Opening the Gates
About the Guest
The teenage years offer a lot of exciting new opportunities, like dating and driving. But a parent still needs to set boundaries in these areas and others, until a teen is ready and able to handle them. Susan Merrill, author of “The Passionate Mom,” encourages moms to gauge a child’s maturity before giving a child free reign in certain areas, whether that be using technology like a cell phone or video games, or stepping out on a date.
Susan MerrillSusan Merrill is a wife, mother of five, director of iMOM.com, want-to-be blogger, and the very imperfect Merrill family manager. Susan lives in Tampa, Florida, with her handsome hubby, author Mark Merrill, and two or, depending on the day, up to five of her children ages 16 to 22. On those days she happily forsakes all other responsibilities to run a bed and breakfast / Laundromat for college students.
Susan encourages moms to gauge a child’s maturity before giving them free reign.
Opening the Gates
Bob: As a mom, Susan Merrill is concerned about how technology is affecting our children and their relationships with other children. Here’s just one example of what worries her.
Susan: What I really get concerned about—as we age-down in social media and in having the world in your hand—and that’s what a smartphone is—you have the world in the palm of your hand—is particularly, with girls. I see them becoming very addicted to the drama. They can self-promote at any time on Instagram. They’re always—every time they are with a friend, they are taking 50 million poses and pictures. They are almost more caught up in posing for social media than actually having fun together.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, May 1st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll talk with Susan Merrill today about what moms can do to help their kids adjust to a brave, new world. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, years ago, I heard a study that had said kids today are asking two questions. They are asking the question: “Can I do whatever I want?” and, “Do you really love me?” How a parent answers those questions kind of determines what kind of parent you are.
If you say, “Yes, I love you; and you can probably get away with more stuff than you should,” then, you are a permissive parent. If you say, “No, you absolutely can’t do whatever you want, and you are going to wonder if I really love you sometimes,” then, you are an authoritarian, as a parent. So, which were you—permissive or authoritarian?
Dennis: Well, if you had to pick one or the other, I was more of an authoritarian parent. I was in there, being more objective, helping to draw the lines. I think—
Bob: Was Barbara a little squishier than you were?
Dennis: Well, I think she just got worn-down. I think, you know, the kids all team-up; and it’s six-on-one.
Bob: See, I was more permissive. The reason I bring this up is because we’re going to talk today about what permissive parents, like me, need to understand—which is the need to have appropriate boundaries and enforce the borders—keep the gates secure; right?
Dennis: No doubt about it. And our guest on today’s program—well, I want to ask her.
Bob: She’s a border guard. [Laughter]
Dennis: I want to see what—on what side she really erred on. Susan Merrill joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Susan, welcome back.
Susan: Thank you for having me.
Dennis: She is a mom of five. She is married to Mark Merrill—has been for 24 years. He heads up Family First® out of Tampa, Florida; and she gives leadership to iMOM.com® and has written a book called The Passionate Mom.
So, back to Bob’s question, “Which are you—more authoritarian”—
Bob: Do you lay down the law, or are you squishy?
Dennis: —“or permissive?”
Susan: I can’t answer that. Okay; so, I’m kind of fun-loving. So, in some things, I probably was too permissive; and then, in other things, I was more authoritarian. So, I’m split. How’s that?
Bob: Do you know what things you got squishy on and what things you kept the boundary secure on?
Susan: Well, so, I am an outgoing, fun-loving person. So, when my kids wanted to do fun things that I thought: “Oh, that’s so fun! That’ll be such a great memory,” I probably gave in more there.
Susan: On things—matters of principle or biblical correctness—I was more authoritarian.
Susan: For instance, we talked about the gates. People say, “Well”—think more about the gates as privileges we let our kids do as older—things like cell phones—but to me, it starts very early, like even choices.
For example, they are going to the zoo. Mom says, “Put on your sneakers.” The child is five and says, “I want to wear my sparkle shoes.” They’re in a rush to get out the door. The mom will say: “No, we’re going to be walking all day. You really need to wear your sneakers.” And the child says: “No! My sparkle shoes are comfortable. I want to wear my sparkle shoes.” The mother doesn’t want to battle. She wants to get out the door; and so, she lets the child have her way—small thing, at that age. The child is either going to learn and get blisters that sparkle shoes aren’t the thing to wear, or she’s not. Then, in her mind, there is just that little check: “I won that battle. I really know what’s okay for me.”
