Fences and Kids

When we were first married, my wife and I lived in the country with a couple of acres of land. I loved the room, but I hated the weeds. So, to find a cheap way to stay ahead of the weeds, we purchased a couple of goats—fainting goats actually, but that’s another story.

When the goats weren’t out grazing on our flowers and trees (turns out they didn’t like weeds), we would keep them in a pen that I built for them. I wanted to make sure they were safe and comfortable, so I built a 48’ x 80’ pen out of wire cattle panels (turns out they’re not cheap). They had plenty of room, hay (expensive hay—they wouldn’t eat the cheap kind), a nice water trough (also expensive), and wonderful views of the La Plata Mountains (priceless). What more could a goat want?

The goats, however, spent most of their time pressing against the fence trying to escape. The fence must have made them feel confined because all they could think about was finding a weak spot to open so that they could escape. I spent a great deal of time, and money, reinforcing the panels.

When I would go out to water and feed them, I would let my dog, Duke, come with me. On our way out to the goats, we would always find them pressing against the fence trying to escape their bondage. That is, until Duke would run over to them, barking and running up and down the fence line. They would faint for a couple of seconds, then stagger to the center of the pen—as far from Duke as they could get. Eventually, Duke would realize that he couldn’t get in and come sit next to me, proud of the way he handled them goats.

One day, the goats really hurt Duke’s feelings. They were trying to escape, like always. Duke came running and barking, like always. Only this time, the goats didn’t faint. In fact, they didn’t even run to the center of the pen. They simply stepped about six inches from the fence and bleated right in Duke’s face as he desperately tried to nip at them. (Poor Duke was never the same.) The goats had realized something important: this fence that they thought was confining them, restricting them, or otherwise robbing them of their freedom, was, in all actuality, protecting them.

Proverbs says, “Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul” (Proverbs 29:17 NIV).

The rules that parents put in place for their children can often seem unfair or restricting. Children will typically push against rules for the sake of escaping what they may perceive as a bondage. When they test the integrity of the rules that we put in place, a parent must react in one of two ways: they can allow the breach for the sake of pacifying the child and avoiding confrontation, or they can enforce the integrity of the rules through discipline. Both will directly affect how the child perceives their parent’s ability to be of use to them in the real world.

Children quickly discern authority in life. They look and experiment to see who is really in charge. When a child tests a rule in disobedience and there is no enforcement—no discipline—the child will realize that there is a weak spot in the fence. They will exploit it and continue seeking more and more ways to be free from regulation. They will conclude, logically, that they can bully their parents and break free from the fences than restrict them. They will learn that, as a fence, their parents are weak.

As they grow, a child will recognize that the world really can be a dangerous place. They will seek protection from the ones they think are the strongest; we all do. A child will reason, again, logically, that if their parent is not stronger than them, then they are of little use in protecting them from the real dangers of the world. If the goats could escape, then they never would have trusted the fence to protect them from Duke. The goats, and these children, would have been correct to doubt the ability of the fence to protect them. Let me be clear about something, this has nothing to do with the feelings that the fence may have for them, it only reflects the reality of things. This is not to question the love of the parent or the child—it only reflects a logical, biblical, and experiential truth. A child whose parents are not consistent with boundaries and discipline, will prove to their child that they are not strong enough to protect them in the world.