Using the Reins

Some time ago I wrote a post about girls and their emotions entitled “The Spirited Rider.” In the aftermath of that post, it became clear that emotions are a real topic of interest!  My goal in this post is to share with you a few of the practical ways we try to teach our children to ride.

Fussing has got to be one of the biggest issues with little kids, whether boys or girls. It doesn’t much matter whether it is fussing about the food that you put on the table, fussing about who has had which toy for how long, fussing about how hungry they are 15 minutes before dinner, or fussing about whatever else they happen upon. Fussing is definitely an issue, and it really is an issue for all ages. The older you get, the better you get at hiding the actual fuss behind a blanket of tired eyes and headaches, but fussers are everywhere.

Christian parents very rightly want to target this sin and be rid of it. No one likes a fusser, and no one likes to be fussed at. It is a very unseemly little problem. But let’s go back to that 15 minutes before dinner scenario. Let’s say that I am finishing up the prep for dinner, and some poor little soul lies down on the kitchen rug and launches a fuss. If I just fire off a little “Stop fussing!” what do you think are the chances of it bringing about a change ? Have you by any chance tried this technique? Have you noticed its overwhelming success? This is why fussing is such a total bane in the life of the parent. The more you try to get rid of it that way, the quicker it comes back.The quicker it comes back, the quicker you are ramping up the punishment, and the whole thing can become one heinous monster of a sin snaggle.

This is because as a parent, you are dressing up in police riot gear and trying to block the horse from getting off the path. This is, incidentally, a very tiring thing to do. If the horse thinks that it smells a sweet meadow of clover over there, it will be motivated to get around you. You will, despite how tough and steely you look with that shield, probably fail. The Christian parent needs to be coaching the rider at this point, not blocking the horse. If the horse wants to barge, you need to make sure that the rider doesn’t. But how to motivate that little rider?

My dad has always said (quoting some Puritan or other) that there is a difference between the birds flying over your head (temptation), and letting them build a nest in your hair (sin). But in between flying and nest building there are a few steps. The first fuss from your child is often a sign of the bird arriving with a twig in its beak. The fuss itself is not the sin, but rather a little alert to the parents that there is a nest project (from some unidentified bird) underway. The thing that is truly important is that you teach your children to get rid of the birds, not cover them up under a hat.

We are big on metaphors in our house. They are often long, drawn out, story-like metaphors that sound pretty silly when you get on a blog to tell adults about them. We change them up a lot. So while our children are all familiar with the horse metaphor, it is not mentioned every time we have an emotional issue. I figure that the more metaphors I use to explain the same concept, the more likely it is that one of them will stick.

The most recent way that we have been working with our kids about fussing has really been a blessing to all of us. It involves a silly story about a big old nasty black spider that has hairy legs. He is very, very sneaky. He has a whole box of costumes that he uses to try to trick you. He is always looking for ways to get into your heart so that he can steal something. Sometimes he dresses up as a sheriff and tells you that if you let him in, he will help you get that toy back. He shows you his guns and says that he can do it with you, if you let him in. (For dramatic effect this spider also strokes your cheek with one hairy leg at this point.) But if you let him in, he will just run away with all your joy, and probably some of your love too.

Sometimes this sneaky spider dresses up like a teacher, and tells you that you are right about something, and everyone else is wrong. Let him in, and he will steal your patience and your kindness. Sometimes (mostly at Church) he dresses up like a P.E. teacher and blows his little whistle and tells you to “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.” Sometimes he is a doctor, and tells you that you will die if you don’t eat or drink something right this very second. But invariably, if you let him in, he will load up his little bag with some of your love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, or self-control, and then he will run for the hills – leaving you in a pickle.

The main reason we have loved this story is because we use it as a task for the kids. If a fuss begins, I will tell them to go figure out what costume the spider is wearing, and then to come tell me when they have figured it out. I have LOVED seeing my little people take a second to identify what temptation they are dealing with. Recently our four-year-old was fussing about a crust situation while I was making lunch. I asked her to figure this out, and she came back to me with the news that he was dressed up as a chef and telling her that he would cook her something delicious (we hadn’t used this one yet). I asked her if he was right. She laughed, and we talked about how he was just wanting to sneak off with her joy in the lunch that she was having. I had her go ahead and tell him to scoot. She said “Get out of here Mr. Spider! I know who you are, and you can’t come in! I can eat crusts! No biggie!” I try to emphasize the transaction involved: the deceiver is taking something from you. He is confusing you, and lying to you. Don’t believe him!

This is essentially a way of getting around to the side of the horse, to talk to the rider. No matter how close you are to the horse, it is only the rider that has access to the reins. Get the rider to see clearly, and then turning the horse is simple.

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29 thoughts on “Using the Reins

  1. Love it! I just read it to our three year old and he can’t stop talking about Mr. Spider and how he might kill us if we let him come steal pieces of our hearts! Thanks for the encouragement and great story!

