One for Parents: Shepherds not Sheepdogs image

One for Parents: Shepherds not Sheepdogs

Parenting isn’t especially complex. Yes, it is often attended by complexity – things that don’t work out as expected, health issues, financial pressures – but the actual process of procreation and childrearing is straightforward enough. People have been doing it for a long time. But it is of a piece with our neurotic age that for many people raising kids seems daunting. Hence the plethora of books and online advice: Hello tiger mothers, contented little babies and mumsnet.

An observation of my own is that too many parents act like sheepdogs when they should be shepherds. Sheepdogs chase after sheep. They’re not really in control of the sheep, but try to herd them in the right general direction. By contrast, shepherds – at least in the biblical framework of that term – are followed by their sheep. I see parents behaving like sheepdogs all the time. This happens metaphorically, as parents try to second guess their children, and dart around responding to the whims and demands of their offspring. It also happens literally, as parents scuttle after their children in settings where children need to learn to sit still and be quiet. (An example? O I don’t know… How about in church services?!)

Shepherds are not meant to act like sheepdogs. Shepherds are meant to pastor the sheep and guard the sheep; not run around barely in control of an unruly mob! Shepherds should give a clear lead that is followed and obeyed.

Why sheepdogs rather than shepherds?
Why is that so many parents are more sheepdog and less shepherd? It’s a description that seems to resonate judging by the response I’ve had to it in my context. I think the primary reason is fear. As modern parents we live in a world of warning signs and alarm bells – even though no other generation has been as healthy and safe. We’ve been taught that fear is the natural state of being – watch out for the paedophiles; watch out for the traffic; always wear high-viz and a bike helmet; never leave home without your phone – and fear then does what fear always does, seeping into all we are and do.

This seeping, insidious fear means that too many of us are fearful of our children. Parents are fearful of leading their children because they fear how their children will respond. We are fearful of constraining our children, because we think this might damage their creativity in some way. We are fearful of disciplining our children because we don’t really know what acceptable discipline is anymore. And we are fearful of being disliked by our children if we seek to lead them rather than follow them – and as neurotic Gen Xers & Millennials being disliked is perhaps the thing we fear most (please like this post on Facebook!).

If you are a parent and recognise yourself in any of that description you might want to spend some time thinking about how you can be more shepherd and less dog.

Here are three suggestions.

Shepherd to safe boundaries
Children do need structure and order. To extend our ovine illustration, sheep left to their own devices will impose order upon themselves. On British hill farms, sheep flocks heft themselves to their particular territory. They establish routes for moving about on the hill and patterns of grazing that are passed down the flock through the generations. Children, too, are happiest when they know where the boundary lines are. Being human, kids will keep pushing at the boundaries, and if there isn’t clarity about the point at which they can push no further, they will keep pushing and pushing, and tumbling and tumbling, and become less and less secure and happy.

Comedian Lloyd Evans illustrates this with his experience as a teacher:

A classroom is a dangerous place. They’re young kids. Some of them throw stuff. They’re looking for an adult figure. I felt teenagers are quite basic creatures, they can be easily led. If they think you look sharp, they’ll give you a level of respect. So I always used to wear a good suit, tie, clean-shaven. And being a strict teacher, it made them happy, not initially, but once they’d bounced off you a couple of times, to see where the lines were, they just relaxed, you could see them relax, “OK, this guy’s going to control this environment.”

It is a myth that giving children ‘freedom’ makes them happy. They need to know where the lines are. Practically, this means your kids can sit still in church on a Sunday morning, or in a restaurant. It won’t kill them. But if you let them run free and keep chasing them like a sheepdog, they’ll keep on running. (The caveat to this is that children do need to be given space for free play, free of adult interference. But that’s different from what I’m talking about here.)

One of the boundaries we need to be alert to is technology. The evidence mounts that the more you use social media, the unhappier you are. This is especially an issue for teens and children. Boys will use their smartphones to play games and watch porn (both issues in themselves), but girls use them to amplify social interaction –  and this makes them miserable. So don’t be afraid to limit screen time. Don’t be afraid!

Shepherd to social acceptability
Has anyone ever expressed this in more pithy form than Jordan Peterson?

Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture or bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilised and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.

Shepherd to worship
It is our responsibility as parents to lead our kids into God’s presence. We should read with them, sing with them, pray with them, and talk with them about the realities and joy of the gospel. Children always know what their parents’ true priorities are. If they know our priority is to be sheep of the Great Shepherd it is more likely they will choose to follow too.


Parenting isn’t complex but it is all about grace. Sometimes great parents have nightmare kids, and sometimes those with terrible parents become well-rounded adults. There is no magic formula. But being a shepherd is a much better way to parent than being a sheepdog. It’s an axiom worth adopting: shepherd, not sheepdog.


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