So, fast-forward ten years, that child’s been winning those battles. She comes downstairs, inappropriately dressed. Dad looks up and says, “You’re not going out like that.” And Mom says, “Oh, Honey, maybe you should change your top.” The child says: “Who are you to tell me what to wear? I’ve been deciding since I was five.” So, that’s a gate—a choice gate. What to wear, for girls, is a biggie now because what looks appropriate on a five-year-old doesn’t necessarily look appropriate on a fifteen-year-old. And so, in those areas, I was more authoritarian. I think moms have to think about that.
Bob: You say—with choice gates like this—once a mom says, “This is how it’s going to be,” she better not back down from that.
Susan: Well, I’m not saying she doesn’t have to necessarily back down; but it’s a process. For instance, the child needs to show that they are ready. I had one daughter who really likes fashion. Yet, she wanted to wear what all the other girls were wearing, but they didn’t look appropriate on her. Moms need to know, “You don’t know how developed your daughter is going to be at five.”
Susan: So, it may look appropriate at five; but if she wants to wear it at fifteen, it’s not going to be appropriate.
Bob: Right, but if you let her wear it at five—
Susan: What are you going to say then?
Susan: So, you really want to keep that gate closed as long as you can until the child starts showing that she can make wise decisions, and they start to understand. You know? “Yes, maybe that girl can wear that and it looks okay on her; but, I can’t wear that;” or, “Maybe, that girl wears that because she doesn’t care what other people think about her when she wears that; but I know what a boy or somebody will be thinking about me if I dress like that. So, I’m not going to dress that way.”
You know, friends, I think, are an early gate that gets opened. Child says, “I want to have somebody over to play—Ben—over to play.” You say, “Well, Honey, you shouldn’t have Ben. You got in trouble at school; and last time he was over, you guys didn’t play well. Let’s have Carl.” “You just don’t like Ben!” Well, in that moment, the child is using what he knows about the mother—that she’s going to feel guilty. Then, she says: “Okay. Okay. You can have Ben,” because she doesn’t want to be politically incorrect or say something bad about somebody else. But then, that child knows, “Well, I really can pick my friends and I know and it’s okay.”
Instead of the mother sitting down, and talking, and saying: “You know what, Honey, it wasn’t wise what you did at school. I don’t think you have the opportunity here to be a leader with Ben or a follower. I don’t know who is leading whom, at this point; but the mix of you is not a good thing. So, we’re just going to cool it on that relationship for a little while until you show me that you can be a positive enough leader for Ben—that you guys are going to make the right choices.” That works into, then, older relationships, ten years forward.
Dennis: I really like what you said about friends—you were all over it, as a mom. You’re finishing up the process.
Dennis: You’re about to be an empty-nester; but as you raised your children, you knew who your children’s friends were—
Dennis: —the kind of homes they came from, and to some degree, what they believed, and kind of what they stood for because you knew the principle from First Corinthians, Chapter 15:33, which says, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
Bob: But here’s the question because I see this all the time. So, you find out that your kids are hanging around with three or four other kids. You go, “Boy, I’m not so sure about those kids,” but they’re in junior high. Do you step in and say, “You’re not going to hang around with those kids”?
Susan: Well, here’s my example of that—and I have to say, “God gave me this so I would have confidence with my other children.” I think our kids really want those boundaries. This played out with my oldest in a way. She came home from school. She was invited to her first boy/girl party——she’s in junior high.
Susan: And it happened to be in a home where I knew enough about the family that I was afraid they wouldn’t be watched. The whole grade was invited. I said, “Well, I’ll have to talk to Daddy.” And so, finally, Mark and I sat down. I said, “We’re not going to let her go; right?” He said, “No. We’re not going to let her go. We just have to tell her.” So, we sat down with her. We told her: “Honey, you know what? We’re going to give you the opportunity to do something else. You can invite Elizabeth over”—Elizabeth—outside the school—so, she wasn’t invited. “We’re going to let you have her spend the night. Mommy’s going to do something fun with you, but you may not go to the party.” She was relieved. You should have seen her face.
Now, progression—so, we have Elizabeth over. They have a fun, little time. We make it a special little play date. I’m tucking them both in bed. Elizabeth was spending the night. Megan looked up to me; and she said, “I bet they’re all still there, and they’re having so much fun.” This is what I said, and it played out so beautifully. I said: “Honey, you know what? They’re probably playing spin the bottle. That means that you’d probably end up kissing that boy you sit next to in math. [Laughter] I know you like him as a friend, but do you really want to go to school on Monday and know that you’ve kissed him?” Well, she and Elizabeth’s faces were just horrified. They went to bed happy.
