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Guardrails are Good!


We are typically careless critical thinkers. Today, too often we aren’t thoughtful about parenting within the unique aspects of a child’s developmental stages. When I listen to the news or read articles that pop up online, there is a new trend that affirms, “Let kids decide.” Trends usually come as a result of turning off our thoughts. I hear these conversations more and more:

-Which parent do you want to live with?

-Since you don’t like your school, where do you want to go?

-Your gender choice is up to you.

-You can make your own decisions with alcohol since you’ll have to learn.

-I know you’re only 13, but you’ll have to figure out how to manage a smartphone.

The question that presents itself naturally, and for every parent is, “When it comes to my children, how much autonomy is too much?” Or, “How much should we trust that our kids know what they need?” The frontal cortex of the brain does not even complete its growth until age 25. This part of the brain is linked to judgment, initiative, problem solving, forethought, and impulse control. Though kids are still responsible for morally sideways choices, it is also imperative to consider the limitations of the brain on how a child makes decisions. It’s not a matter of letting them off the hook because “their brain is still developing,” but rather recognizing the need for adult guidance and discipline. In other words, adults must provide the structure for them to learn how to pilot a life well-lived.

Kids feel things first. Their emotions can turn a ship. To be sure, many adults run off feelings in the same way. But as kids are growing up, there is a need for them to express emotions while also manage emotions. As parents, we must remember our job. Their emotions are not meant to barrel over everyone else in the room. And they are not to be trusted as a reliable source for interpreting reality. Kids do not have critical thinking skills in place yet. They do not have life experience. They do not know how to identify what are healthy or unhealthy rumblings inside of them. Additionally, the obsession with our kids’ happiness is thwarting our position as the authority over our kids. So we let them choose, thinking it will help them “feel better,” or “feel trusted,” or “feel empowered.” We give them what they want at the expense of what they need. After working with teenagers for my entire adult life, I have been a witness to the surge of anxiety developing in our culture. Oftentimes, anxiety results from kids having too much power over their own lives and equally too much power over their parents. This is NOT to say that kids should be tightly controlled. Anxiety will rise with that too. But structure, created by someone older, is love. Parents are the rudder of the ship; they have been called into this role. Much like having a trusted tour guide through the Amazon Jungle. We don’t know what we need or where to go; so we look to our guide.

Kids are starved for adults they can trust and respect. Life is fragile and decisions feel weighty. With little life experience or wisdom, kids are daunted by the challenges. What kids want is a rock solid slab of security underneath them. It feels safe. Caring, even. Children can’t name this desire and frankly, they will roll their eyes and tell you, they don’t need you, “I know what I’m doing.” But don’t let that fool you. Little ones and teenagers alike, all want guardrails…human psychology and God’s design affirm it. The goal is that we raise kids who can be independent and strong in their autonomy, passion and purpose. Yet in order to get them there they need guidance in the formative years of their lives. It’s best they don’t enter college after years of floundering in the fog of loose standards and boundaries. Don’t expect kids to be adults before we have taught them to be.

The last week of June I spoke at Camp Lurecrest in North Carolina. My trip to Lake Lure would confirm that kids want direction, even spiritual direction. Life has a lot of unknowns, but kids aren’t ignorant; they know there is a spiritual realm. There was a line of kids waiting to talk to me as an authority, tears in their eyes, asking for help. They know they have a predicament of brokenness that they can fix, and they wanted to know for certain someone loves them enough who will rescue them from themselves. They wanted me to offer them hope. I heard them verbalize it. The temptation to join the masses in denial is real. But kids can feel what denial does to the spirit, and they don’t like it; it feels lost. It feels lonely. Too many adults have given them examples of humans without self-reflection. They hear from them, “just go with how you feel; follow your heart…find happiness, no regrets.” The subtle message that they are limitless, and the over-emphasis on how unique they are or how they can live in whatever way they want, is harmful. The result is disappointment and heightened anxiety. And though they can’t name it, they feel uncared for by those who are meant to show them the way, yet instead encourage them to “create their own path.” Today, this is praiseworthy and progressive. No longer is there talk about right and wrong. The word “sin” is toxic and self-deprecating. A predominant fear of damaging a child’s self-esteem and thwarting independence drives parenting decisions today.

But bringing in the fence line will cultivate peace.

Let me explain:

Boundaryless living is not freedom. A life with no lines leads to internal chaos. Friendships break. People are wounded. Addictions form. Words are said that break the heart. Conflict isn’t resolved. Bitterness hooks into the soul. Gossip breaks trust. Demanding that others do what we want isolates us. Self-absorption produces shallow relationships. Lack of self-control can lead to lots of impulsive regret. The truth is, we cannot do and be whoever we want. We share space with other people: strangers, family and friends. Boundaries keep us in the safe zone. Keeping boundaries doesn’t eliminate hardship, but it protects us from unnecessary fallout.

So tell kids “no.” Remind them that their over-inflated emotions cannot be trusted. Model out for them a life of humility and teachability. Show them that love keeps them out of the danger zone. Listen to them so they know you care about their thoughts and ideas. And with wisdom, guide them on the path of maturity. If we don’t step in as adults, our kids will live their lives out of a desire to please themselves. They will lack purpose and self-control. They will believe, like our society, “Every desire you have should be fulfilled.” And they will land into adulthood empty and adrift.

As Christians, our kids need to know that this faith actually matters. This faith radically changes us. And that when we understand the love behind the lines, we find the security that most tirelessly run after for all their days.

©2020 by Dawn Poulterer-Woods