A Spirited Rider

I have a little flock of daughters. With four of them five years old and under, it should come as no surprise to you that we deal with a wholloping  share of emotions at our house. Titus is so simple – just right up the middle and easy. He either disobeys, or he doesn’t. Sometimes, when he feels really complicated and deep, he fusses. There are no subtexts with this kid. He wants milk – that is why he is fussing and saying, “I want milk!” Not so complex – even a beginner parent can figure out a technique to deal with this. But girls are different, and sometimes that difference can leave a person completely bewildered. When it comes to little girls and their emotions, “A”  does not necessarily cause “B.” But, when “B” is what needs to be disciplined, it can feel frustrating to have no clues as to what member of the alphabet actually caused it. Are you with me here?

One of our sweet little girls has a hilarious tendency which we refer to as her “drunk driving.” If she is tired, she becomes reckless and disobedient. Her eyes get a little glassy, she gets super rowdy, and you might find her unloading the freezer, or coloring her sheets with a marker, or some such clearly outlawed activity. Once, when she was in the midst of one of these times, I caught her on the kitchen counter getting into something. Surprise was my first response – “What are you doing?!” Her immediate response was to throw her hands up over her eyes in shame. It was at that moment I realized that she didn’t know what was causing it either! She was just as surprised as I was to find herself being so delinquent. It wasn’t any kind of deep malice that got her into those cupboards looking for chocolate chips – it was just a simple lack of control.

I was so thankful for that little glimpse into what was causing what with this little person, and it has really shaped the way we deal with all kinds of behavioral issues. Sometimes parents can discipline behaviors over and over and over like we are playing whack-a-mole. There is a sin! Get it! This can get very frustrating when it doesn’t seem to be helping anything. We think we are being so diligent! But the real problem is that the child doesn’t know what to do with it.

Say it is someone else’s birthday. Say your child wants a present too. Say they start fussing about it. Imagine then that then you say, “Don’t do that. That is bad. Don’t be a fusser. Deal with it.”  How did that help anyone? The child is taught that if the feeling comes over them, they have already failed. That is bad! But what am I supposed to do with it? It doesn’t just go away by itself. Little girls need help sorting out their emotions – not so that they can wallow in them, but so they can learn to control them.

We tell our girls that their feelings are like horses- beautiful, spirited horses. But they are the riders. We tell them that God gave them this horse when they were born, and they will ride it their whole life. God also set us on a path on the top of a mountain together and told us to follow it. We can see for a long way – there are beautiful flowers, lakes,  trees, and rainbows. (We are little girls after all!) This is how we “walk in the light as He is in the light, and have fellowship with one another.”

When our emotions act up, it is like the horse trying to jump the fence and run down into a yucky place full of spiders to get lost in the dark. A good rider knows what to do when the horse tries to bolt – you pull on the reigns! Turn the horse’s head! Get back on the path!  We also tell them that God told us that if we see one of our little girls with her horse down in the mud puddle spitting at people who walk by, it is our job to haul them up, willing or unwilling, back to the path.The ways that this has helped me as a mother are pretty obvious, but I will share them anyway if you will bear with me.

First of all, the horses are not the problem. There is nothing wrong with the emotions. If we have a little rider who is woefully unprepared to control her horse, well then, we had better start with some pretty serious riding lessons. Talk to your daughters about how they might feel, and what you want to see when they do. Give them some practical hand holds, be a coach. Anticipate moments that might be hard,  when the horse might bolt, and help them learn to anticipate it too. Take a little break to say, “Hey sweetie, we are going in this store, but we aren’t going to buy any toys today. If you start feeling like you want to fuss about it, what are we going to do?” Make a plan. Use code words. Wink. Encourage. Give lots of praise when you see her overcoming little emotional temptations. Be right there with her as she learns to recognize what is happening. Little girls can be scared out of their minds when their emotions charge off with them. They need the security of parents pulling them back.