So, wanting to go—happy not to go—wishing she was there—happy she’s not there. She came home from school. She looked at me and said, “How did you know they were going to play spin the bottle?” She said: “I’m so glad I wasn’t there. If I had had to kiss those boys in my class and sit next to them, I’d die of embarrassment.” So, that, again, was a gift to me from the Lord.
Dennis: No doubt about it.
Susan: My kids really wanted boundaries. They were enticed to go to these things—mostly out of peer pressure—but they really, in their hearts, wanted to be protected from them.
Bob: And you played it shrewdly. It wasn’t just a, “No, you can’t go,” but you designed an alternative that was—
Bob: —an attractive alternative.
Susan: Listen, we have created diversions. There have been times when I have literally called my mother-in-law and said: “You’re coming up this weekend; right? Didn’t you want to come visit?” She’d go, “Ah, do I need to come to visit?” “Yes, we need a diversion.” We would call it a family weekend—“Sorry, you can’t go!” I’m okay with creating diversions for my kids. That’s the permissive side of me that doesn’t want to say, “No,” but really knows they shouldn’t.
Dennis: I think that’s being a wise mom, at that point. I really do.
Dennis: And what I want our moms to hear—and what you just said—is that it’s not just your kids who want boundaries. Even the son or daughter, who pushes back on your boundaries—doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t want the boundary. You may give them a boundary—and they are really grateful, and they do long for the protection—but they are going to push back because that’s a part of growing up.
Bob: And I tell my favorite boundary story here, as a dad. I think it was ninth grade that our son, James, was home on a Friday night. He was not feeling well. He’d just had kind of been puny. He was playing Madden Football on the computer and gets a phone call from a friend. They say: “Hey, we’re going to go see Master and Commander at the movie. It’s at 9:45 tonight.”
So, my son comes to me. He goes, “Dad, can I go?” I said, “You’re not feeling well.” He said: “I’ll just be sitting in a theater! It’s not like it would—you can feel bad in a theater as well as at home.” I said: “No, it’s a long movie. It would be after midnight before you’d even get out of the movie. That’s past your curfew.” “Dad! It’s just one time and I”—so, I’m getting the pushback. “No, no, you’re not going to go.” “Dad!”—he was really disappointed.
Well, I went to bed at 11 o’clock that night. He was still up, playing computer games. About 30 minutes later, he came in. I think he had just thrown up. He came and he said, [in a mournful voice] “You were right.” [Laughter] And I wanted to get a tape recorder. I wanted to grab a tape recorder and say, “Would you say that one more time”—
Bob: —“right here into the tape recorder.”
Dennis: And sign this affidavit.
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: I know you’ve got a bunch of these gates in your book.
Dennis: I want you to just quickly give us the essence of the wisdom you gained as you’ve raised five, through adolescence, in each of these areas. So, the first one I’ll hit you with is the free-time gate.
Susan: Well, different children all want to spend their time differently. When they are little, free-time is such a positive. You want them to build blocks and play with toys; but as they get older, unfortunately, some of those free-time hours want to be spent doing technical things, or the cell phones, the video games—and putting boundaries on where they do it—watching what is their leaning. For girls, sometimes—it could be more toward gossip and other girls, and the drama. Just watch.
Is it technology? I have one boy—it’s technology. One boy—it’s sports. And I have one girl—that it’s fashion—and one girl, it’s other things—I could go on and on. But you’ve got to watch their leaning by what they tend to choose, when they’re younger, when they start aging-out of toys. And then, you want to make sure you have parameters around those so they don’t become obsessive.
Dennis: Okay, let’s talk about computer games. You mentioned that briefly.
Bob: Before you talk about computer games—just because I think what you said is really important—nothing wrong with sports.
Bob: Nothing wrong with playing a video game. It’s the obsessive issue, and kids in middle school can become obsessive about almost anything. That’s what you’re trying to draw some boundaries around—
Bob: —the obsessive nature of it.
Susan: And it’s perceiving and pondering before that, “What is that leaning?” And then, explain to them why. They need to know that you’re not just trying to limit them, but you want them to be balanced. You want them to have self-control: “You can play that without my boundaries if you can be self-controlled about it yourself. If I walk into the room for the eighth time and say, ‘Why didn’t you turn that off?’, that’s a red flag to me that you don’t have the self-control.”
