‘Pleeeease? Just this once.’
My mom never fell for it.
‘Elizabeth, if I say yes to you this time, then next time you are going to remind me that I let you last time.’
I remember and use this firm line my mom drew so often with our boys. She knew, once I knew how to open the gate to multiple-night sleepovers, PG-13 movies, or oversized Big Dog t-shirts (in all their clever wordsmithing…), I would try to walk through that gate again and again.
But later when I was old/mature/responsible enough to access some of those protected territories, my confidence was fortified and my appreciation for what I could do overshadowed my annoyance at what I could not. You see, fences and gates go in front of ideas and places, not around people because God created us to explore.
Humans are wired for learning. Decision making is developmental. We are created by God as intelligent beings, but that intelligence, as defined by knowledge and experience, is a gradual gift as we grow as human beings. We learn to and not to by trying.
Our earliest forms of learning are what we can and cannot do.
Wiggle and exert force
Touch and pull
Go: roll, crawl, walk
And it is at this point, that we, the adults, start putting up gates. Gates on stairs, gates between rooms, gates around pools. These are physical, literal, visible gates. These gates are designed to protect the child (AND often the parents’ sanity…).
These gates also teach. In this concrete phase of life, children begin learning that physical barriers set limits. The fences and gates in our neighborhoods keep some things in and keep some things out. They restrict access—access to what’s inside that gate and to what’s beyond.
Now that we are parenting teenagers, our boys are ‘big’ enough to pass through some of these gates on their own. They are past most physical gates, and now learning how to lift metaphorical latches. Their dad and I are sharing the location of some of the keys to the ones with locks.
When we think of gates we see in the world, they slow down access, especially those with locks. They require that we pause, consider what’s on the other side and how to access it. Unlocking a lock requires focus. Gates that we unlock serve as mental checkpoints as we pass through.
I like this gate metaphor for parenting because it reminds me of hedges from Ramona Quimby books of my childhood. These boundaries are permeable; we walk with our kids past these barriers while sharing conversation about why the gate exists. Eventually our children will have access to all the keys, and it’s helpful if they’ve already done some thinking with us and on their own about what lies on the other side.
We had an incident the other night that sent a signal flare right up to our parental listening ears. One of our boys asked someone on a video game, ‘Where do you live?’ His father and I exchanged quick texts, ‘He’s talking to strangers online. What do we do?’
We asked our son. He explained that while yes, he was talking to a stranger, he remembered the rules about never giving his real name or location, and this was a stranger he was paired with randomly by a computer; they had not ‘friended’ each other and could not find each other purposefully in the video game ever again except by chance.
He received access to a video game gate key. He demonstrated that he understood the spirit of the rule and was adhering to it in this new zone. We shared a calm conversation about our questions and reviewed the ‘why’ around talking to strangers online.
In addition to video games, underage drinking and drug use is on the front door of our home with two teenage boys. The gates to drugs and alcohol are myriad in size, scope, number of locks, and gatekeepers. This particular gate includes questions of legality, health, and a significant rise in consequences beyond sports’ eligibility or being grounded.
And this one’s a soap box for me. Whatever one believes about if, when, and where underage drinking is acceptable, I feel strongly that ‘the culture of the school or teens these days’ should have no part in that decision.
When we live as followers of Christ, we commit to that decision day after day, regardless of the circumstances and culture. We choose a rule of life and we stick to it. When we ground our decision-making in what’s right for our kids, we model making values-based decisions rather than temporally-based decisions, and that, ultimately, is the skeleton key to all of these gates in life. This is the pinnacle of maturity we hope our children take with them into life. So when we talk to our boys about drinking, we are clear about what is on the other side of that gate and why those gates are there, regardless of who’s partying in the garden.
So what do we do when teenagers plow right through a gate or hop over in the dark of night? Do we double down and raise the wall or add an extra lock? Our anger and disappointment in the moment might suggest exactly that. But when Jesus encountered sin (and along the lines of sin as separation, when our kids hop that gate without permission, there is separation…), he showed mercy. He spent a moment with the person in question and reminded them ‘sin no more.’ He saw their humanity, named it, and with ‘go and sin no more,’ he gave them a reset.
As a parent (and a human), I LOVE this. There are natural consequences to human action, and we have to live with those. And, when we are consistent in our standing at that open gate, looking in together and saying, ‘You messed up. Here’s how. You are loved no matter what. And because of that, these consequences are rolling out. But nothing about this boundary has changed. The expectations are still there. Tell me about that decision you made,’ our kiddos maintain dignity and recognition of their autonomy. Ultimately and forever, they have to make their choices.
We are beautifully and wonderfully created to walk our own paths. Teaching our children how to decide which roads to take and where to wander is its own beautiful adventure too.