The goal is not to cripple the horse, but equip the rider. A well controlled passionate personality is a powerful thing. That is what dangerous women are made of. But a passionate personality that is unbridled can cause a world of damage. If you see a lot of passion in your little girls, don’t be discouraged. It is just wonderful raw material. Our house is pretty near full to overflowing with this kind of raw material! But don’t treat it lightly either – runaway horses can be a very real threat to your little girls.

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78 thoughts on “A Spirited Rider

  1. With four little girls in our house under the age of 8, I definitely needed to hear this! The metaphor is a perfect. Thank you for the encouragement!

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve only got one daughter so far, but with a little surprise coming first of March, our girly numbers may be doubled soon. My son is soooo much easier for me to parent. Everything is straight-forward. He fusses because he clearly wants something and he and I both know if. My daughter, however, continually befuddles me. We’re in a particularly difficult season right now, and I needed to hear this. Thank you! I never want to be guilty of playing whack-a-mole!

  3. One of the most excellent articles on parenting daughters I’ve ever read! (I have four daughters and one son.) The training and coaching when they are young will build an excellent foundation for the teen years as well. They’ll come to you with more complicated emotions because they will know that you are for them and not against them.

  4. I have three daughters, one son and a baby on the way. You’ve hit the nail on the head! It wouldn’t hurt for us moms to think through that metaphor when our own emotions start galloping off.

  5. This is very, very, very helpful. And my little girl isn’t two yet, so mostly I’m meaning it is helpful for understanding *myself*!

  6. Love the horse metaphor. That will stay with me just like “lobbing the ball back gently” did. Thanks for the post!

  7. Thank you much. I am the rider of a very docile horse, but my daughter has a spirited stallion that often befuddles her father and me. She is six now, and we have been trying to explain “Controlling your emotions” for four years. It is much better than it was at 2 (I think it’s been some years since we broke down over sock color), but we still worry very much about her. Looking forward to telling her about horses next time we have to have a “God gave you the emotions, but He put you in charge of them” talk. She’ll like horses better than dry words, I’m sure – part of being a girl.

  8. Rachel, I appreciate the picture you create with this metaphor. The metaphor aids in unpacking what you are trying to teach and the lesson is beautifully communicated. Thank you.
    I have been reading a great book by Martin Lloyd-Jones in which he talks about feelings and how they can lead to sin when we do not control ourselves. But he distinguishes how the feelings in and of themselves do not necessarily hold the sin. We can feel fear without actually acting in fear. The sin is in the way we act not necessarily how we feel. This is such an important distinction to make; otherwise we do tend to get lost in discouragement because of the feelings of the temptation.
    Your counsel here to prepare and teach our girls what to do when they encounter a temptation, and how to recognize what they are feelings, and how to control themselves and reign in their feelings in order to do what is good… is good. It is good for me, not just my girls. I truly appreciated this great post, thank you.

  9. This is such a timely article as we start a new school year. Just today I’ve been reminded of what a pivotal time this is for our daughters, and I believe your examples here will help me as I seek to guide her. Thank you.

  10. Love the metaphor! We don’t have any daughters yet (I agree, boys have very clear-cut emotions…abrupt and startling at times, but at least very obvious) but if the Lord chooses to bless us with them we will definitely be using it. Thanks for passing along the wisdom! 🙂

  11. Wow – what a great way to think about our daughters! Thanks so much; I’ve got two in the midst of puberty, and was wishing for a more positive way to handle the emotional ups and downs.

  12. Thanks Rachel – that is a really great metaphor to keep in mind. It was particularly helpful to me personally as well! A good mental image for what to do when passions rear up and threaten to run away with you. 🙂 I also appreciated the bit about “A well controlled passionate personality is a powerful thing. That is what dangerous women are made of.” If I have daughters that are anything like me, that is what I’ll be dealing with in parenting. But it’s comforting to hear that the passion is not the problem. 🙂

  13. Thank you so much for this! This is golden advice and I will cherish it, dwell on it, pray over it, and hopefully apply it well.

