Building Secure Fences

Building Secure FencesOn 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.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

Rules and Grace


When it comes to raising teenagers, when is it appropriate to give grace?  Can we teach the importance of consequences and still show love?  Listen to today’s edition of Parenting Today’s Teens, as Mark Gregston explains the difference between grace and leniency when disciplining your teen.

Special Guest: Tim Kimmel

Walking the Tight Rope Between Rules and Grace

It is not that we keep His commandments first, and that then He loves; but that He loves us, and then we keep His commandments.  This is that grace, which is revealed to the humble, but hidden from the proud.


One of the toughest assignments in all of parenting is the balancing act between enforcing rules and giving grace.  On one hand we all agree that kids (especially of the teenage persuasion) need boundaries, order, and consequences.  Those clear lines in the sand mark where we require respect, responsibility, and honesty.  But if all we have are rules, then our home becomes a legalistic training ground, where performance measures the amount of love that is given and received.

On the other hand, we cannot survive without grace.  No one is perfect.  We all have flaws and foibles.  Those flaws become more noticeable as kids reach the teenager years, so prepare to deal with mistakes!  But grace is the action of moving towards your child regardless of what they’ve done or how badly they have behaved.  However, if grace isn’t partnered with rules, then it’s like placing a teenager into a wide open field and letting them run free until they’re lost.  Rules are the fences that allow us freedom to live in comfort and safety.

So you can see why the most common question parents ask me is about how to juggle rules and grace.  How can a mom or dad adhere to the rules while at the same time, doling out hearty portions of grace?  Let me give you some helpful tips.

Throw Away Legalistic Behaviors

If you have ever said anything like…

  • “It’s my way or the highway!”
  • “You’ll do it because I said it!”
  • “As long as you live in this house, it will be done this way!”
  • “You will respect me; I’m your father!”

…then it’s possible you may lean towards being a “rule-enforcer” rather than a “grace-giver.”  If these phrases sound familiar, then it’s time to re-evaluate your speech and actions to incorporate more grace into your home.  Throw away the legalistic jargon that frustrates rather than trains or guides your children.  To give grace means to communicate with teens why a rule is in place, what the consequence of breaking that rule is beforehand, and allowing freedom in the areas that aren’t worth the battle.

When your teen received that golden ticket that is a driver’s license, then you probably enacted a few rules regarding curfews, who can ride with them, and responsibility towards gas and insurance.  But did you take the time to explain why the 11 o’clock curfew is in place, or why everyone in the car has to wear seatbelts?  Just saying, “Do it, because I said so!” only tells your teenager that it’s the rules you’re concerned with, not their health or well being.

Rigid adherence to authority doesn’t teach or change kids.  Grace does.  It demonstrates you care more about them than you do about the letter of the law.  Grace speaks volumes to the heart of a struggling child.

Stick to the Consequences

If there is one guarantee in all of parenting it’s this — teenagers will break the rules at some point during their adolescence.  In fact, if your child hasn’t broken a rule yet, check their pulse!  When lines have been crossed, teenagers need discipline.  But giving grace does not mean we skirt around the consequences.  If we look at the example of Jesus, His offer of grace didn’t negate the law or the penalties of sin.  He paid the price on the cross so that He could offer us forgiveness.  The law of grace works the same way.  Discipline and rules apply, but we don’t move away from our kids during that time.  We move closer to them.

Let’s say your teen does break one of the car rules you’ve put into place.  They roll into the driveway around midnight and try to sneak in, only to get busted by a creaky door or a barking dog.  So you take away the license for a week (or a similar consequence).  Now, showing grace towards your child doesn’t mean giving them back the car privileges after a couple of days.  But it does mean you go to them during their time of restriction and say, “Let’s go grab some coffee.  I’ll drive!” or, “Want to go watch a movie, just the two of us?”  It’s a constant motion toward the relationship, while upholding the penalties for breaking the rules.

Anyone who knows me understands that I am BIG on consequences.  But I’m even BIGGER on relationships.  As one of my favorite authors Josh McDowell wrote, “Rules without relationships leads to rebellion.”  If I was to tweak this, I would say, “Rules without grace leads to a frustrated heart!

The Harder Path

I know that for some parents with struggling kids, showing grace is a monumental task.  You’ve been hurt and wounded by your child and though you still love them, you have a difficult time showing them grace.  I understand.  Grace isn’t easy.  It’s extremely tough to give certain people something they don’t deserve.  But let’s face it — none of us deserve grace.  If kindness was given solely on merit we’d all be in a heap of trouble!  Colossians 3:13 tells us to “be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else.  You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you.

There was a young man staying at the Heartlight Campus a few years back.  He was generally a sweet kid; funny, well spoken, and kind.  But he didn’t deal with emotions well at all, especially anger.  One day after coming back from school, he got so mad, he took a baseball bat and started beating on my truck!  Then, when one of my dogs came out to see what all the commotion was about, and this teenager turned around and kicked my dog.  I was furious!  But I took some time to calm down before I spoke or dealt with the situation.  I realized that I needed to forgive and show grace even in this circumstance.  Of course, this young guy had to pay for the repairs to my truck and the vet bills for my dog.  And during that time, I let him know that I forgave him, and I helped him take the dents out of my car.  I made a conscious effort to move towards this angry young man, not away from him.  It was not easy, but it made a huge difference in his life.

I know that grace is tough.  But think back on all the grace you have received in your life, and pour that back into your child.  In the midst of disappointment or even anger, let them know that the relationship is still important, and there’s nothing they could do to make you love them less.

It’s a precarious balancing act walking closely between rules and grace.  We cannot lean too much to one side or the other.  But once we find the correct balance — when consequences are delivered with grace, and kindness is bounded with rules — that’s when we we’ll see our kids and our home flourish.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.