Building Secure Fences
On our sprawling Heartlight Texas campus, we have a number of beautiful horses. It’s amazing to see the teens in our program connect with these animals in meaningful ways. Even a so-called “bad” kid will gladly ride, care for, and love the horses. In the course of working with teens and horses, I have come to realize that both have at least one thing in common: a desperate need for fences.
A corral makes a timid horse feel safe and secure. It lets them know they are protected and cared for. It keeps wild animals from coming in and keeps a horse from wandering off into the Texas landscape and finding itself in critical danger. In much the same way, kids need fences. Loving boundaries let kids know where they are, who they are, and what they can do. It may sound strange, but it’s only within the confines of boundaries that a child is actually free!
My horses aren’t able put up the fences they need by themselves, and neither can our teens. They need Mom and Dad to set clear, defined and appropriate borders for them. Let me share some ideas for how you can build these fences around your home and family.
Boundaries versus Rules
The first question parents ask is, “What is the difference between rules and boundaries?” Practically, there is only a slight difference. You could swap boundaries for rules almost interchangeably. But here is where I make a distinction: Rules are about restriction. Boundaries are about value.
When you take the time to set limitations for your child, you are demonstrating that they are valued. If I didn’t care for my horses, I wouldn’t bother putting up a fence. They could run away, get lost or attacked by wild animals—who cares? But since I love and value my horses, I work to put up barriers to steer them away from what could hurt them. If I would do that for a horse, how much more should I do that for a precious and treasured teen? Proper boundaries make a child realize, “I am safe. I am valued. I am protected.” When setting up new boundaries in your home or reinforcing old ones, share this with your teen. Let them know that it’s not to keep them subservient. You are employing these fences because you love them and want to keep them from harm.
Start with Yourself
Driving that first stake in your family’s fence begins with you. First identify those areas where you feel disrespected or used. And then, model for your child how to set up proper boundaries in your life. We may feel that as parents, we need to answer every call and fly to every rescue. But this shouldn’t be the case. There is nothing selfish about putting up fences to protect your health, marriage and sanity. You don’t have to say yes to every request. You don’t have to do everything around the house. You don’t have to act as your kid’s emotional punching bag. Show them what it means to build healthy boundaries.
You could start by telling your teen, “I am not going to pick up your laundry and wash it for you anymore. You are capable of bringing it down and washing it yourself.” If privacy is an issue, you can say, “My bedroom is off limits. You can come in when invited, but if the door is closed that means stay out!” Maybe respect and courtesy is a boundary that needs to be strengthened. Sit down with your child and explain, “I’m not going to let you dump on me when you get home from school anymore. I enjoy talking with you, but you’re not allowed to say hurtful things, yell at me, or call me names anymore.”
What’s that line from the movie Field of Dreams? “If you build it, they will come.” When it comes to boundaries, “If you build it, your teens will follow.” Start putting up fences in your life, and your family will follow suit.
Respect Other Boundaries
This next step takes discernment, but it goes a long way in helping you and your teen establish good fences. Just like you want your child to respect your boundaries, you in turn have to honor theirs as well. Now, this doesn’t mean we stop being parents. We reserve the right to check phones, look up web history and search backpacks if there is sufficient cause. But Mom and Dad, toe the line between being a good parent and trespassing over fences. Respect the privacy of your teen’s room or space. Allow them to vent and be emotional if the conversation remains respectful. As your teen proves they can be responsible, slowly back off snooping on them. Reward their behavior with a growing level of space around their lives. Widen the fence posts as your children mature. Your teen will thank you for it.
Enforce the Consequences
When you set up fences around yourself and around your home, you have to keep teens accountable to stay within those parameters. If they go outside those boundaries, be clear and follow through with the consequences. In homes where mom and dad live apart, sometimes one parent will make up for turmoil by giving a child free rein. Perhaps they feel guilty, so they make up for it by giving a child a free pass to do whatever they want. But this kind of license is ultimately damaging to a teen’s wellbeing.
I was talking with a student the other day, a bright and fun girl, who came to Heartlight to work on some relational problems with her guardians. Her uncle had raised some much-needed boundaries, and she rebelled against them. But after talking and working through these issues, this girl told me, “I realize that by rebelling I was putting myself in danger. I know now why those rules are so important. They are there to protect me!”
Hang in there, Mom and Dad. Those boundaries you put up are needed. Sometimes my horses kick against their corral and I have to spend some time fixing them up and calming the animals down. But in time, the horses learn to appreciate the fence. And when your son or daughter becomes a responsible adult, they will look back and thank you for the boundaries in their life.
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