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It was a peaceful Saturday morning. Dew glistened on freshly cut grass. The fall chill whispered warnings of winter. A bird warbled … then dove for cover as a screaming throng of 4-year-olds, arms and legs flailing like wind socks in a hurricane, chased after a large black-and-white ball.

So much for tranquility.

Still, you haven't lived until you've seen an "organized" pee-wee soccer game. It's like watching ants swarm a Raisinette and drag it toward their hole but without the same spirit of cooperation. Madness. Chaos. Thank goodness for the adults' dedication to enforcing something vaguely resembling rules. Sort of.

Although the coaches had marked off boundaries to indicate where the ball had left the field of play, they let action continue even after kids had dribbled it two, four, six feet outside the lines. I kept waiting for a whistle. These were not boundaries; they were suggestions. No doubt the children went past the markers thinking, "When am I going to have to stop and turn around?" Even preschoolers know a white, chalky sideline when they've crossed one. But in an attempt to be gracious and keep from having to stop play every 15 seconds, the adult leadership gave them extra latitude, figuring, "They'll learn to play by the rules later."

I fear some adults may be sending kids similarly confusing signals about everything from dating and partying to choosing entertainment. When is "out of bounds" really out of bounds? Do young people know? And are there consequences for crossing the line?

In Focus on the Family's Parents' Guide to the Spiritual Mentoring of Teens, youth expert Joe White tells of a rebellious 17-year-old girl whose parents rarely disciplined her as a child. If a school official or friend criticized her, Mom and Dad rushed to her defense. Her parents' rules for dating were wishy-washy, so the girl dove headfirst into relationships at the age of 14, and had a steady boyfriend a year later. At 16 she got a car, and made breaking her midnight curfew a habit. She became sexually active, drank compulsively and got into drugs. Her life was a mess.

Why didn't her parents blow the whistle when she crossed the line? Were they afraid of interrupting her fun? Did they figure she'd learn the rules later? Or, after laying down that chalky sideline, did they second-guess themselves and wonder if it was in the right place? I'm not sure it matters. The fact remains that they created boundaries, then failed to enforce them. Their unwillingness to stop play and administer consequences for going out of bounds abetted their daughter's self-destruction.

As Joe White concluded, "She, like all kids, preached one message to her parents' increasingly deafened ears: 'I know your boundaries. What I want to find out is, how serious are you about them?' … Kids long for rules. They cry out for parents who will enforce those rules with fairness, firmness and forthrightness. Their cries can be heard in the keg parties, the bedrooms and the dance clubs."

I often get letters from teenagers who are eager to follow Christ yet are just as committed to their favorite secular entertainment. They ask me questions such as, How much profanity does a movie need to have before it's wrong to watch it? When listening to a hip-hop CD, how much sexuality is unhealthy? Or, How many hours can a person spend playing gory point-and-shoot video games before it's a problem? Deep inside they know a sideline exists. They want their fun, but they also want us to care enough to protect them from themselves and hold them accountable. Our kids are asking us, "How far out of bounds is really out of bounds?"

The answer is as close as the list of virtues in Philippians 4:8. Or explore Galatians 5:19-26, which clearly distinguishes between acts of the sinful nature and the fruits of the spirit. If you're trying to establish logical, loving limits in your home, let Scripture help. If you've already drawn boundaries, be sure to enforce them. Your children are watching … and waiting for the whistle.

Published July 2010