What It’s Like to Raise a “Spirited” Child

It’s just past noon and I’ve already broken all the rules.

I gave my son yogurt-covered raisins even though I know they’re bad for his teeth.

I let him have a bottle even though he’s 2 and is supposed to be drinking from a cup by now.

I chased him around the room with his breakfast, letting him take on-the-go bites because I knew if I put him in the high chair he’d just throw a tantrum.

And I resorted to “The Wiggles” yet again, knowing it was the only way to get him to stop moving so that I could take a break and feed my 3-month-old without worrying that a stray Matchbox car, or ball, or book, would bonk him in the head mid-feed (it’s all happened).

You want to know what it’s like to feel totally inadequate? Try parenting a 2-year-old.

Or, specifically, my 2-year-old.

Child development specialists call kids like mine “spirited.” It’s the label given to children that are “more” of everything – more energetic, more emotional, more intense, more sensitive.

According to child educator Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of “Raising the Spirited Child” (Harper, 1998), 10 to 15 percent of all kids in this country fit the description. They’re the kids who throw temper tantrums hourly, who are too smart for their own good and whose parents always seem a little bit haggard. Tired.

“Being the parent of a spirited child is confusing, frustrating, taxing, challenging, and guilt inducing,” Kurcinka writes. “You feel weary, drained, and much too old for this, even if you were in your 20s when your child was born.”

Tell me about it. There are days when Gabriel throws a screeching fit just because his shirt has a collar on it. Or because we, God forbid, tried to make him wear jeans instead of the blue sweatpants he absolutely must wear every single day.

Basically, spirited kids are the ones other people – people who don’t have kids yet – see at Target or at the mall and say, “My kid won’t act like that in the shopping cart. My kid will be well-behaved and won’t eat junk food and will always have a clean face and combed hair and will be the perfect, adorable child because I’ll be that good of a parent.”

Right. We thought that once, too.

According to Kurcinka, calling our children “spirited” instead of just “difficult” can change the way we parent them.

“When we chose to see our children as spirited, we give them and ourselves hope,” she writes. “It pulls our focus to their strengths rather than their weaknesses, not as another label but as a tool for understanding.”

Of course, Kurcinka maintains, all the qualities that make spirited kids challenging children are the same qualities that will eventually make them successful adults.

With that, I agree. After all, no great poet, inventor or president ever suffered from normalcy. They were all different. Extraordinary.

And they probably all drove their mothers crazy.

Think about it: Benjamin Franklin set out to attract lightning bolts – you think his mom was OK with that? And Albert Einstein, who historians now believe suffered from ADHD, didn’t even speak until he was 4.

So maybe we’re raising the next Albert Einstein. Maybe our little Gabriel will change the world, lead the world, move the world.

Because let’s be honest: He’s not always difficult. Much of the time, he’s just 35 pounds of cuteness saying something sweet or funny and making me forget all about those temper tantrums.

Like just yesterday, when I went to get him from his nap, he held up his two pacifiers (he always needs two), touched them together and said, with an adorable, sparkling-eyed smile: “Pacifiers hugging.”

Or on a recent morning, when I stubbed my toe on a chair, my “spirited” little boy came bolting toward me with his arms outstretched.

Slamming into me with a smile, he wrapped himself around my legs and said, “Kiss Mommy boo-boo.”

And yes, it made my boo-boo better.

“It’s difficult to describe what it is like to be the parent of a spirited child,” writes Kurcinka. “How does one describe the experience of sliding from joy to exasperation in seconds, 10 times a day. How does one explain the `sense’ at eight in the morning that this will be a good day or a dreadful one.”

I’d describe it as hard. And wonderful. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

And for all you people at Target who see my screaming little guy and shake your heads – look out. Because in about 16 years, that same little guy will be loose in the world and when that day comes, who knows what might happen.

— This article originally appeared in The Daily Breeze of Torrance, CA

This is my “spirited” child today, at 6 years old. The kid’s got personality!


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