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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Remember the Fences

Every good parent erects a fence for their children as they grow up.


The fence surrounds the child and protects them. Parents do this for the purpose of safety, guidance and boundaries. The fence prevents the child from wandering too far off the right path and making poor decisions. The boundaries vary from family to family, but most moms and dads provide these fences to their kids. After all, their parents did the same thing for them as they grew up.

It’s the job of every child to tear down their parent’s fence and build their own

Yep, you read that right. At some point, the child must construct her own fence. It isn’t that mom’s fence is bad, it’s simply that every emerging adult must “own” their own fence. There are few more pitiful scenarios than a thirty year old who still lives at home and cannot navigate his own decisions, or worse, a man in a mid-life crisis because he suddenly decides he wants to adjust his fence. Regardless of where a child’s fence is located, it must be his or her own fence by the time they become adults. If they simply continue using a parent’s fence as an adult, it will likely get knocked down the first time someone pushes against it, because it wasn’t their own. This happens in college far too many times.

It’s the hope of every mom and dad that their kids build a fence very close to the spot their parents’ fence is located.

But most of the time—the fence goes up in a little different place. It is natural. Parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers must recognize this and control their desire to control. If mom and dad can move from the role of “supervisor” to “consultant” during this process, it actually increases the chances for their child to build a fence near and similar to their parent’s.

Three Temptations for Parents

There are at least three traps adults can fall into as they raise their children:

  1. Some parent’s fail to even provide a clear fence for their children.
    In the interest of being “hip” or relevant (translate that “not antiquated”), some parents never build a fence for their kids growing up. They don’t want to box their kids in or have others see them as “uncool.” Eventually those kids become brats or, worse, they’re influenced by every whim or trend that others impose on them. They have no compass in life. Today, millions of moms and dads neglect to provide a fence for their kids. As a result their children grow up insecure and don’t know how to build their own fence. They never saw one at home.
  2. Some parents continue to impose their fence on their grown children, long after the son or daughter should have built their own fence.
    They nag, push, intimidate, withhold money or affection to get their kids to do exactly as they wish. They want to remain in control of the boundaries. While I understand this predisposition—it usually comes back to bite both the parent and the son or daughter. First and foremost, it creates a relationship that’s awkward, built on manipulation rather than trust. Minimally, those adult-children become unhealthy. Most of the time, they become disabled.
  3. When faith plays an important role, families can confuse the parent’s fence with God’s fence.
    Stop and reflect on this for a moment. Mom and dad may say to their fifteen-year old daughter: “Be home by ten o’clock.” That’s a fair rule, but it is a fence mom and dad created; it isn’t God’s. There is no scripture verse that says to be home by ten. There is, on the other hand, a passage that instructs children to respect their parents. That’s God’s fence. But there is a difference. Parents must not impose or inflict a rule as if it were divine. We must not confuse our children by hinting that our rules are straight from “heaven.”

Because I’ve worked with high school and college students for decades and have seen the damage that alcohol can do—our family has never been drinkers. I don’t believe it’s wrong for others; I’ve just chosen to not keep liquor in the house. This choice is one I’ve tried to explain to my children, without them feeling like I’m imposing it on them as adults or pushing some legalistic code of conduct. Recently, my 23-year old daughter decided to keep some wine in the fridge and have a drink from time to time. I am now experiencing a new fence, as a dad. I obviously want her to drink responsibly. My hope is, she continues to see me model wisdom, yet at the same time, not feel judged because her fence isn’t located where mine is. It’s not easy.

The Tools We Must Provide

This is why it’s paramount for caring adults to not only furnish fences, then allow kids to build their own—but to teach them how to build fences when it’s time. We do this when we provide them with a handful of tools:

  1. Models. We must model a lifestyle we hope our children want to embrace. No words can replace an example. We can’t expect kids to live by standards we have not. And if it doesn’t work at home, we have no right to export it.
  2. Worldview. We must help our kids construct a framework that enables them to make good decisions. A worldview is a lens that helps them both perceive and understand the world. It’s a grid that furnishes them with the big picture.
  3. Critical thinking. We must teach our kids to evaluate the culture around them and measure activity against truth, logic and wisdom. This can occur in conversations after movies, news reports you hear, people you meet, etc.
  4. Principles. Finally, we must offer principles for our kids to live by. These are statements that summarize insights or directives and guide attitudes and actions. Here’s a shocker: the Habitudes series is a favorite in our home.