Bob: Okay, now to Dennis’s question about video games—about time, online—even TV, which was big deal—it’s a less of a deal for kids today.
Susan: Yes. It’s screen time. We call it screen time now.
Bob: Exactly. Yes. So, how did you put boundaries around them?
Susan: Well, I was authoritarian in this area. We didn’t watch TV during the week. There was no screen time during the week. And because it’s God, family, job—which I considered school their job—and then friends and social stuff. So, there really was no time during the week for TV at all. So, we just had it on the weekend. On the weekends, they are busy. Again, they have more stuff to do. We didn’t have a lot of that.
Video games—there were times when I just said, “You’re sneaking this.” If it gets to a point where they are sneaking it, I just put it in the attic, and put it away, and say: “It’s not a consequence. We’re not ready for this privilege.” Now, that hurts the other kids. So, there has to be some play there; but there have been times when I literally just remove it from the house because I don’t want to fight about this: “If this is that important to you that you can’t control yourself, we’re just going to close the gate. When I think you’re ready for opening it, maybe you’ll get it for a Christmas present.”
Bob: Well, and you have raised your kids through the emergence of the cell phone phenomenon.
Bob: I mean, when your oldest was ten or twelve, you were probably thinking, “There’s no way you get a cell phone at twelve.”
Susan: Right; right.
Bob: When the youngest came along; was it different?
Susan: It’s different. I’ll tell you what I really get concerned about, as we age-down in social media, and in having the world in your hand—
Susan: —and that’s what a smartphone is. You have the world in the palm of your hand—it’s particularly, with girls. I see them becoming very addicted to the drama. They can self-promote at any time on Instagram. They’re always—every time they are with a friend, they are taking 50 million poses and pictures. They are almost more caught up in posing for social media than actually having fun together. So, I’m really concerned for the girls on that side.
For the boys, I think pornography is a whole issue—that in ten years, we’re going to really find is ruining marriages at a level we’ve never seen before.
Bob: So, how would you gauge it today? If you have a 12-year-old, do they get a cell phone?
Susan: Well, there was a gap. When my kids got cell phones, there weren’t a lot of—
Bob: The smartphone stuff wasn’t there.
Susan: Well, also—but there weren’t any protective things on there. You couldn’t put anything on there. Now, there are some really amazing apps that will even tell you how fast your child is driving. So, I think you, again, open the gate by saying: “You know what? I can see where maybe going into high school—you’ve got a lot of sports—having a phone is going to be a good thing for me. So, we’re going to do a test.”
A teacher gives quizzes to see if they are ready for the test. I think parents need to look at: “Okay, this is a quiz. I’m going to give you this phone. I only want you to use it in these ways. Then, we’re going to review it, at the end of the month, and see what happened.” So, if you give them 600 minutes; and you want to start them really small and say, “This is 20 minutes a day”—whatever—then, at the end of the month, you look. They either passed the quiz, or they didn’t.
If they passed the quiz, they might be ready for another privilege on the phone; but it is this constant—them having to earn the right to have more instead of handing them a smartphone with texting and internet, all in one day, and, “Merry Christmas. You get the whole…” They’re not ready for it.
Dennis: The essence of what you’re doing, as you talk about these gates, is you’re giving your child an opportunity to go out into adult practices—like a phone, like driving, like dating, like social media—
Bob: Oh, dating. I want to hear about dating.
Susan: Oh, gosh!
Bob: How did you do dating?
Dennis: Yes. Let’s talk about that.
Susan: Let’s talk about dating. Not my favorite, at all!
Dennis: So, how did you come down on this—the Gestapo mom?
Susan: Yes. [Laughter] Well, fortunately, my husband—we had girls first. So, Mark was the heavy with the girls—definitely. Our boys are just getting to that point. But he made the rule that he had to meet them. They had to have them over to the house. He traumatized my first daughter so much about it that the rumor got out about the trick he played in their high school. They, to this day, say, “We didn’t have many dates because everybody heard about what Daddy did.”
Bob: Wait. What’s the trick?
Dennis: What’s the trick?
Susan: She had been asked by a friend of ours—a family friend of ours’ son—to homecoming. She was put on the spot when she was asked. So, she just said, “Yes!” without telling us because it was the first time she’d ever been asked anything. He asked her at a football game, in front of all her friends. Then, she knew he was going to have to be met. So, she’s very nervous. This is my Type A—little, nervous Nelly.