  14. Great post, Rachel! Having raised four daughters, I agree, the boys were a cake walk (in one sense.) Now that there is a gaggle of grand-daughters,and having daughters and daughters-in-law that read Femina, I know that they will love and benefit from this post…they are powerful and dangerous women and I give God all the Glory!

  15. Reading this again, and having glanced over some of Rachel’s previous mothering posts makes me think, not for the first time, that someday a few years down the line, somebody will need to collect her thoughts in a book. There are just too many insightful zingers here to let them hang out just on a blog.

  16. About the horse picture? My youngest son got an fine arab colt a few years back and they have grown up and trained together. Today my son can fly around on that beautiful horse without saddle, bridle, lead or anything. Just the weight of his body, and movements with his hands or knees. (Think of ‘The Black Stallion’ – although my son is an adult now.)

    Your picture of a spirited woman in control of her passions made me think of that picture of my son. Our neighbours stop their cars to watch him, and the world will stop and watch such daughters. What a glory to our King.

    It was a wonderful post. Thank you.

  17. With 8 daughters, (and not being a naturally spirited girl myself) this is helpful in understanding the girls that are different from me. (like my 19yo ‘drama queen’ and my 8yo who wants to ‘own everything’.) Thanks for having the insight in the midst of the ride to pass on to us!

  18. Do you (or anyone reading this comment) have any recommendations for read aloud books for my daughter and I? She is almost 5 years old. I am in desperate need of more girly books because we tend to read books geared to our sons in our home. BTW- we have already read Little House books. Blessings!

  19. Just wanted to say thank you for this wonderful insight. I have three daughters and one son. My girls are a bit older then yours, but the emotions have grown with them. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this, it is a huge blessing. I’m going to share your horse and rider analogy with my daughters and I think it will help them understand themselves better. Thanks again for writing this.

  20. Bianca, have you read “Baby Island” or “Heidi”? Those are/were some of my fondest read-aloud books geared more for girls aside from the Little House series. Another book to check out if you haven’t already is “The Best Loved Doll.” It’s not a chapter book, but it’s lengthy for a picture book and very sweet.

  21. Wow! What an amazing post! I sincerely hope that one day, when I’m a mother, I’ll remember to come back here and read the archives.


    Milly-Molly-Mandy is a sweet series for little girls. Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a must-have. Then there are Frances Hodgson Burnett’s stories, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. There’s Heidi by Johanna Spyri. The Pippi Longstocking books are lots of fun. Edith Nesbit’s books, especially The Enchanted Castle, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Railway Children are good. Noel Steatfield’s Ballet Shoes and her other books are really lovely girly books. Then you have Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (Kate Douglas Wiggin), Pollyanna (Eleanor H Porter), and What Katy Did (Susan Coolidge)–all classics. Also there’s a trilogy published by Bob Jones University Press–the Bracken Trilogy, composed of The Bridge, Crown and Jewel, and The Two Collars, which is a really outstanding fantasy trilogy for young girls.

    In another couple of years, start reading all the Anne books by LM Montgomery (beginning with Anne of Green Gables and finishing forty years later with Rilla of Ingleside), Watch for a Tall White Sail by Margaret Bell, and Coronation of Glory by Deborah Meroff which is about Jane Grey, the ‘nine days’ Queen’.

    Well! I got carried away! That should keep you going. But when I was a little girl, my very favourite books were The Chronicles of Narnia.

  22. Oh, and of course, The Princess And The Goblin by George Macdonald–so good I just had to come back and add another comment to tell you about it ;).

  23. Thank you, thank you, and thank you again. I pray I’ll be able to communicate clearly to my five little girls the great wisdom of your post. What a clear and powerful metaphor! And thanks to Suzannah, too, for all the great literature suggestions! I am grateful for the encouragement and smiles I always seem to find when I read Femina.

