The summer of 2001, I graduated college, married a man after knowing him for less than a year, left my homeland of Oregon and moved to Texas, started my first office job, and became pregnant – all in the space of three months. We soon welcomed my oldest daughter, Elise Trinity, in April of 2002. Thank God that maternal instincts seem to kick in, but really I had no idea what I was doing, no vision of what a mother should be.

Our culture seems to think we will learn the complex and difficult art of parenting by osmosis. Since we no longer believe in objective values, we can no longer teach any work that requires us to embody our values. Many of us have sat through hours of training so we could learn how to use a program that will probably be obsolete in one year, but somehow we are sent home with a newborn child in a car seat and just a small flier on how to breastfeed.

This is just one small sign showing that, over the last 100 years, our culture has thoroughly devalued the family by sentimentalizing it, commercializing it, and rejecting it as a God-given building block of society. Even those who seem to idolize the family are part of this devaluing. When we turn good things into idols, we actually strip them of their true value. By making something more than it is, we lose sight of the good it really is.

All this means that our own parents have often been ill-equipped to help us learn the art of parenting. The last hundred years, as individualistic consumerism came to dominate our approach to life, many parents adopted an ineffective laissez-faire approach to parenting – let the kids decide who they want to be and how they want to live – creating a generation of lost latch-key kids. Meanwhile, the concurrent rise of divorce wrecked even more destruction. As a result, many Christians today don’t want to parent the same way we had been parented. We want to return to God’s design for the family so we can flourish as our good Father intended us to, but we flounder because that design has largely been thrown away, even inside the church.

As Tommy and I brought Elise home to our small, barely furnished duplex, I had this deep sense of being given an opportunity, an opportunity to break new ground for a new generation. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we were both deeply committed to breaking the generational strongholds that had harmed both our families of origin. We weren’t sure what Gospel-centered parenting looked like, but we weren’t going to let this cute little seven-pound girl take us down without giving it a good fight.

As a young woman, everything everywhere seemed to be telling me that I could only find vocational fulfillment in a professional or academic career. Yet here I was in a new city and a new state with no career, no family around to support me, and no money to do anything more than create a stable home for this little girl to grow up in. I had been discipled just enough to know that the world’s vision of vocation did not align with a Christ-centered vision. After all, it was a poor young mother such as myself who was proclaimed to be most blessed among women.[1]

I also knew that God had called me to work heartily, in whatever I did, working “as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”[2] In our work as mothers and fathers, as much as in any other work, we are serving the Lord Christ – and that is where our value and meaning comes from.

So, as I sat alone nursing my newborn in the middle of the night, I resolved to give motherhood the same energy and effort I would give a high-profile, lucrative vocation, and I started a blog called Chief Executive Mom which I maintained for about three years to help me press into living out this resolve. My blog helped me focus my efforts as I worked to embody my conviction that the hidden, uncelebrated, and often tedious work of motherhood was truly important in God’s kingdom and something I could do with as much intelligence, effort, and creativity as I would any “real job.”

God provided many resources to help equip me as a young mother, but a real turning point in my understanding of what it looked like to parent well occurred when my aunt called and asked me if I would like to have her old horse. I had grown up riding and training horses at a first-rate equestrian facility just outside my hometown. My aunt was the one who bought me my first riding lessons and later my first horse. In 2006, her show horse had to retire from competition due to injury, and she wondered if I might want to rehab him for recreational riding. He was gorgeous, so although we could barely afford him, I just couldn’t say no.

The barn became part of our family life. I would take my three very small girls – my youngest was a toddler at the time – out to the barn and let them watch Pixar movies in the back of our minivan or run free in the woods behind the barn while I took a break to do something I loved.

I clearly remember the day that I had my horse-induced parenting epiphany. I had just spent over an hour systematically working with my horse to carefully develop his muscle memory so he would clearly understand and execute what I expected of him at this point in our training. Then I returned to the car and proceeded to grow frustrated with my kids’ failure to follow my instructions. My horse would obey me, why wouldn’t my kids?! It felt like all my instruction was doing no good. I tried to explain what I wanted so patiently and so clearly. Why wouldn’t they listen to me!

And then it hit me – I spent a great deal of time and thought making sure my horse could understand my nonverbal cues as well as my verbal cues. I worked hard to harmonize both verbal and nonverbal together into a coherent system of communication that would help him grow calmly and confidently into his full potential. I knew the habits and disciplines that would help my horse understand what I wanted from him.

I gave my children no such holistic effort. I expected them to simply listen to the abstract content of what I said to them. I expected them to act like little brains on a stick who only needed rational input. Simply because they spoke English, I automatically assumed they must be able to comprehend the meaning of everything that I was saying.

Training my horse taught me that this was ridiculous. In truth, my retired horse had more self-control and maturity than my two-year old, yet I expected my toddler and preschoolers to follow my verbal instructions without having to pay attention to what our entire life-style of nonverbal embodiments was teaching them.

Although our children are not merely animals, neither are they less than animals. They are embodied creatures who learn and communicate through nonverbal cues just as much as any other animal. Indeed, communication experts and psychologists say that around 93% of communication is nonverbal, yet too often, our automatic default is to just talk to our children about their behavior in rather dry, abstract ways. We have all seen parents talking their kids into disobedience through the creation of sheer frustration. We become like the parents in Peanuts – our many words are not connecting with what is actually going on in the mind and heart of our child. With kids of all ages, finding the right words, getting the lecture just right, is very rarely the real problem.

When training my horse, I carefully cultivated his environment and routine. I paid careful attention to every detail of what my body language communicated to him. Only after shaping the whole of his embodied experience in a certain way did I then expect him to respond positively to the word “woah” or “canter”.

But at home I was hardly paying any attention to what my body language communicated to my girls. I wasn’t paying much attention to what our habits and routines taught them about themselves and their world. I wasn’t thinking about how the spaces of our home communicated certain values and expectations to them. I had been trained to do all those things for my horse but not for my children.

From that day on, I changed the way I parented. I began to focus primarily on how I shaped the understanding and affections of my children through habits, environment, routine, and nonverbal communication; then when it came time to talk it out, my children would have already been experiencing and living out the things I needed to name verbally. My horse humbled me. He showed me that I had been a fool to think I could lecture and demand obedience and love without cultivating it in myself and the life we lived.

Did I become a perfect parent? Absolutely not. But after discovering the importance of embodiment, did I become a more effective and much less frustrated parent? Yes.

My horse taught me to make sure that my children’s bodies and imagination were primed to receive my words as meaningful to their experience of the world; he taught me to develop the habits and disciplines that would help my children understand what I wanted from them; he taught me to harmonize both verbal and nonverbal together into a coherent system of communication that would help them grow calmly and confidently into their full potential. I learned to read the girls more stories and lecture them less. I learned to create beautiful spaces that inspired respect and care as much as I demanded it verbally. I learned to show them more joy and attention than I asked from them in return.

When I told my aunt to ship down her horse, it felt like I had indulged in a frivolous splurge that would draw me away from all the real work I had to do. I had no idea that through this recreational activity I loved, God would make me into the parent I needed to be. The Lord graciously parented me by example. He didn’t send a frustrated pastor to lecture me about things I hadn’t experienced and didn’t understand. Instead, he showed me that how I live will be where my children learn what it means to be human and what their precious, little human lives are for.

Citation Information

Annie Crawford, “How My Horse Taught Me to Be a Parent,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 171-177.

End Notes

[1] Luke 1:42.

[2] Colossians 3:23 (ESV).