There is plenty that I don’t like about Raising Your Spirited Child, a classic of parenting by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. My greatest annoyance with the book is its tone. Much of the content is targeted at the parent who has already labeled his or her child “difficult” — a label the author rejects — has reached the end of their rope, and is looking for some hope that they can survive until their child leaves home. At times, I feel like the author is simply showing parents how to avoid meltdowns, which I don’t believe is much related to the goal of parenting.
Still, much of what Kurcinka says has rung true over the years for my 7-year-old daughters, M and J, as well as a number of their friends. The author’s central point is that some children (and adults) are simply more. They are more intense, persistent, sensitive, distractible or perceptive and less adaptable than the average child.
Kurcinka suggests ways of working with these traits to allow both the child and the parent-child relationship to flourish. One of the biggest realizations for me was that many people, adults and children alike, are not spirited. Since our entire family falls well within the parameters of “spirited”, it hadn’t occur to me before I read the book that other kids didn’t have the same sort of observations, insights, and endurance as my daughters.
Chapter 3 of Kurcinka’s book contains a questionnaire to help identify where on the spectrum of “cool”, “spunky” and “spirited” your child falls. At age 3, M scored deep in the spirited range. J was a point shy of spirited, and measured spunky. Over time, J has waffled between scoring spirited and spunky, whereas M has always, always, always been deep in the spirited zone.
Here are some of the points from Raising Your Spirited Child that were the biggest eye-openers for me as a mother.
Kurcinka spends some time discussing introversion and extraversion. At age 3, M’s explosion of talking and J’s thoughtfulness have made their differences in this area particularly obvious. Spirited children can fall anywhere on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, and I found the author’s discussion of how to work with our different energy sources very helpful. I allow J her quiet time and opportunities to develop a few very deep relationships, while giving M plenty of opportunities for interaction. J certainly enjoys large social gatherings, but she needs the intimacy of close friends and mentors. M enjoys having some friends who “get” her, but she’s energized by hanging out with lots and lots of people.
As LauraC points out, it’s helpful to remember that my daughters experience the world intensely, and that is why their reactions are so intense. I hardly ever give half-answers to their questions. I know that both my daughters are persistent and curious enough that it’s not worth the effort to explain something to them unless I’m going to do it right. In return, they have learned to trust that when I say we’ll discuss something later, I will come back to it in the best way I know how, under more convenient circumstances.
It was worth reading Raising Your Spirited Child to learn about myself, too. Kurcinka provides tips for the spirited parent to reduce the intensity of their interaction with their spirited child. I continue to remind myself to choose my battles. Before I read the book the first time, I’d go toe-to-toe with my daughters about everything. Everything. I have worked long and hard on my patience with the girls and I’m pretty good at redirecting their energy. I’m drawn to children others find difficult. The techniques that make communication with my daughters successful often work wonders on their peers whose intensity may not have been understood in the past.
Sure, the tone of the book irritated me, but the nuggets of wisdom were well worth it. I just wish I’d read it earlier, since the author addresses indicators of a spirited temperament in infants.
Do not treat this book as your single guide to parenting. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough.
Kurcinka takes an approach in which she advocates adjusting the world around the child to accommodate his or her intensity. While some accommodations are appropriate, going too far down that road runs the risk of raising a child unable to function among people unwilling or unable to adjust to them. For instance, the author praises the parent who bought swiveling chairs to allow her child to wiggle and move at the dining table. That’s fine at home, but this child will need to be able to know when to sit still in a restaurant or school cafeteria.
There’s understanding that your child is intense, and then there’s giving into it. It is the solemn duty of those of us lucky enough to be raising spirited children to arm them with the tools and skills they need to manage and target their intensity.
Do you have a spirited child? Are you a spirited adult? How does the intensity manifest in your day-to-day life?
A previous version of this review was published on Double the Fun.
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.