  24. A friend directed me here, but I think she was directing more MOMs with daughters than maybe dads. My “little” girl is 21 and just got married and moved away and so we are sort of out of that stage, but we do have one spirited one still remaining and that is my sweet wife.
    As a husband this is also beneficial, as these emotions don’t necessarily go away over time and it seems like once they have mastered one set of emotions then life changes and they may have an entirely new kind of “horse” to ride.
    I have often asked my wife, “What is wrong” and she says, “I don’t know” and the hopeless feeling that young parents have with their daughters comes over me. If she doesn’t know what’s wrong, how in the world will I know how to help her?
    Oh for more wisdom from a Father who knows best and knows all. I love that you are all wrestling with important issues that will help frame and build the next generation. Keep it up.

  25. Bianca – the Betsy-Tacy books are also sweet for girls starting around 5… though I could include a disclaimer about some wrong ideas about heaven in them, to discuss. Of course there aren’t many books with nothing to discuss in them though!

  26. Brilliant post! What a very practical parenting insight.

    Crystal, I’d love to know the title of the book by Martin Lloyd-Jones you are reading.

  27. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. This has opened my eyes to the beautiful world of tiny spirited girls. I have a three year old and a 14 month old…both girls. 🙂

  28. Christine,

    The book I referred to is by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The title is Spiritual Depression, It’s Causes and Cures.

    In my opinion the name of the book is not the best indicator of its content. I would say that the summery of the book would best be describes by a quote found on the back of the jacket of the book. “Lloyd-Jones not only lays bare the causes that have robbed many Christians of spiritual vitality but also points the way to the cure that is found through the mind and spirit of Christ.”

    This book has helped me wrestle through many questions I have had my whole Christian life. I highly recommend this book. I am a huge fan of puritan writers like Thomas Watson and Samuel Rutherford and I would add this book to the top of my favorite’s list. Enjoy!!

  29. Thank you for this. It’s a wonderful metaphor and I will definitely be using it in future discussions with my daughter. And as a future reminder for myself.

  30. I want to tell you that I literally just walked away from putting my 4 1/2 yr. old girl down for a much needed nap, which was a battle in itself. She has such a strong, spirited personality and lately she has been very difficult. We have been discouraged as parents on how to shepherd her soul. I turned on my computer, saw this linked from Mablog, and God answered my prayer through your wonderful post. What a blessing. Thank you.
    -Andrew (Emily’s husband)

  31. Thank you! This actually helps alot! Our little girl just turned 2. Our son is 3.5 and sometimes our daughter is perplexing! This post really does help me understand how to parent her better since she is so different than our older son and the baby boy we have!

  32. Thank you for sharing this. I plan on explaining this to my 7 year old daughter- it was very helpful.

  33. Here I am a 28 year old mother of 2 small boys, and I read this and wept. Simply because I myself am a very spirited girl and in many ways still learning to control the reigns of my own emotions. Having been raised in a non Christian home with no father or discipline, Hebrews 12:11 has become a constant theme in my walk with Jesus and I believe describes the bridling you’re referring to. I’m so grateful God disciplines those He loves, and even more lovingly teaches us along the way! I’m super excited to use some of your treasured techniques with all my children and even more so hide this picture of God’s faithfulness in my heart! Thank you (:

  34. Your insight into teaching kids how to deal with emotion is spot on. And I have no doubt that your children differ from one another in how they express emotion.

    But please don’t perpetuate the decades (or centuries) old belief that boys are emotionless or emotinally simple. They need just as much instruction on dealing with emotion. Our society tells boys that they don’t have emotions and so many never learn to cope with them in a healthy way. They really aren’t that different.

  35. thank you. thank you! my girls are 27, 22 and 20 now, not exactly babies any more! we have had so many talks about being in control and this metaphore would have appealed to my horse lovers! i don’t think it is too late to share with them, for their own sakes and the next generation of little girls just begun.

  36. This is great, Rachel, thanks for sharing it! Having five little girls meself, I know exactly what you mean! And as my oldest is almost eight, I’m seeing their emotions continue to grow with them, and I think this illustration is a great way to help them in learning and understanding…actually I think it’s a great way to help me, too! I’m not the best at thinking of “stories” to help illustrate lessons, so I just love when more creative ladies than me come up with these… 🙂 I think I’m looking forward to seeing my two little boys’ personalities mesh with all my passionate ladies’….should be a fun mix!

