunteer aside for a conversation. In the conversation, let the person know you assume the best and trust the purity of the person's intentions and heart. Show appreciation for the person's willingness to serve and friendliness. But don't beat around the bush or be vague about what you're saying. Be firm and clear. Tell the volunteer exactly what he or she is doing that isn't right, and give them the important information about why it's not okay. If the volunteer isn't willing to make changes, be prepared to remove the person as a volunteer or put the person in another role that doesn't involve interaction with kids.
4. Keep in mind that sometimes, it may happen with people who are not children's ministry volunteers, or even official church volunteers at all.
Be aware that sometimes the extra-friendly people in your church may not be those who are on your children's ministry volunteer team and may not have heard your policies. Keep your eyes and ears out for people who may be greeters at the main church area, the parking lot, or even someone who isn't a volunteer in any official way. It may be a well-intentioned person who simply enjoys kids and isn't aware of personal boundaries
Also, we aware that people from older generations or other cultures may be more likely to show more physical affection or have different physical boundaries.
5. The safety and needs of the kids is the number one priority.
It can be tempting to ignore or write off someone who you know and trust the person's well-meaning intentions (especially older people), but the safety and comfort of parents and kids is more important than wanting to spare someone's feelings. Will it hurt a person's feelings if you approach them and with correcting or admonition? Maybe. But with love and grace, the volunteer has the opportunity to grow and learn, which is something we can all hope for!
All of these things are a valuable way you can protect kids and volunteers in your church. Showing affection is a natural part of working with kids, and sometimes this can even go the other way, with kids who may not be aware of personal space and boundaries! I've had times where I've had to peel kids off of me when they've gotten very attached. Make sure your volunteers know it's okay to be firm and have boundaries with kids who are very physically affectionate.
Showing appropriate and wanted affection and genuine hospitality as we welcome kids into our ministries is a very important way to love the kids in our church, but it must be done with sensitivity and intentionality to help ensure all kids are secure and comfortable.
Feel free to share this post with your volunteers and church leaders and take this issue seriously. It could make the difference for kids and families staying at your church and hearing the gospel.
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Children are a Gift
kidmin leader, mother, and servant of the Lord.
These are the views of Lynne Howard, and are not necessarily the views and opinions of any church.