Keeping Our Kids Out of the Gutter

I’ll never win a bowling trophey. I like to bowl but I’m bad at it. Really bad. Like…I used to wish I could bowl 100. Now I wish I could bowl 70. But there was this one time Hubby and I went bowling with our Sunday school class, and I actually hit 168 (that’s almost 100 and 70 together! …more than half way to 300!).

Right now anyone who has ever bowled with me but wasn’t there to see that is calling me a liar. Out loud. To this day I can’t explain it. I heaved the ball down the lane. Pins fell. I even bowled a turkey. It was divine…maybe literally since I have no other explanation. The best part of bowling 168 wasn’t even the score. It was Hubby’s expression–the shock, the disbelief, the headshaking. He was so stunned he couldn’t even high-five me.

This display of magnificence occurred circa 2002, and I’m pretty confident it will never happen again. I’ll probably never break 100, or even 70 to be honest. But in my defense, we bowl only once a year, if that. And 6-pound bowling balls only have kiddie-size finger holes. It’s hard to command a bowling ball when you bowl with your fingertips.

I’m pretty sure if I bowl again, even 50 might now be out of the question–unless I use bumper guards. You know, those protective pads we put up for children to keep their game safely in the right lane and out of the gutter. It’s acceptable–even expected–that we put up the bumper guards when our kids are little. But as they get older, they resist the the guards and want us to leave them down.

So we do…because that’s how learning to bowl progresses. Besides, what harm is done if our kid throws an occasional gutter ball? After all, it’s just a game…in a bowling alley. It’s not like real life or anything.

Or is it?

Because in life there is definitely a right lane we want our kids to stay in. And there are gutters, wide and deep, running down both sides of that lane. So we put up the bumper guards–to guide our children, to protect them.

And it’s easy when they’re little–even expected. We guard who they become friends with, how late they stay up, what they watch on TV or what music they listen to. We fight battles over homework and studying for spelling tests, and we put parental controls on their internet activity.

These guards help our children navigate down the right lane, and if they get too close to the edge, we nudge them away from the gutter.

And then our children turn into young teens, and they start to do weird things and use weird slang and emit weird smells. They begin to resist the bumper guards. And we resist them resisting because we know how easy it is to aim for the head pin only to watch your ball curve too far to the left and clunk into the gutter.

But we let the bumper guards down slowly, occasionally, because they need to practice or they will never master the game.

And then those young teens turn into older teens with a driver’s license and a job and a member of the opposite sex they think they can’t live without. And those bumper guards, they are downright humiliating. Even though our kids insist they must and we insist they mustn’t–at some point, the guards have to come down.

And we pray it will be okay. EVERY DAY. Because even though the guide and protection that kept them out of the gutter is no longer visible, we pray they still know where the guards are and what the guards protect them from and how to bowl straight down the lane.

And you think you know how hard it will be to watch them , but you don’t know how hard it is until you do. And it is SO hard! Because sometimes their ball curves dangerously close to the edge, and you stand there watching–on one foot, leaning so far the opposite direction your body contorts into an unnatural position as you try to influence the ball back into the safety of the lane. And sometimes our kids bowl right on the edge of the gutter…on purpose…and they might even like it. And then there’s the inevitable…the gutter ball they will occasionally throw…maybe by accident, maybe on purpose.

Because our kids are going to make choices, on their own, without us. At this point in their lives, they are without us more than they are with us. There are only 24 hours in a day, and most of them are not spent at home (sleeping doesn’t count).

And that makes bumper guards so important, vitally important, when they are younger. Because when we take our guards down, we want our teens to replace them with their own, and that’s the most important of all. We need to do our best to equip them with the ability to draw their own lines and stay on the right side–to discern which relationships are safe and which ones will lead nowhere, which actions will result in a strike and which ones will miss the pins entirely and end up in the dark abyss.

And when they find themselves in the dark, they need to know that often a big mechanical thing at the end of the lane will come down and reset the pins for them, and they can try again. But sometimes it won’t, and they have to hit the reset button themselves.

And sometimes…they might even want us to put the bumper guard back up, just for a short time, because they need to feel safe. That’s the good thing about bumper guards. They are always there. But we must teach our kids to use them.

And maybe I need to use them the next time I go bowling. It may be the only chance I have to at least bowl my age.

Which bumper guards have been the hardest for you to put up? To take down? Has your teen made his or her own guards? What do you do when your teen plays close to the edge or even ends up in the gutter?

If you are looking for a summer read…

I have a recommendation (of course!). Summer…butterflies…they kind of go together! WAITING FOR BUTTERFLIES is still on sale at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you are local, stop by the Arcadia Valley Roasting Company to grab a copy and a cup of coffee from my favorite coffee bean roasters, or stop by Barnes & Noble in Cape Girardeau Saturday, June 3 for our book signing!



  1. A-M says:

    Such a great metaphor! I can’t imagine how hard it will be to sit back and know the ball is probably going to go in the gutter when my boys are teens! Bedtime tonight with my 8yo was challenging enough!

    So good and so important.
    I like this scaffolding approach…. and love the idea of training them so they will put their own rails up.

    So many takeaways….

    • Karen Sargent says:

      It’s pretty tough! Watching the girls grow up is amazing and terrifying at the same time. I just keep reminding myself we’ve prepared them for this. We did everything we knew to do, not that we did everything perfectly…but we did our best. And it’s not that we’ve stopped talking to our girls about decisions, but they have the choice whether to listen or not. And…I do A LOT of praying! You are doing such a great job managing the guard rails for your little guys, and that’s so important!

      • LINDA WILSON says:

        really good read and how true it all is and I think you and my daughter have done very well with your children so just keep praying for them. love u

        • Karen Sargent says:

          One of my biggest blessings EVER is that Laura and I got to raise our girls together! God knew I would need her!

  2. Sharon Bickel says:

    Love the anology! Thanks for sharing! Sometimes waiting for THEM to push the reset button can be SO hard! But God is faithful and He will never leave or forsake–and He is working on helping me to trust in His perfect timing for when they’ll have the strength and wisdom to throw the next ball!

    • Karen Sargent says:

      SO hard, Sharon! I am definitely in a new learning season in my parenting life! And I am so grateful HE is ultimately in control and not me! (But I have to keep reminding myself of that!). 🙂

  3. Lois Orr says:

    Wow! This is probably one of my favorite…There have been SEVERAL times that I have been that contorted mom leaning, hoping, praying that the boys will “stay in the lane”.
    Thanks, as always, for sharing your talent and insight!

    • Karen Sargent says:

      The contorting…is SO hard…and I feel like I’ve been doing more of it lately as my girls are getting older, more independent. I’m also learning that sometimes I’m contorting because they are doing it their way–not my way–but their way ends up just fine. So that’s a new thought for me. Thanks for reading and always being such an encouragement, Lois!

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