  37. This was great. And I must say that it makes me awfully thankful to be the lone female in my home. However, I can’t say that all my boys have emotional lives as clear-cut as your Titus’s seems to be. Our boys do take the occasional (and seemingly inexplicable) emotional roller coaster ride.

    In fact, “Rule your spirit,” has been a frequent refrain around the house when the passions are running high, and we’ve had the boys memorize these two (rather masculine) proverbs:

    Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Pr 16:32)

    A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Pr 25:28)

    Though they, no doubt, have less of a struggle than girls in general, boys, too, need to learn to keep a tight rein on the emotions. There are few sights more disturbing than an overly excitable, emotionally fragile man.

  38. I’ve so often been bewildered by my emotional surges. It’s oddly comforting to realize that it isn’t just puberty and up.
    Next question: why do we have these emotions?

    My favorite books when I was about five were by A.A. Milne, Kipling’s just-so stories, any fairy tale I could my hands on (excluding Hans Christian Anderson), “Favorite Poems Old and New”, Francis the Badger. And that’s when Daddy started reading aloud the Little House books and I’ve been surprised how much those books have stayed with me.

  39. Thanks for this post. As a person who rides and works with horses, this analogy is very powerful. I don’t have children of my own, but this is a good reminder to myself personally. I appreciate the bits of wisdom you and your mom and sister share here. Thanks again.

  40. I completely agree with Hannah here…this principle is just as applicable to boys. It’s not that they have the same emotional struggles as girls, but they do have them, and usually they’re twice as loud and twice as destructive. Daughters may ride horses, but my boys can build walls and rule a city.

  41. There really should be a way to edit your comments…like on Facebook…that last sentence doesn’t read quite right. What I mean is, Rachel’s metaphor of girls riding horses is spectacular, and also that Hannah points out a great and different one for boys. I pray for both these things for my girl and my boys! Thanks so much for the post Rachel!

  42. Rachel! You need to put all these bits into a book…Lizziejank Reports From The Trenches.

    Thank you so much – this is beyond helpful in dealing with one of our little ladies who has quite possibly been unaware that she’s even on a horse, much less one that is bucking wildly all over the place.

  43. Wow, this is crazy good. When I saw there were 50 comments I wondered what the newest controversy was! I was surprised…no heated debates!?! How delightful to see there are tons of happy comments from peeps you’ve blessed w/this post. Praise the Lord for the great gift of insight and teaching he’s bestowed on you “Wilsonites.” Thank you for sharing.

  44. Thank you!

    I so identify with your description of the daughter who gets the glassed over drunk look and disobeys more when tired, we have one just like that. My husband and I have noticed we have to be extra gracious to not let her reach the point of tiredness that self-control becomes harder….or at least help coach her through it if we know she can’t just go straight to bed.

    Love the idea of coaching and prepping our daughters ahead of time for hard or new situations thus setting them up for success vs. unwittingly setting them up for failure.

    (Thanks to all of you who left girl book suggestions too! I was just trying to put together a book list for this school year and since we are just newly to the chapter book stage the suggestions are super helpful ;o)

  45. Quick note on the Alcott: I would suggest them in moderation. I am still unlearning her attitudes toward boys and men (I got really into them and read everything short of her thrillers). Boys do not like being treated with her condescending sentimentality and “your heart is your stomache.” That said, stick to Little Women, Eight Cousins, etc and ignore her sequels.
    Eventually, Alcott said that she was “tired of writing moral pap for the young,” which tells you how much of her moralizing was actually sincere.

