Editor’s note: Missioner Tim Shelgren reflects on maintaining healthy boundaries with youth who long for love and affection. 

As a missioner serving children over the past eighteen months, I have been introduced to a very real problem. Not only in Jamaica, but also in America and around the world, child abuse has become a common crime. Hence, to avoid accusation, teachers and other professionals who work directly with children have stopped hugging and/or touching children altogether.

Though caution, of course, is a must, many children are clearly suffering from lack of affection. I recognized this fact when I first arrived in Jamaica. At that time, the children I met would literally grab and hug me every single time they saw me. They could not keep their hands off my Caucasian hair, and they sat hip-to-hip/elbow-to-elbow with me when we worked on academic projects in the classroom.

Slowly, I have trained the children to be less aggressive in their desire–to say it bluntly–to climb all over me. Personally, I feel much safer now. However, as a Franciscan lay missioner whose primary goal is to develop relationships, I often feel bad. I want the children to know that I care about them. Though I am always gentle, physically pushing them away can send the opposite message. 

Along with the world’s teachers and all others who serve children, I present this question, “How do we safely and effectively show children that we care about them? Answer: You may…

Take ten Deaf and hearing kids to camp for a week.

And feed them three meals a day plus snacks.

Teach them how to make bracelets.

Play basketball with them.

Show them how to design a T-shirt.

They’ll master that one.

You may try to speak their language. In this case, Jamaican Sign Language (JSL).

Or let them swim in the “river” on 90 degree afternoons.

Or let them make and cook their own pizzas outdoors.

You might go to the childrens home and play safe games with kids like Shanelle.

Or share jokes and conversation with boys like Ashanti who will never run around and play.

Providing year-round remedial reading lessons at school three days per week demonstrates commitment and consistency.

And finding out who can hold a handstand the longest is highly effective.

In summer school, the children will often jump at the chance to teach the lesson themselves.

And they always enjoy being told, “You are awesome.”

Exceptions… Sometimes the call arises when you have no choice but to bend the rules a little bit. English is eight-years-old. His physical movements, including eye movement, are 95% restricted. I can tell by the cooing-like sounds English makes when I hold him and prop and rotate his head that he loves to look around. And I love doing so, because I have come to love him.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus himself told his disciples, “Let the children come to me.” As followers and emulators of Jesus, I believe we are to say the same ourselves today. Clearly, the children need us.

Unfortunately, however, because times have changed since Jesus walked the earth, today we must be extremely careful. Our spirits, our behaviors, and our intentions must be selfless and pure. This is the approach, I have learned, that keeps both the children and the adults safe. And the one that all of us may use to effectively show the children that we truly do care about them.