My “Spirited” Child

“The spirited horse, which will win the race of its own accord, will run even faster if encouraged.” –Ovid

“Spirit has fifty-times the strength and power of brawn and muscle.” –Mark Twain.

My son “A” is something else entirely. I have been utterly overwhelmed yet at the same time unbelievably impressed too many times to count. There are many words for my type of child–willful, defiant, stubborn, hypersensitive–but I prefer the term spirited. We parents of such children have known that our children are strong-willed, highly resistant to our efforts to coax them, but there is so much more to our children than such pejorative terms as “defiant.” No, our children do not only have iron wills, but they have highly intuitive and sharp minds–where does the word “defiant” capture that?

It was not until I read Raising Your Spirited Child that I realized the array of behaviors that my child was demonstrating was actually a common set of characteristics that tend to define what we can call “spirited children.” Intense, dramatic, hypersensitive, are only a few of the terms for such children. The author of the aforementioned book has a brilliant summary of the spirited child; anyone with such a child will immediately resonate with what she has to say:

The word that distinguishes spirited children from other children is more. They are normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive and uncomfortable with change than other children.

ALL children possess these characteristics, but spirited children possess them with a depth and range not available to other children. Spirited kids are the super ball in a room full of rubber balls. Other kids bounce three feet off the ground. Every bounce for a spirited child hits the ceiling.

It is difficult to describe what it is like to be the parent of a spirited child. The answer keeps changing; it depends on the day, even the moment. How does one describe the experience of sliding from joy to exasperation in seconds, ten 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.

The good ones couldn’t be better. Profound statements roll from his mouth, much too mature and intellectual for a child of his age. He remembers experiences you have long since forgotten and drags you to the window to watch the raindrops, falling like diamonds from the sky. On the good days being the parent of a spirited child is astounding, dumbfounding, wonderful, funny, interesting, and interspersed with moment of brilliance.

The dreadful days are another story. On those days you’re not sure whether you can face another twenty four hours with him, It’s hard to feel good as a parent when you can’t even get his socks on, when every word you’ve said to him has been a reprimand, when the innocents act of serving up tuna casseroles instead of the expected tacos incites a riot, when you realise you’ve left more public places in a huff with your child in five years than most people do in a lifetime.

On the bad days being the parent of a spirited child is confusing, frustrating, taxing, challenging, and guilt inducing.

How I love this quote: “On the good days being the parent of a spirited child is astounding, dumbfounding, wonderful, funny, interesting, and interspersed with moment of brilliance.” Fortunately my spirited child has settled down quite a bit in the last few months, and so I have been seeing this positive side more often than the negative side. It also has helped that we live with family so his extroverted intensity has been nurtured by being around many people.

Here again are the five characteristics of spirited children in brief and in detail:

  • Intensity
  • Persistence
  • Sensitivity
  • Perceptiveness
  • Adaptability

How do these characteristics manifest in the spirited child?

1. Intensity: Some spirited children are extroverts–they derive their energy and intensity from being around people, where are some spirited children are deeply introverted: they derive their energy from solitude and reflection. The extroverted spirited children are easy to spot, but the introverts can be deeply intense in their desire to internally assess and strategize in every situation.

2. Persistence: I learned the lesson of my son’s persistence when I tried the time-tested advice of ignoring his toddler temper tantrums only to find that he could cry incessantly. Labelled as “stubborn” and “defiant” these children are, in more positive terms, tenacious and firm-willed. The challenge with them comes from channeling their single-minded persistence in positive directions.

3. Sensitivity: “Mama, my sock as a squirk in it.” Off came the shoe, and the tiny fold in the base of my son’s sock was carefully smoothed out before he would wear his shoe. “What is that smell?”…”This collar is scratching me”… “The potty is dirty.” Spirited children are sensitive to the slightest changes in sound, texture, touch, and smell. My son has a highly sensitive gag reflex and will gag and even vomit if the texture of the food is difficult for him to handle.

Spirited children are also easily over-stimulated. These children are also keenly sensitive to changes in other people’s moods and emotions. When my husband and I were having a heated discussion, at one point my son heard my husband’s raised voice and looked at me with alarm, saying, “Why is he talking to you like that?”

4. Perceptiveness: These children perceive the smallest details in things and are often distracted by their careful observations of the world around them. You end up feeling like every detail they hear and see is carefully put away in a processor to be mulled over and reflected on. Often times they are accused of not listening, when in reality they are often times listening all too well–or, their attention has been captivated strongly by something else.

5. Adaptability: Dealing with change is torturous for the parent or teacher of a spirited child. Leaving a playmate’s house, stopping one activity for another, or getting a food different than what was expected all trigger frustration in the spirited child. The struggle has become so expected that when it comes time to leave somewhere, we start our “leaving routine” a good five to ten minutes before we plan to leave, or even better, we prepare him for leaving before we even arrive at our destination!

After reading Kurcinka’s description of spirited children, I felt like half my battle was won because I suddenly understood my son’s temperament better. I could view his negative characteristics as ones that could be shifted towards the positive, and I suddenly had tools for handling his behavior and personality better. It’s also amazing how many children tend to share many of these same characteristics. When I get together with a friend who is also the parent of a “spirited child”  we see these characteristics jump out quickly in our kids and try to help each other with managing the more “spirited” moments. For anyone who can relate to the description of a “spirited child” in their own child(ren), I would highly recommend the book Raising Your Spirited Child.

“He that loses wealth loses much, he that loses friends, loses more; but he that loses his spirit, loses all.”
–Spanish Proverb.


2 thoughts on “My “Spirited” Child

  1. Pingback: Becoming a ScreamFree Mama « the road less traveled

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