Pope Francis made several important and insightful statements about the family during his unscripted remarks made “from the heart.” You can read several of these comments in the Catholic Herald or the New York Times. I would like to take a moment and expand upon one of his statements…and, if it I may be so bold, modify one word. Specifically, Pope Francis stated, “The family is like a factory of hope.” I love the idea that family produces hope. I agree wholeheartedly. At the same time, I would like to modify one word—factory. Factory brings to mind a precise method of assembling or manufacturing a product to consistent specifications within a specific timeframe. Every product in a factory begins with the same raw materials, goes through the same process, and becomes a finished product that meets the same specifications as every other product produced by that factory. Families are not so precise, not so mechanical. Families are messy. They vary. They start with different raw materials and require a variety of processes, even from within the same family. I think families are more “like a nursery of hope.” I’m not speaking of a baby nursery; I’m speaking of a plant nursery.
The family is like a nursery of hope. Like a plant nursery, families prepare the soil to grow hope. They nourish it with rich doses of acceptance and love to increase its fertility. Families then plant the precious seed of hope in the soil they have prepared. They meticulously plant it to a depth unique to each particular seed. They spend time carefully adjusting the nutrients in the soil of their family to match the unique needs of the seed they plant. Each family studies their particular seeds for those characteristics that mark them as unique and then adjusts the home environment accordingly. If the seed requires more time poured into it, let it pour. If it prospers with more encouragement toward independence, encourage. In other words, the family becomes a student of the seed, learning as much as possible about the seed and what will best promote it to grow in hope, love, and maturity. Through their study of the seed, the family learns what branches to prune, how to discipline, so the tree will grow deeper roots of wisdom, a broader trunk to supply strength, and branches that reach toward higher dreams. Throughout the growth of each family member, the family provides support, nourishment, and protection so hope can grow from seed to fragile sapling to mighty tree. When hope reaches maturity, the family watches in awe as a bud blooms on their tree of hope and transforms into a fruit unique to that family—a fruit they can admire, a fruit they can share with the world, a fruit from which they can take further nourishment, and a fruit which they can use to plant more hope. Truly, the family is like a nursery of hope. Tend to it with special love and care.
I began to contemplate parenting while working with children and families in an inner city community, before I had any children of my own. Even then, I began to wonder how parents could successfully guide their children through such a dangerous maze of worldly distractions. I began to study this question even more when my wife announced that she was pregnant with our first daughter. And, I have continued my contemplation of parenting as my children have grown and matured. I’m sure I will still be trying to figure it out when they graduate from college, get married, and have children of their own. Throughout my study of parenting, I have discovered many great thinkers and writers offering amazing advice. Some of the most important lessons for me included “emotional coaching” (John Gottman), relational parenting (Sears), reality discipline (Kevin Leman), good enough parenting (Winnicott), authoritative parenting (Baumrind), shepherding a child’s heart (Tripp), natural and logical consequences, and democratic and respectful parenting (Adler). I was also challenged to “Dare to Discipline” (Dobson) and instill crucial life values into my children’s lives (Rice). Each idea provided important knowledge and excellent advice, invaluable insights and great helps.
In the final analysis I came to the conclusion that God is the Perfect Father and the greatest example of parenting. I want to father like Him, parenting in His image. As I thought about God as Father over the years, my mind kept returning to Psalm 23. In this Psalm, the writer gives a succinct model of God as a shepherd caring for his sheep, providing principles for guiding our children through the dangers of this life and into maturity. I realized that I wanted to follow those principles and become a family shepherd, parenting my children just as God shepherds His sheep.
Briefly consider a few of the principles noted in Psalm 23:
· A shepherd meticulously and generously provides for the needs of his sheep.
· The shepherd goes before his sheep to prepare a safe haven for them. He even works with the environment to make it as safe and nurturing as possible.
· At the same time, a good shepherd disciplines his sheep to keep them safe. He trains them to obediently follow him. The shepherd does all of this in hopes that his sheep will someday obey naturally–not because he holds the discipline but because they have learned the benefit of obedience and the sufficiency of his love. The sheep will have internalized the shepherd’s leading in response to his love and nurturance.
Yes, parents are the family shepherds. They nurture, provide, protect, lead, train, and discipline. They become students of their children, learning how to best lead them toward maturity. Family shepherds lovingly provide for their children’s needs–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I hope you will join me as we explore practical “family shepherding” principles in upcoming blogs of the “Family Shepherd.” If there are parenting issues you would like to see addressed, be sure to suggest it in the comment area.