How would you describe your style of parenting?
Some parents take a Hands-off approach. They shy away from being an authority and give lots of freedom and allow their kids to make their own decisions and discover who they are. Some parents adopt a Friendship style where the goal is to be your kid’s BFF. Others act like a Coach, offering good advice, steering children in the right direction, focusing on educational and career goals, and cheering them on. And then some practice the Helicopter approach. Stressed-out, fearful, chopper parents tower over their children, suffocating them by not giving any breathing room or freedom.
Every parenting style has pro’s and con’s. But is there a metaphor in the Bible that provides a better model for Christian parents?
While this isn’t the end-all-be-all model, I find the language of a Shepherd helpful. Shepherding conveys a parent’s authority over their children and responsibility to seek their good and growth. Shepherding addresses behaviors but it also shapes a child’s heart through love that’s both gentle and firm. Here are seven ways parents can apply shepherding imagery from the Bible.
Shepherds know their sheep personally and intimately (John 10:14)
A shepherd knows which sheep are his, and factors in how each sheep is unique. The sheep might look the same to an outsider, but the shepherd knows each sheep’s unique personality, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses.
An important part of leading is knowing. We must know our children personally and intimately. Every kid is different. Learn about them, and in getting to know them, learn how to shepherd their heart. Engage them through quality time and meaningful conversation.
Shepherds love and care for their sheep (John 10:11–13; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 23:4)
Shepherds can be firm (point 6) and strong (point 5), but shepherds were gentle, kind, and loving toward their sheep. They know when a sheep needs tenderness or firmness. Sheep do not fear their shepherd but obey their voice because they trust in their shepherd. The shepherd’s care makes them feel secure.
Jesus contrasts himself to hired hands by pointing out he cares for his sheep (John 10:11–13). He loves them sacrificially by laying down his life for them.
Loving your children includes desiring what’s best for them—including wanting God’s will and purposes over your own—and laying down your comfort in ordinary moments to prioritize them. But it also includes communicating your love to them, both in words and deeds. Throughout the Bible, God repeatedly communicates how loved we are as His children to assure us of His love and provide security in it.
Shepherds lead their sheep (Psalm 23:1–3; Isaiah 40:10–11)
The shepherd leads the sheep, not vice versa. The shepherd doesn’t let the sheep run astray and do whatever they want whenever they want, but guides and guards them. Because shepherds know and love their sheep, they’ve learned their needs and can lead.
Parents need to feel the weight they have as a God-given authority in their child’s life. Children are a gift to parents, but God also gifts parents to children. And not just to make fun memories of befriend them—though we do these things—but to lead. Shepherds make tough decisions for the benefit of their sheep, even if the sheep don’t understand or appreciate it in the moment. As Psalm 23 tells us, this doesn’t mean you always avoid difficulties or valleys in life, but you do them lead them along the way.
Intentionally lead your children. Lead them according to God’s design and in what God says is best, but lead rather than be led along. Be proactive. When they kick or bite back (as sheep are prone to do), and you know what you’re doing is right and good, don’t cave in or give up. Don’t let their schedules determine what they prioritize, but prioritize what they need most and schedule their activities accordingly.
Shepherds provide for and feed their sheep (John 10:9; Jeremiah 3:15; Ezekiel 34:13–14)
Without food, sheep die. And they can’t be fed just anything or they’ll be malnourished. Sheep need refreshing water and soul-sustaining food
Spiritual shepherds feed their sheep with the rich, nourishing food of God’s Word. Teach them (see Deuteronomy 6:6–9; 11:19; Psalm 78:4–5; Proverbs 1:8–9; Jeremiah 3:15; Joel 1:3;). Set God’s Word before them like a fine pasture to graze on and be filled by.
Teaching means communicating God’s Word to someone in such a way they can understand and apply it. There are many ways parents might do this, so don’t get stuck on finding the perfect method. Here are ways you might feed them.
- Read the Bible together and talk about it.
- Bring up biblical truth in everyday conversation and in fitting circumstances.
