I’m sure you’ve seen videos of those amazing sheepherding dogs, usually Border Collies, who masterfully urge flocks of sheep into fields and pens. These dogs seem to have an instinctive understanding of the best way to encourage the sheep to move in the direction they want. They run in one direction and pressure the herd on that side, maybe laying down in the field to let the sheep go in the desired direction. Then they might rush to the other side of the flock to correct them gently back on course. They use just the right amount of running and gentle presence to get the job done, with some human guidance from the shepherd, of course. 

I believe sheepherding dogs can be a great metaphor for parenting, especially in the middle school and high school years. Here are some lessons from these dogs and how they might translate into parenting skills: 

Sheepherding dogs “lead” from behind. Certainly much of parenting in the early years is about leading from the front and getting children to follow and comply, but as children reach middle school age, parents need to begin letting the child lead the way at some times. Parents who are too involved and too directive can cause a child to push back and become argumentative and oppositional. Usually this shows up as parents who are lecturing and over-explaining to children. Instead, practice letting the child problem solve simple and safe situations by themself. Ask open-ended questions: “How do you think you’d like to handle that situation? What could you do differently? What would help you complete that task?” Then stop talking and listen. Many parents offer too many solutions and do not allow the child to feel ownership of the problem and solution. As children grow they need to gradually build skills that build competence and confidence.  A parent who constantly intrudes in the process to solve problems isn’t helping a child grow. 

The dogs direct the sheep toward the gate and the sheep choose to go in. Think about it: the dogs are not dragging each sheep into the pen physically, but are encouraging the right direction and the sheep take that suggestion. Parents should take this mindset as well and provide boundaries and guidance about end goals, but then allow children decide how to accomplish those goals. This can help build a sense of agency and autonomy in children as they make some decisions (in age-appropriate contexts.) 

The dogs use just the right amount of pressure and force. When sheep dogs get too forceful, the sheep can turn around and start to confront them. This isn’t a good situation! One dog is really no match for a herd of sheep! In the same way, heavy-handed and overly directive parents create children who become more and more oppositional. Children want to feel somewhat in control of their destinies and will push back against parents who are over controlling or forceful. Learn to read your child and know just the right level of guidance and control they need to succeed. Then stand back and let them attempt skills and situations for themselves. Again, watch how much you are lecturing or explaining. Instead, ask the child to develop a goal and their own motivation to reach that goal, then stand aside and see if they can solve the problem. 

Sheepdogs may have to escalate and nip at a sheep’s heels. However, they mostly just use their presence and the possibility of a consequence to gain compliance. Sheepdogs use the natural instinct of the sheep to be passive and to flock together to their advantage. Parents should also recognize that most children do want to please parents and will go in the direction needed with the right kind of leadership. So use this pattern to your advantage as a parent. Assume children will do the right things. Many parents, instead, assume conflict and oppositional behavior, setting up the paradigm that there will be an argument — and usually children comply with that expectation! 

Parents can consider how sheepdogs do not force sheep to comply — that would take a lot of effort to drag each sheep into the pen. But rather, they urge sheep in the correct direction, allowing the sheep to choose. Parents often use too many corrections with children, often verbally reminding and directing them and lecturing at them. Consider a paradigm shift to offer some boundaries and consequences if these boundaries are not followed, but then allowing older children to take charge of some choices. This builds a child’s feelings of independence, autonomy and competence — essential skills in adulthood.

 

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