  2. This post almost made me cry, isn’t that silly? It just made me think of how often I am trying to boot camp through the day with my two boys, and just tell them to stop whining. I am the mom in police gear trying to stop a galloping horse, so thank you for this tool in my tool box.

    As an aside, I think this idea would make an AWESOME children’s picture book!

  3. This is excellent! My husband and I have thoroughly enjoyed your book and have learned/relearned many things from it which we are now implementing in our home.

    By the way, the quote above about the birds flying around your head and nesting is from Martin Luther, that great German Reformer. 🙂 My husband reminds me of it whenever I’m really struggling with something.

  4. I like Jodi’s idea too! This is a very helpful tool. Thanks for sharing. We’ve been using the “thanksters” and “cranksters” here at our house and it has helped.

  5. It makes a lot of sense to train a child to identify temptation and learn to turn from it, rather than just telling her to stop whining. Has anyone tried this kind of metaphor with a 2 and a half year old? I’m nervous it may scare my daughter and I’m not sure if she will understand metaphor.

  6. Now that is classic!

    One of my favorite ways to deal with a fussy little one (way back when) was a trick I got from your mother. I used it rarely, but a bowl of cheerios in the bathtub, worked wonders for more than one tired, grumpy little Hurt munchkin.

  7. Thank you so much for this spider analogy. This is something I will definitely use with my girls. It helps me too to realize the fuss is not the sin, but a byproduct of it. Thanks for your wisdom and creativity.

  8. Seriously, this is awesome.

    A few friends and I have been devouring your book, “Loving the Little Years.” And as a mother of 3 under 5, this book has been SO encouraging and challenging.

    I actually blogged about The Spirited Riders section the other day (

    But back to this post. Thank you for the spider metaphor – what an awesome tool to use in training my kiddos. I just found your blog and am so thankful I did.

  9. Katie, I think you should elaborate on the cheerios in the bathtub!

    (P.S. Did your husband tell you I said hi? I got to chat with him in the airport on the way home from Monroe last month.)

  10. Valerie,
    I’ll answer that for Katie….it’s a story I tell in Praise Her in the Gates in the chapter about respecting sons. The gist of it is that sometimes I thought one of the kids needed some time alone, so I would pop him or her in the tub with some bathtoys and a plastic bowl of cheerios that floated on the water. It was quite a restorative. You should try it next time you need a little perk up!

  11. Katie, if you do elaborate, could you please take pity on those of us who don’t even know what a cheerio is – apart from a farewell salutation, and you can’t put them in bowls.

  12. Ellen,
    How fun to introduce you to a cheerio! It is a cold cereal we Americans pour out of a box and eat in a bowl with cold milk.

  13. You are so creative! I also think you should make this into a children’s book. My kids love Peter Leithart’s book of fables, but they sometimes go over the heads of the younger ones. It’d be great to have a picture book with your fables for the smaller crowd (which are also simple enough to pack a whallop of a lesson for adults!). 🙂

  14. This is fabulous. I have a question though. We have a very spirited little 2 year old who obviously has no idea about metaphors yet. What do you advise for this age group?

  15. Wow – where were you when my kids were little. Good grief. What a great way to communicate BIG heart issues to tiny little souls! Thanks 🙂

  16. I tell my boys that when they’ve disobeyed or been unkind or what have you, then they were listening to sin, the Enemy, and going over to his side. I tell them that we have to fight the enemy because we have a strong Captain and King and when we want to snatch or push or whine that’s the enemy trying to trick us to fight against our Captain and his army. Having only boys (and rereading the Lord of the Rings myself), the battle metaphors really make sense to us.

  17. Thats hilarious – I read the chapter on Praise Her in the Gates about the cheerio’s in the bath-tub, and for years have always pictured it in my head as the only type of cheerio we have here in New Zealand – which is a type of small pink cocktail sausage. Will adjust picture in head!

  18. These are all great comments and metaphors! Very helpful.

    I, too, am soaking up all the great stories and encouragement in your book, Lizzie! So often the temptation for me (and I’m sure many other moms of little ones) is to believe that my work is drudgery and doesn’t really mean a whole lot and if I can just get through this wretched day or week, then I can really get down to some serious business (and what that might really be I have no idea?) at some point. Your writing is reminding me how important this work of raising little people really is and how truly deliberate and conscious I need to be throughout. Which is sort of in the same vein of this very post. I can’t just quaintly ride side-saddle here; I need to get creative and take the reins and dig in.

    I haven’t quite finished up with the book, but I think this has been the most enjoyable line for me so far: “Scars and stretch marks and muffin tops are all part of your kingdom work.” 🙂 Seriously.

  19. Thank you for sharing a wonderful, practical lesson. I had an opportunity to try it out last week – My almost 12 yo daughter let herself get upset the other morning as she was leaving for school…I hugged her and said simply, “don’t let the monsters steal your joy.” She looked at me, puzzled, but almost immediately “got it.” Then she hugged me and left for school with a smile on her face and the joy back in her heart. After school, she was happy to report that after fending off the monsters in the morning she’d had a great day at school. 🙂 Just want you to know your lessons are appreciated.

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