Life With a Spirited Child: A Geek Perspective

Family GeekMom
Photo CC: Natania Barron – “Who Me?”

It’s the summer of 2006. I am enormously pregnant and working at Barnes & Noble, where the air conditioner keeps breaking, and I am frequently asked (with people staring at the lanyard with my name emblazoned on it) if I work here. No, really, I’m just a crazy pregnant woman wandering the aisles pretending to work in retail.

One afternoon, while working the registers, a mother comes through with her two year old daughter. The daughter is in her arms, screaming bloody murder, and attacking her mother like a feral child. She’s having a tantrum, and the mother is completely ignoring her. I ring up their books, and once they’re out of earshot, I turn to the manager of the store–who has a two year old–and haughtily declare, “My child will never behave that way. Can’t people control their children?” To which my manager laughed and said, “You don’t have kids yet. You’ll see.”

Sometimes I think my son might have been listening at that very moment. My child, from the youngest of ages, has been precocious in every way. He seems to feel things and experience the world on so many more levels than I ever have. He’s outgoing to the point of embarrassment. When he’s angry, it’s like someone’s flipped a switch and there’s nothing to do. Reasoning, begging, bargaining, bribing… nothing works. He’ll go for two weeks with perfect behavior, polite and generous and sweet; then BAM, something triggers an outburst and I’m left wondering how the hell I became such a terrible parent.

For a while, I didn’t know what to do. I figured my husband and I were just failing as parents. I mean, I hung around with other kids our son’s age. Kids who sit still during films, who occupy their time by playing on their own, who take naps twice a day and cuddle with their parents. My first reaction wasn’t that there was something wrong with him, it’s that there was something wrong with me. We had episodes on planes, in cars, in restaurants, at social events, with family, with friends. For a while there, it was almost like being kept prisoner.

So we’re geeks. We tried reading. But something was missing. We quickly learned that when it came to our son, these books just didn’t apply. My kid is not the happiest kid on the block, I’ll tell you. You try talking to him like a Neanderthal and he’ll give you that look like you’ve lost it. This kid, at three and a half, pushed away a sandwich at lunch one day, declaring, “Actually, I’d prefer peanut butter and jelly.” With adult inflections and everything.

Thankfully, my husband, on one particular terrible day, discovered a book called Raising Your Spirited Child.

I won’t say that it was a panacea, but it did help put things in perspective. Our son fits the bill. After all, the subtitle of the book is: “a guide for parents whose child is more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, energetic”. All of these fit the bill for our son. Reading the book gave me a huge sense of relief. I wasn’t a failed parent; he’s just a remarkable child. He never stops asking questions, and every new emotion is like a explosion. Sometimes in a good way–hugging me until I can’t breathe–sometimes in ways that incur bruises, bites, and tears (the latter, for both of us). He’s an extroverted spirited child who wants nothing more than to get the entire world to rejoice along with his most minuscule discoveries. And that can be beautiful and mind-bogglingly frustrating.

I encourage other parents out there to read this book. We discovered that not only was our child one of these spirited kids, but that my husband was one, too. Granted, the totally introverted kind, which explained why he butted heads so often with our son.

But, if books were the answer to getting kids to behave, I wouldn’t still be writing this. I think the over-arching theme of the book is that spirited children, especially in the 2-5 bracket, are the hardest. Every day is a battle. Every moment is a challenge. But as they grow up, it gets easier. They’re often the leaders in life, the ones with charisma to spare. They’re constantly looking to challenge themselves and explore the world around them, something that comes in handy later in life, that’s for sure.

Except now is the hard time. Right before Christmas, my son had one of his tantrums. He had been splendid all day long, and I wanted to reward him with a little one dollar wind-up car. Except he wanted two. When I put my foot down, he decided it was time to go into berserker mode. Mommy rolled high on fortitude, but low on perception. The fight broke out just as we were making for the register. I had to hold onto his arm while he flailed and hit me, and threw himself to the ground. I was that mother. Then, to put the icing on the cake, as we left–just as I let my defenses down–he ran into the display at the store window and tore down every last box.

That was the worst day ever. But the next day, things were better. With a spirited child, it’s about taking each day at a time. About learning to see the world as your child does, and understanding that their perspective isn’t just different than yours, but different than other kids’. Spirited kids rewrite parenting books, continually get you odd looks from people (and friends, I suspect, who thought you’d be a good parent), and garner lots of advice from family and even strangers. They force you to look really, really hard at the way you are a parent.

More than anything, our son wants to feel like he matters. He might only be four and some change, but he feels as if his opinion is just as important as the rest.  Yes, occasionally being his mom is like caring for someone with a drinking problem (slurring, falling down, tantrums, moments of love and incoherence). Yes, occasionally he freaks out for no apparent reason. But he’s almost always upset about things that matter to him, things we take for granted. The more responsibility we’ve given him, the more praise he gets for his accomplishments, the happier he’s been. In the last few months, even as I’ve gone back to work full time and my husband has stayed home (probably the biggest adjustment in our son’s life) he has been flourishing.

So, to all your parents out there with bruises from the battlefield: you are not alone! Your child is not broken. You are not a bad parent. You’ve just been given a challenge. And if you, and your child, rise to that challenge, you’ll all be rewarded.

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15 thoughts on “Life With a Spirited Child: A Geek Perspective

  1. I read the book when my daughter was 2-3 and it saved my sanity. She’s nearly 16 now, and still the same person, but we’ve never regretted the choices we made in parenting her. She’s a delight and also my most difficult child, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

  2. I wish I’d known about this book years ago, my second child fits this to a tee. Going out and getting this first chance I get.