Well, we know these people. So, we played a trick on her because she was so totally nervous that we thought we’d have fun with it. The dad brought the son over. She arranged for this meeting when she was at a swim meet—she’s a swimmer—because she didn’t want to be there.
Susan: She’s so embarrassed. So, after the whole interview— Mark does a great job. He says to the guys, “What would you do if I gave you a million dollars?”—he got this from Joe White at Kanakuk. “What would you—” and the guy always says different things—like, “Be careful with it.” “Well, this is my daughter; and she’s worth more than a million dollars. So, I want you to know, if you run into any problems, you call me. I will do anything to get you out of any situation. She’s that valuable to me.”
So, he did the whole thing. Well, we planted the Bible—open, on the coffee table. He put a baseball bat in the corner. Then, he had the other kids at our house tell Megan, when she got home, that he was standing there, holding the baseball bat, preaching to this poor boy for an hour. [Laughter]
Well, Megan totally believed it! She really thought that this was what it was going to be. Up until the homecoming date, she was believing—just mortified about this. Of course, then, she wouldn’t believe that we really didn’t do this; but the guy played along with it.
Dennis: I tell you what—that is a great message to send throughout the school, though.
Susan: Yes. It worked!
Dennis: When the word gets out, it will eliminate a lot of the undesirables, which helps in opening the gate because, at that point, only the right guys are going to show up to the gate—
Dennis: —to take your daughter’s hand to take them out.
Bob: And I can show you Dennis’s baseball bat—[Laughter]
Susan: Oh, good. I’m sure he has one, too. [Laughter]
Bob: —because he’s got one. When he wrote the book, Interviewing Your Daughter’s Date, there’s a picture of bat on the book; isn’t there?
Dennis: There is. There is, and the bat is called “The Respect-her”.
Susan: Oh, I like that!
Dennis: “The Respect-her”. It’s actually laser-engraved. I wish I’d had all the guys I interviewed sign it. The last half dozen guys signed it, including a young man who came over to our house who said: “Mr. Rainey, I don’t want to date any of your daughters. I just want to be interviewed.”
Susan: That’s awesome. Wow. There you go! I have to say, with that, there comes a certain respect that you get of the kind of kids—and all the kids that my girls ever had a relationship with became friends with the family. We had them over, and that was the other thing: “You have to do things with us.” We invited them, and—
Dennis: We’re kidding about the baseball bat. I didn’t use it to preach and hold it in one hand and the Bible in the other. It was really more symbolic for my daughters to know—“You know what? As a daddy, I’m here to protect you.” And that’s really what you’re calling moms to do.
Dennis: You’re calling moms to be passionate about motherhood and about—
Bob: To be border guards is what you’re talking about.
Bob: Keep the gates protected.
Dennis: And we sure appreciate you, Susan, and also your husband, Mark, and how you guys are champions—not only for your own marriage and family—but also for tens of thousands of others across the country. Thanks for your leadership—
Susan: Thank you.
Dennis: —and encouraging moms today.
Susan: Well, we love those moms and dads. We love their kids; and we want them to be like you said, “Those warriors.”
Bob: I think anybody who reads your book is going to see how much you love those moms because the book is called The Passionate Mom. It really reflects your heart for being a mom yourself and for equipping other moms to do this important work of raising the next generation. We’ve got copies of Susan Merrill’s book, The Passionate Mom, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy of the book; or call us, toll-free, at 1-800-FL-TODAY. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”. Or again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order from us online or order by phone; and we’ll get the book out to you.
Now, as we begin the month of May, we’ve had this happen for a couple of years now. We’ve had some friends of the ministry—who have come to us—and they are aware of the fact that, during the summer, ministries like ours often experience a falloff in financial support. Listeners, for whatever reason, don’t call or write as often—don’t go online and make an online donation as often as they do in other times of the year.
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We just want to say, “Thanks,” in advance, for whatever you’re able to do. And please pray for us that we would receive enough funds to be able to take full advantage of this matching-gift opportunity. That will go a long way to helping us get through the summer months, here at FamilyLife Today.
And we hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. Joni and Ken Tada are going to be here. Some of you know Joni Eareckson Tada. She was paralyzed at the age of 17 in a diving accident in the Chesapeake Bay in New England. She has lived for the last four decades as a quadriplegic. She and her husband Ken are going to share the story of their marriage tomorrow—more than 30 years of marriage. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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