- Read a devotional or Christian book together.
- Memorize Scripture.
- Memorize a catechism to lay a foundation of biblical truth.
- Reinforce what they’re learning at church through good questions and encouragement. (Partner with the children’s and/or student’s ministries at your church rather than letting them replace you.)
- Watch doctrinally sound Christian videos that communicate truths to kids. And as you watch other “non-Christian” shows or movies, engage them in dialogue to reflect on what they’re watching.
- Leverage holidays, traditions, and the church calendar with them to learn and practice truth.
- Tell them stories of God at work and remember with themways you’ve tasted God’s faithfulness.
Try different approaches. Factor in your family and your gifts. Don’t give up when it bombs or you feel like a failure; keep trying.
Shepherds protect their sheep (Micah 5:4; John 10:11–13; Psalm 23:4)
Sheep aren’t the strongest, smartest, or quickest animals. They make for easy prey and have many predators against them. They need the shepherd’s protection.
In John 10, Jesus talks about wolves coming to devour the sheep, but he promises to stand at the door and protect us (10:9). He does so at the cost of his life, giving up his life to protect and save the sheep (10:10–13). Protecting sheep requires watchfulness and a willingness to fight for them.
Parents in wisdom seek to protect their children, but they’re not called to shelter them. A shepherd doesn’t lock the sheep up in pens, even though that might be safe.
Parents protect kids physically, mentally, and emotionally. You put your kid in a seatbelt. You say “No” to things that will harm them. You protect them from abuse and unsafe situations as best you can. Guard their hearts and minds and teach them how to do this for themselves.
Parents also protect kids spiritually. Teach them what’s true and false, right and wrong, and good and bad (from the Bible’s authority, not your opinion). Grow them in wisdom and discernment so they can sniff out unbiblical thinking and respond with God’s Word.
Shepherds correct and train their sheep (Psalm 23:4; Micah 7:14)
A rod can be a shepherd’s tool used both for fighting back enemies (1 Samuel 17:34–35) and correcting straying sheep (Proverbs 13:24). It would be one thing if shepherds only had predators to worry about, but the sheep are prone to straying into trouble and danger. They need leading and correction (Hebrews 12:3–11; Proverbs 3:12; 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 29:15, 17). A shepherd doesn’t correct his sheep because he’s against them; he does it because he’s for them and wants their good.
This doesn’t mean all forms of correction are the same, and it’s not a license to correct out of anger or abuse, but shepherds must correct. We should cheer our kids on, but sometimes we have to put down the pom-poms and have a heart-to-heart conversation about our concerns. It’s not loving for a parent to let a child do whatever they want because they don’t want to correct them or because it’s hard to do.
Children aren’t sinless, innocent little saints. They are rebellious, erring, wrong, stubborn, and foolish. They’re sinners, like you. Children need correction, discipline, and training to re-route their thinking and behaviors in a way that honors God.
We not only correct behaviors that are physically dangerous but we correct lies with truth and with God’s promises. Navigate with them confusing emotions and challenging relationships that can easily derail them. Help them submit their feelings to God’s Word rather than being ruled by what they think and feel.
Shepherds pursue their sheep (Ezekiel 34:10–16; Luke 15:3–7)
Sheep are prone to straying, but the shepherd always pursue his sheep. He doesn’t leave a sheep to find its way back. The shepherd doesn’t throw up his arms in frustration and give up on the sheep. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine safely behind to bring back the one.
Parents must intentionally pursue their children at every stage, even if it looks different over time. This applies to older children or teenage children walking away from God, but it’s also true for young children. Develop this practice early on. Spend time with them and make the time meaningful. Engage their minds and hearts. Ask questions to know what they’re going through. Don’t give up on spiritual things because they seem uninterested, but graciously and wisely pursue their relationship with the Lord.
Some of the language for the role and task of shepherds comes from The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer.
This takes wisdom. I don’t think this means they’re never in an environment with people they disagree with, but you walk them through it to process what they’re seeing, feeling, hearing, and thinking.