  3. I have not read the book, but I have three under five…all who fit the bill for the “spirited child”. I’ve been in stores with a quiet, curious child, having a lovely time looking at ALL the toys (sometimes I let my middle child do this since he’s usually okay with it), when all of a sudden he starts screaming. People have honestly thought that a smoke detector or some sort of alarm has sounded when he screams so shrill. I’ve simply put down all our intended purchases, picked him up and walked out of the store, holding his hands from slapping me across the face. Mind you, the toy sections of department stores are never next to an exit… It’s tough, but joyful at the same time. It’s nice to bear witness to other accounts so we know we’re not alone! Thanks for this…

  4. Just started reading that book for my 6m old son. Thanks for the post. It’s comforting to hear other parents in the same situations.

  5. Great book! My neighbor recommended it and it really helped me see the world from my son’s perspective (and realize that we’re very similar).

  6. I have a very precocious 9 year old, sometimes I wonder how she made it to nine without us being locked up or wiping her out. She is extremely smart about using any system set up to limit her from getting what she wants. Part of this, I realize, is her being an only child and her entire social structure (until head start (that goodness)) was adults (her youngest cousin and uncle were both in there early twenties when she was born). There are times you have to realize that the adult vocabulary and thoughts are still in the nine year old, and that she is using that awareness to twist you the way she wants. The book sounds like it will get read around here as soon as I can locate a copy (library or book store).

    1. @Jay Perry,

      Our 7-year-old is the same way. He will manipulate any situation to his benefit if you let him. To complicate matters, he was tested as gifted (IQ 140) but with an anxiety disorder. When he has an anxiety attack, there’s no reasoning with him. He’ll scream, hit, kick, run away, and laugh maniacally. The latter of which makes it all sound malicious in nature when he’s really scared about losing control.

      Unfortunately, his teacher doesn’t seem on board with helping us. She hasn’t challenged him intellectually (which leads to boredom and acting out), she doesn’t react properly during anxiety attacks despite our prior instructions (leading to the attacks getting worse).

      Now, the other students have pegged him as “different” and are actively trying to set him off since a NHL breakdown means less time having to learn in class. For now, NHL seems somewhat unaware of them picking on him, but he’s realizing it more and more.

      As someone who grew up ostracized and picked on, I *DON’T* want my son to experience the same thing. Yet, we feel like our options are running low since the school’s not helping us out. (We manage the behavior at home, but can only do so much to manage it at school without their assistance.)

  7. Our son is a spirited child in every way. He’s nearly 15 now, & we didn’t find the spirited child book until he was 7 or 8 years old. The book that saved our sanity during the toddler years, recommended by a first-grade teacher friend, was “1-2-3 Magic”, which gave us a system for time-outs that saved everyone’s sanity, so I highly recommend it. (This was a kid who, at one point, had to be timed-out on the landing of the stairs, because there was nothing there within reach to throw…) I also want to add that my spirited child went on to receive the diagnoses of Aspergers Syndrome, Tourettes, & OCD. With great support from our school district & various professionals in the field, he’s at grade level (or beyond) in a college-prep high school for kids with developmental differences. Many spirited kids are so because they have sensory overload issues, so please don’t be afraid of “labeling” your child or seeking a deeper understanding of how they perceive the world. It has been a tough but extremely rewarding journey for our family, parenting our spirited kid!

  8. I have twins. My daughter is more intense and sensitive, and my son is more persistent and energetic. Yet, I also get comments from other parents about how sweet she is, and how friendly and fun he is. Spirited children really are a handful, especially in pairs! But they’re also the biggest blessing I could have asked for.

  9. Our first born is a spirited child. I found this book when she was about 18 months old (she’s 2 now) and was greatly reassured and relieved that I wasn’t the only one with a child like this! This is definitely the best parenting book I have ever read–and the author’s sleep book (Sleepless in America by Mary Kurcinka) is the most awesome sleep book I’ve read. Raising Your Spirited Child was wonderful, but Sleepless in America completely changed the way we handled all things related to sleep or even just activities that need our child to calm down. 🙂

  10. This book is awesome. While it didn’t instantly solve the frustrations we had with our second child, it made me realize how HE was perceiving things and what we could do to help him. He’s a teen now, and while he no longer runs like the Energizer bunny, he’s spirited in handling teen things – he worries, frets, and upsets easily.

    Interestingly, though, I learned a lot about my first child with this book, too. He’s introverted (and not at all spirited) and this book offered important guidance for helping him, too.

  11. This book is fabulous and definitely saved my sanity. My oldest now 6 and a half is a spirited and gifted child who is still a handful but the strategies in the book were helpful and just made me feel like I wasn’t alone or a bad parent.

  12. Another good book for parents of kids like this (and yes, I would know) is “The Way of Boys”. While unsurpisingly slanted towards male children, moms of especially active girls will also find some of the observations useful.

  13. Oh, I SOOO know. The world needs to start to understand that these children exist and no it is not their parents’ fault!
    I have 2 spirited ones – identical twins, now age 5. It took me having a second set of identical twins who were ‘normal’ to realize that my older twins’ spirit was not a result of my poor parenting!
    I also recommend the ‘Fussy Baby Book’ by Dr. Sears, which is really about spirited children in general more than it is about colicky babies. I also skimmed the Kurcinka book and it is good, but a little on the wordy side to get through to someone as exhausted as I was!
    But yes, there is hope. After completely changing my method of parenting from ‘asserting control’ to empathetic guidance and consequences’ with letting the unimportant things go, things are much better. We have really turned the corner at age 5. Still spirited, yes, but much more cooperative, and very fulfilling.
    Also, look into sensory perception disorder – we did therapy for this and it helped alot. And for tantrums, I realized that one of my daughters would find anything to have a tantrum about if her blood sugar got too low.
    Thank you for telling the world we’re not bad parents!

  14. Hey there! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Houston Texas!
    Just wanted to say keep up the great work!

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