Have you ever felt as if you’ve been in a game of tug-of-war with a teenager?
You’ve established the boundary line and said with firmness, “I’m serious. This is not a game!” Nevertheless, this once-compliant kid now angles away from you-with heels dug in deep. The tough-guy attitude communicates, “No way you’ll get me to your side.”

Tug-of-war. How well I remember the game! A line drawn in the dirt ... two teams on opposite sides ... a long, thick rope ... each kid with both hands tightly gripping the rope. My team struggles and strains to pull every person on the other team across the line.

Who usually won the tug-of-war? The taller, stronger team, right? Although “taller and stronger” would seem to be the winning combination, that wasn’t always so. The real winner was the team with the most leverage. Position and strategy could actually defeat a physically stronger team. Leaning at an angle away from the opposition with heels dug into the dirt would many times make the difference.

Obviously, kids want the freedom to do whatever they want to do. Yet boundaries are established limits-lines not to be crossed. If a boundary is exceeded, the result is a repercussion. If a boundary is maintained, the result is a reward. There doesn’t need to be another tug-of-war.

But how do you explain boundaries to a kid? Imagine a clever young goldfish gurgling, “I don’t like this glass bowl. It’s keeping me from going where I want to go and doing what I want to do-it’s too limiting! I want to be free of this bowl.”

So the goldfish jumps a little here and leaps a little there. Finally, with the flip of his fins and a flap of his tail, he leaps outside the bowl. Now the fish is free! He’s cleared the boundary of the bowl.

However ... now what happens to our little goldfish? Within minutes ... he dies. This one single act doomed him to certain death. Why?

  1. Goldfish need water.
  2. The fishbowl held the needed water.
  3. The boundary of the bowl held the water the goldfish needed for life.

Being free to do whatever you want to do may seem right, but that doesn’t make it right. As Proverbs 14:12 (NIV) says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” This is precisely why kids need guidance and why you need to talk with them about boundaries ... to explain realistic repercussions and rewards.

What do you do if you don’t want to be in a tug-of-war with your kids? Do you withdraw and let your teen win? Although you may literally be taller and stronger, kids will try to exert stronger leverage with clever tactics. Therefore, you must understand the huge benefit of boundaries.

The bottom line is this: When a parent establishes a boundary, the teenager will choose to either stay within the boundary or to go beyond the boundary. Realize, this means the teenager-not the parent-is the one who chooses a repercussion or a reward ... thus ending the tug-of-war.

My hope is that the critical truths from our latest book published by Crossway, Bonding with Your Teen Through Boundaries, will help every parent win-not a war, but a relationship of mutual respect. My prayer is that parents will be able to bond with their teens through boundaries-boundaries with appropriate repercussions and rewards, boundaries that instill self-control and success-and that, in the end, both will win!