Here’s to you equipping your kids to construct some great fences of their own!

How have you helped students build fences of their own?

When we fail to help students build their own fences, the result is artificial maturity. Check out this video for one example:

Artificial Maturity


  1. Aaron Chavez on July 11, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Good stuff Tim. That is so true we teach them but all we can hope is that they embrace that and make it their own. Only then can it become a personal conviction.

    • Tim Elmore on July 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm

      So true! Thanks for taking time to comment.

  2. Anne O'Connor on July 11, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Dear Tim, The conference was amazing! Thank you. Our son is the same age as your son. He is making some poor decisions and we are having difficulty navigating this time. Your image makes me hopeful because it gives us a framework or mental picture of what we are trying to do by guiding him. Thank you for your work, It is meaningful far beyond worldly standards!

    • Tim Elmore on July 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      Thanks so much, Anne. I’m glad you found it helpful.

  3. Roger on July 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks for the wisdom Tim, it’s very relevant and simple enough to flesh out. Looking forward to meeting you in the near future. Have a blessed day.

    • Tim Elmore on July 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks, Roger. Look forward to meeting you too!

  4. Lisa T on July 11, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Recently, we had the first of our three children turn 21. Not quite knowing in what way we could show we were releasing her to “Build her own fence” I began to search for a meaningful way to show this, not only to her, but also for the benefit of my husband and I. For her birthday, we purchased a very nice watch we knew she wanted. Using the “time” theme, online I found a blessing for adult children, printed it on nice card stock with a “time” background inserting her name into the wording. Then, to signify it was her “time” and using Ecclesiastes 3:1, we gave her one of our family mantle clocks to signify those things she might want to keep from our family values, traditions, and wisdom – but encouraging her to formulate her very own for the same reasons you spoke of. Taking what she deemed important and wise and yet allowing her freedom to choose her own was our way of showing her we were releasing and blessing her on her journey into adulthood. She was thankful for our support and it helped us cut the ties that needed to be cut.

    • Tim Elmore on July 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing a great, practical example that other parents can use!

  5. Wendy Coll Leech on July 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Wow, Tim, once again you have spoken words of truth and freedom. Thanks. Our son, Chris, moved away to pursue an ice hockey career when he was entering his senior year of high school. Yep, he completed high school up north, ten states away from us. Heart wrenching.

    Today, at 24, he is a Pastry Chef at a high end Boston restaurant getting quoted by the Boston Globe. Does he follow everything I suggest or would want. No. So I am learning to let go and let him be his own person.

    And I ADORE HIM! Parenting can be the scariest and the most rewarding job in the world!

    Thanks, Tim. You are a great mentor to parents.

    • Tim Elmore on July 13, 2012 at 8:13 am

      I completely agree Wendy! Thanks for sharing.

  6. boyd on July 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Tim, continue to value your insights that resonate here in Oz. You need to come and visit!
    PS Just started reading Artificial Maturity. Again your observations, concerns and hope are reflected here in Australia.

  7. Liz on July 12, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    As a 21 year old student entering my final year of college, I have never been more thankful for my parents’ guidance and support. They raised my brother and I with definite fences, and enabled us to construct our own. I know that my parents will love me no matter what, even if they are not always thrilled with my decisions, and I know that my personal fences have not fallen far from theirs. Thank you so much for sharing; this is a reminder that we should all take to heart.

    • Tim Elmore on July 13, 2012 at 8:11 am

      Liz, it is always great to hear from students and their perspective on these topics. Thank you so much for your post!

  8. JOSEPH on August 29, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    in this very complex world, we need parents who can comprehend and anticipate the future pressures that today’s children will be facing when they become teens and our youth when they become adults…the fast changing world cannot corrupt the values planted in our youth when they can appreciate its advantages early.. i’m still single at age of 30 and im planning to have my own family and children someday…while working with youth leadership since i was 18, i discovered that parenting today is a tough responsibility than before…i purchased the Habitude Kit and do much studies on leadership and culture where our youth here in Philippines is moving…as i knew from George Barna’s research that phils is 10 yrs behind the step of USA and im taking advantage of this gap to prepare our youth than ever before..i hope that 10 yrs away was not shortened..thanks for your efforts Dr. Tim. im organizing my team to help high school campuses and universities with your materials…

    • Tim Elmore on August 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      I wish you all the best in the Philippines! Thanks for taking time to read and comment!

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Remember the Fences