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Struggling With Teenage Boundaries

It’s natural that teenagers want to break free from their parents’ boundaries and test their limits. It was with Jim and Kate’s oldest son, Mark, that the battle over boundaries was more intense.

When the children hit the teenage years, Jim and Kate realized that just as in the first years of their marriage, they seemed more on edge with each other. They were spending less and less time together. Their life, it seemed, revolved around their three teenage boys. Though they enjoyed being parents, they discovered that the teenage years were different from the other years—a lot different. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
One issue they struggled with was knowing where to set the boundaries for their boys. Mark, 17, Daniel, 16, and Hunter, 13, were each very different. Their different personalities, and their different ages, meant that the boundaries the couple set for them were different and in constant flux. 
It’s natural that teenagers want to break free from their parents’ boundaries and test their limits. It was with Jim and Kate’s oldest son, Mark, that the battle over boundaries was more intense. 
Getting ready to enter his senior year in high school, Mark began to question a lot of his parents’ rules. Their discussions usually ended with his father saying with great frustration, “End of discussion! As long as you are under our roof you’ll live by our rules! We don’t have to explain the reason for every decision we make!” This ended the discussion but usually widened the gap of understanding between them. Both usually went their separate ways to let the steam boil away. 
After such an exchange, Jim often retreated to his workshop and worked late building furniture. He often took Bullet with him. One thing Jim and his son had always had in common was their love for Bullet. They had brought Bullet home as a puppy the day Mark began first grade. Bullet was Mark’s dog, but Jim loved him just as much as his son did. 
As Jim worked, he looked at Bullet lying content on his pad. He wished raising kids were as easy as raising a dog. Most dogs and kids start out the same way: They both think the man of the house is perfect, and both are usually the first ones to greet him at the end of the day. Jim chuckled to himself as he thought about that. Mark had known for several years that his dad wasn’t perfect and had long stopped looking and running out to the truck to greet him on his return from work. But Bullet still jumped up and down and wagged his tail when he heard Jim’s pickup coming down the driveway. “Dogs can be more forgiving than people,” Jim thought to himself.

Jim ran the last board through his saw and cut out the shop lights. Then he put Bullet in the chain-link fence for the night. Several times they tried letting him stay out, thinking he’d stay close by, but each time Bullet ran the neighborhood. The next morning he’d have a neighbor’s boot or mop dragged up in the yard. The last time they didn’t shut him up for the night, Bullet was hit by a car. After a healthy vet bill and a lot of worry, Bullet healed. Everyone agreed that the fence served a good purpose. 
As Jim closed the gate, it occurred to him that they put Bullet in the fenced-in area each night because they loved him. He had room to move around, plenty actually. He had freedom, but it was within the boundaries they chose for him.

The next morning at breakfast, Jim figured Mark would pick up the conversation from the night before about driving the truck to the beach for the weekend with some friends. He usually didn’t give up after one try. But he didn’t let Mark get started before he put a little bit of his country wisdom to work. 
“Mark, I’ve decided that I’m not going to put Bullet behind that fence any more at night. In fact, I don’t like that fence at all. I’m going to tear it down this weekend and I want you to help me.” 
Mark protested immediately: “But Dad, you know what happens whenever Bullet’s left out. He’s likely to get hurt again. Besides, you know that Mr. Watkins told us he’d shoot him if he ever caught him digging again in his yard.” 
“No, Mark. I’ve decided that Bullet is old enough that he doesn’t need any boundaries. How old is he now, anyway? Eleven?  Now, let’s see. In dog years that’s about …” 
“Dad, that’s not funny. I thought you cared for Bullet more than that. We keep him behind that fence because we love him. I don’t want anything to happen to him. If you tear down the fence, I’ll let him sleep in my room.” 
“I’m glad you see it that way, Mark,” Jim said. “Last night when I put him up, it occurred to me that he was the reason we put up that fence several years ago. He’s got boundaries because they are good for him. We set boundaries for him because we love him.” 
About that time Mark began to see the spark in his dad’s eye. He knew this conversation was headed somewhere. He knew he’d been set up. 
“Mark, about our conversation last night—I want to remind you that your mother and I set boundaries for you because we love you. Now we admit, your boundaries are changing. The older you get and the more you prove to us you are responsible and can be trusted with the space we give you, the more space you’ll get. We know that you don’t like boundaries at all. But if we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t set any.” 
“Think about it,” Jim continued. “If we set boundaries for our dog because we love him, how much more important is it that we set boundaries for you because we love you? Soon you will leave home and go to college. But as long as you are in our home, we will set boundaries for you because we love you. At college, we won’t be there to set boundaries for you. You will be setting your own, I hope. We hope and pray that because you have had to live within boundaries in our home that you will have the discipline to set boundaries and live within them when you leave us.” 
It was over. Mark had withstood another lecture marathon. But he did begin to see his dad’s point. He didn’t like admitting when his dad had a good point. 
Surprisingly, he gave his dad some assurance, in his own teenage way, that he understood the point. “Dad, don’t worry about me. When I go off to college I won’t be like Bullet and run crazy at night.” 
They both smiled as they finished their biscuits. Jim felt good about the conversation. Maybe he had gotten through to Mark. He wasn’t sure. It’s hard to tell with teenagers. Only with the passing of time do parents usually know for sure. But Jim remembered a biblical proverb that was becoming more and more important to him as his boys got older: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6). 
After finishing his last swallow of milk, Mark tried one more time. “Dad, are you sure you won’t change your mind about this weekend?” 
A brief silence gave Mark momentary hope. “No, Mark,” his dad said. “I’m going to keep this boundary up a little longer. Soon you’ll be old enough to make that trip and many more, but not now.” 
Mark knew his dad wouldn’t change his mind. Though he really wanted to make that trip, deep down he was glad his dad had kept that boundary up a little longer. Strangely, he felt some security in his dad’s “not now.” But more than security, he felt loved. 
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.