  46. Hi there, I have a question. This is in no way a critique what so ever of this article, I loved it actually! (No seriously, I saved it in a file on my computer under the “parenting’ folder so I can refer back to it when my 8 month old daughter is older) Back to my question: You said that there was nothing wrong with the emotions, but what if your daughter is sitting there at her sister’s birthday party and is feeling angry and sullen and jaded because she doesn’t get to open any presents? Isn’t that wrong? And if she’s acting that way, how do you address it? Do you not tell her the way she’s acting is wrong? Or do you take her aside and try to empathise with what she’s feeling, but still reminder her that this isn’t how God wants her to act? Sorry to ramble on like this, it’s just, I can tell already that my sweet baby girl is going to be a very emotional, passionate little girl (much like her mama) and I’m trying to gear up to handle it as best as I can. I don’t want to be the whack-a-mole-mom, but I also don’t want to be too lenient and care free about how she acts….trying to find that happy medium! 🙂 And I’m sure that the answer is in the article, so I might just go back and re-read it…. 🙂

  47. Ladies- Thank you very much for all your book recommendations. They are great! My daughter and I will have a wonderful year of reading together. Blessings to you all this week.

  48. Has anyone here read the Grandma’s Attic series? They were one of my favorite series growing up. It’s been years since I read them, but I recall them as being good moral, Christian books that were also lots of fun to read. It’s somewhat in the Anne of Green Gables tradition – stories about a girl growing up with her family and her best friend, going off to school, teaching, getting married, etc.

    The Ordinary Princess is another fun little unusual fairy tale about a perfectly standard princess with mousy hair and freckles who ends up having lovely adventures. Highly recommend.

  49. Sometimes I feel like my boys act just like girls in this emotions area. I have three boys and one baby girl. I guess I’ll just have to wait to see if there is a difference. Thanks for sharing.

  50. Heather D–Wow! I had never heard of that LM Alcott quote! What a strange woman. I got so fed up with her proto-feminist moralising (and she even had a go at GA Henty books in ‘Eight Cousins’! The Nerve!) that these days I only ever read her thrillers (still moralising, but with people getting stabbed occasionally as well). I did know she was a Transcendentalist, and therefore not really a Christian (it’s a Unitarian sect). To hear that not all her moralising is sincere is a bit of a surprise, because I’ve never read a book of hers that didn’t have it…but then, how COULD it ALL be sincere?

  51. This is one of the most helpful blog posts of all time… and I don’t even have children. Sometimes big girls need to remember to control their horses too!

  52. I have to say, while this was a great and helpful article, one of my sons is just as emotional if not more than my most emotional girl and definitely more emotional than the other girls. A lot of days we are both on a runaway horse.

  53. i will add mine to the list of thank you’s. this is incredible, and makes so much sense. very encouraging!

  54. I have 5 girls age 8 and under. This post is really helpful and I have no doubt that I’ll start using the horse metaphor within the next 5 minutes. Thanks!

  55. This article is great! However, as a teacher of children in church, school, and discipleship settings, I have to say that it is NOT only little girls who struggle with these issues! Little boys don’t understand their powerful feelings, either, and they are often steamrolled by well-meaning teachers and parents who try to “fix” their behavior without helping them understand and deal with their feelings and impulses. The strategies are awesome– but remember that it isn’t just little ladies riding through the countryside, but young men riding their own stallions, as well. 🙂

  56. I tweaked this strategy for my two boys (8 and 6)— it’s now called Taming Your Tiger! They love it.

  57. Great article. The only addition I would make is that LITTLE BOYS HAVE HORSES, TOO. We spend a lot of our time telling our little boys (usually unintentionally) that they can tough it out on their own and they should just ignore their horse, or strong arm them, but little boys need to be able to understand their horses, as well.

  58. In your wisdom you are following the steps of Plato and teaching your daughters something I had to learn my second year in college. I had a wonderful philosophy teacher who exposed me to Plato’s Phaedrus. Plato explains that we all have winged horses tethered to a chariot and that our reason is the charioteer… we must learn to control the winged horses so that we can soar towards heaven and not get mired on earth. This control is temperance and is what we must all strive for. My professor helped me see how important cultivating temperance was in order to live meaningfully, and probably changed the course of my life because of it.

    How wonderful that you create the metaphor too, and are teaching your daughters this from the very beginning!

  59. A great metaphor. Good advice for boys too, they seem simple but it is a disservice to our boys to assume they don’t feel as deeply as girls.

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