The Short Rope

The Short Rope

Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura

One afternoon, as I drove to pick up my kids from school, I listened to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s radio program. Her shock-jock manner felt caustic, though her counsel was often spot on.

I tuned in out of curiosity.

Boy confronts his mother


That particular day, a frantic mom called in because her 13-year-old son faked being sick so he could stay home from school and surf porn sites. Horrified, the parents “grounded him for life” and made him memorize countless Bible verses.

I winced. Here it comes…I thought.

Father Talking To SonDr. Laura, known for haranguing parents, spoke in a surprisingly calm but solemn voice. Essentially she said…“This could’ve been a perfect dad moment. The dad should’ve put his arm around his son and said, ‘Let’s go talk.’ He could have said, ‘It’s normal to be curious about the female body, but God has a plan for that.’ He could have taught him about what it really means to be a man.”

Instead, the parents freaked. They reacted punitively out of fear, and the result was damaging. Finding the balance between setting healthy boundaries and giving appropriate freedoms is only one aspect of parenting. The other is the manner or approach we use to communicate God’s ways.

Teaching morality is part of parenting, but rules are not about control. They are about protection and provision. Someone once said, good rules don’t fence you in—they keep the lion out. Yet some parents set the bar for good behavior too high, failing to see the dangerous dynamic of legalism.

Hollywood has relished the opportunity to slam evangelical parents. Bubble Boy and Driving Lessons are two movies that come to mind. But what happens when parents are too restrictive? When the “law” becomes more important than the “spirit of the law”?

Young lonely woman sitting in glass jarC.S. Lewis aptly put it this way:

The danger, he says, occurs when the law is taken so seriously that more law is added to protect us from breaking God’s law. “The list of things forbidden will increase, till to get through a single day without supposed sin becomes like an elaborate step-dance, and this horrible network breeds self-righteousness in some and haunting anxiety in others. Meanwhile, the ‘weightier matters of the Law,’ righteousness itself (justice, mercy, love, kindness), shrink into insignificance under this vast overgrowth, so that the legalists strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Thus the law…can take on a cancerous life of its own and work against the thing for whose sake it existed. The point is this: a dog on a short rope produces a very different creature than one given some measure of latitude.”

—C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms 

We all know the preacher-kid syndrome. Keeping a kid on a short rope produces a situation ripe for rebellion.

But what about the inward prodigal, the elder-brother syndrome of the parable Jesus told. The youth who holds it all together for the sake of outward appearance, while inside, his heart is far from God.

Down and  up signMy daughter attended a Christian university and found herself caught in between two types of kids: the “good” Christian kids and the “bad” Christian kids. The good ones kept strict morals but were highly judgmental of other kids. They’d turn you in to the “authorities” if you had chewing tobacco hidden inside your lip. Their upbringing bred the self-righteousness that Lewis mentioned.

On the other hand, the “bad” Christian kids almost had something to prove. They were irreverent and edgy, making reckless choices far greater than your average “unsaved” kid. The “haunting anxiety of legalism” Lewis wrote about must have reached a tipping point. They were acting out.

Overall, a number of these college kids lived at one extreme or the other. My daughter made friends on both sides, but was drawn to the “bad” kids because they seemed more authentic and less toxic.

We must hear the Holy Spirit

We must hear the Holy Spirit

Legalism is parenting out of fear. It’s also a failure to teach our kids to live by the Holy Spirit. Without Him, the Christian life easily boils down to a stiff set of rules and practices.

Left to myself, I was and can be a fear-driven parent! But when I pause and take a moment to consider what God is saying in each situation, I am more likely to respond in the right spirit. There’s no tone of condemnation here. Parenting is a tough job. After all, we’re living in a culture that would like to swallow our kids whole. The point I want to make is this…

Young woman smiling in sunlight portraitWe can’t impart to our kids what is underdeveloped in our lives.

The extent to which we are growing in our understanding of a Spirit-led life will invariably affect others—especially our children.

All the more reason to hear God’s voice.


Check out this article about 16 signs that show if your parenting style is too strict. Please add your 2 cents and comment below!


  1. As usual Susan, this is SO spot on! My dad was the wreckless type and my mother the legalistic. So the confusion was terrifying. One wrong step for mum – dad got told – beatings ensued. One wrong step for dad – the same – or being humiliated because of his ‘you are just children – only when he felt like it though. Funny thing was, every so often mum would crack. Then she would exhibit behavior far more dangerous than most non christians I know! And dad once confessed something to me that showed inside he was just as terrified of certain boundaries as mum was!

    Boundaries, boundaries, how important! But how hard to teach and how hard to live! One can both abuse and not use or know grace. But then, most extraordinarily enough, when we have abused grace we actually need grace to sort it out!!

    My own life is a series of crushed and mashed boundaries, some by my parents some by me. I hated boundaries – they kept you in prison and torment. But to accept Gods wider boundaries and his grace for my sin and mistakes? AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Its not black or white!! HOW does one keeps oneself safe? By trusting that God loves and forgives, and also that HE teaches. But that is a journey all of its own, and I am only at the beginning.

    One of the sayings I found, that absolutely shocked me to the core of my being. It made me realize why changing through Christ and becoming who we where MEANT to be is CRUCIAL, both to this life and the next. It is a quote by Robert Anthony. ‘We neither get better or worse as we get older – only more like ourselves.’

    The question to ask is WHO are we becoming MORE like? And maybe the answer to that question shows us whether our boundaries and choices are based in Christ or in Satan. In grace or in legalizm.
    And I tell you another thing. I have huge issues with Paul and fully intend to have a very long conversation when I get to heaven and see him. But one of the things he said I love. ‘Christ did away with the law, because the LAW IS A LAW UNTO ITSELF, therefore we live by grace, and not of ourselves, It is a GIFT from God. Supposed to be given to us by parents and elders who understand grace. In a broken world thats hard, but as in the quote by Robert Antony, the key is always seeing it from a loving Gods perspective.

    Yes, I know, some are going to think, ‘Well, we know its been all about love, but wheres the part of God we now need to see – His judgment?’ Morals in a mess, worlds so corrupted. I know and have read godly people saying this. Yes we need to understand and see Gods judgment. But one can only EVER see Gods judgment if one truly knows that God accepts us and loves us AS WE ARE NOW – Broken and sinful. And when we truly know that, as another scripture says ‘All things are possible.’

  2. I’m still wondering why God gives kids to us when we’re young, stupid, self-centered, and stubborn. Woe to the kids without grandparents in their lives. I’m a better granny than I was a mother, and I take that job/privilege SERIOUSLY.
    This is excellent, Susan. Congratulations to your daughter for valuing authenticity over legalism, even though it had to make you cringe a bit sometimes. Good for her.
    Fear-based parenting. There’s a lot of that. I remember my own fear, based on my spiritual immaturity. This article is a good reminder to older parents to stay in close contact with their kids and grandkids. Where else will either generation hear the mature thoughts we learned the hard way, and the grace we didn’t understand back then?

    • Thanks all for adding your thoughts and insights. Means the world to me to be in dialogue with you on these topics that I too have wrestled with in my adult life. Younger generations need us as we need them!

  3. oh my, that’s so so so HUMAN! the good christian kids and the bad christian kids.

    god must cry and laugh at the same time.

    i mean, he’s BEEN here!

    immanuel, our abba, our everything.

  4. This is a keeper. I would love for you to let me print this in my monthly magazine. This is powerful.

    • Marilyn… thanks! Yes you can reprint, but please give your readers a link to my site. Thanks! Susan