Remember the Fences
My son Jonathan turns twenty this year. Recently I told my friend Steve about a talk I had with Jonathan about the life stage he’s entering—a stage that feels strange because of his transition from child to adult. Steve immediately reminded me of a metaphor our mutual mentor, Keith Drury, used that explains it simply:
Every good parent erects a fence for their children as they grow up.
The fence surrounds the child and protects them. Parents do this for the purpose of safety, guidance and boundaries. The fence prevents the child from wandering too far off the right path and making poor decisions. The boundaries vary from family to family, but most moms and dads provide these fences to their kids. After all, their parents did the same thing for them as they grew up.
It’s the job of every child to tear down their parent’s fence and build their own.
Yep, you read that right. At some point, the child must construct her own fence. It isn't that mom’s fence is bad - it’s simply that every emerging adult must “own” their own fence. There are few more pitiful scenarios than a thirty year old who still lives at home and cannot navigate his own decisions, or worse, a man in a mid-life crisis because he suddenly decides he wants to adjust his fence. Regardless of where a child’s fence is located, it must be his or her own fence by the time they become adults. If they simply continue using a parent’s fence as an adult, it will likely get knocked down the first time someone pushes against it, because it wasn't their own. This happens in college far too many times.
It’s the hope of every mom and dad that their kids build a fence very close to the spot their parents’ fence is located.
But most of the time—the fence goes up in a little different place. It is natural. Parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers must recognize this and control their desire to control. If mom and dad can move from the role of “supervisor” to “consultant” during this process, it actually increases the chances for their child to build a fence near and similar to their parent’s.
Three Temptations for Parents
There are at least three traps adults can fall into as they raise their children:
• Some parent’s fail to even provide a clear fence for their children.
In the interest of being “hip” or relevant (translate that “not antiquated”), some parents never build a fence for their kids growing up. They don’t want to box their kids in or have others see them as “uncool.” Eventually those kids become brats or, worse, they’re influenced by every whim or trend that others impose on them. They have no compass in life. Today, millions of moms and dads neglect to provide a fence for their kids. As a result their children grow up insecure and don’t know how to build their own fence. They never saw one at home.
• Some parents continue to impose their fence on their grown children, long after the son or daughter should have built their own fence
They nag, push, intimidate, withhold money or affection to get their kids to do exactly as they wish. They want to remain in control of the boundaries. While I understand this predisposition—it usually comes back to bite both the parent and the son or daughter. First and foremost, it creates a relationship that’s awkward, built on manipulation rather than trust. Minimally, those adult-children become unhealthy. Most of the time, they become disabled.
• When faith plays an important role, families can confuse the parent’s fence with God’s fence.
Stop and reflect on this for a moment. Mom and dad may say to their fifteen-year old daughter: “Be home by ten o’clock.” That’s a fair rule, but it is a fence mom and dad created; it isn’t God’s. There is no scripture verse that says to be home by ten. There is, on the other hand, a passage that instructs children to respect their parents. That’s God’s fence. But there is a difference. Parents must not impose or inflict a rule as if it were divine. We must not confuse our children by hinting that our rules are straight from “heaven.”
Because I've worked with high school and college students for decades and have seen the damage that alcohol can do—our family has never been drinkers. I don’t believe it’s wrong for others; I’ve just chosen to not keep liquor in the house. This choice is one I’ve tried to explain to my children, without them feeling like I’m imposing it on them as adults or pushing some legalistic code of conduct. Recently, my 23-year old daughter decided to keep some wine in the fridge and have a drink from time to time. I am now experiencing a new fence, as a dad. I obviously want her to drink responsibly. My hope is, she continues to see me model wisdom, yet at the same time, not feel judged because her fence isn't located where mine is. It’s not easy.
The Tools We Must Provide
This is why it’s paramount for caring adults to not only furnish fences, then allow kids to build their own—but to teach them how to build fences when it’s time. We do this when we provide them with a handful of tools:
• Models. We must model a lifestyle we hope our children want to embrace. No words can replace an example. We can’t expect kids to live by standards we have not. And if it doesn’t work at home, we have no right to export it.
• Worldview. We must help our kids construct a framework that enables them to make good decisions. A worldview is a lens that helps them both perceive and understand the world. It’s a grid that furnishes them with the big picture.
• Critical thinking. We must teach our kids to evaluate the culture around them and measure activity against truth, logic and wisdom. This can occur in conversations after movies, news reports you hear, people you meet, etc.
• Principles. Finally, we must offer principles for our kids to live by. These are statements that summarize insights or directives and guide attitudes and actions.
Here’s to you equipping your kids to construct some great fences of their own!