In Defense of the Spirited Child

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Spirited children used to go by a rather different moniker. Difficult.

I’m not about to condemn anyone who still think of spirited and difficult as synonyms. You know what? Raising a spirited child is difficult. So is raising a mellow one. Parenting, done right, is hard. I can think of very few things worth doing that are easy.

My Spirited Children

"Spirited" children are the next generation's outside-the-box problem solvers.My daughter M meets anyone’s definition of spirited. She’s quick to anger and quick to joy. She gets frustrated easily by things she deems unimportant while focusing for hours on solving problems she finds intriguing. She has little patience and enormous ambition. She falls deep in the spirited range of the scale on the spiritedness quiz. Many textures, flavours and sounds put her on edge, but she is intensely creative with art, food, and music. Actually, she’s intensely everything. She’s just intense.

The only way one could think of my daughter J as mellow would be to meet M first. The only way J can keep her body still is to put her mind in overdrive. J notices and analyzes everything… unless she’s got her nose in a book. When she’s reading, lightning could strike a tree next to her and she wouldn’t notice.

Why Spirited Children Are a Challenge

Parenting a spirited child is exhausting.

These kids’ intensity extends to every aspect of their lives. Where a cool kid will ask why the sky is blue, a spirited child will ask why the sky is sometimes blue, sometimes grey, and why the colour of sunrise varies. The spirited child won’t rest until he or she has an answer that makes sense. The concept of using television as a babysitter is completely foreign to those of us who have spirited children. Their minds never stop. Television would merely give them more to question, more to discuss with me.

Spirited children question everything, from the basics of nature to the reasons behind their parents’ rules. Spirited children often need less sleep than their peers, leaving us parents less time to recharge our batteries. We parents expect to have a period of time before the teenage years during which our children simply take our word as gospel. Many spirited children begin to question the reasons for our rules and expectations by the time they’ve mastered 2 word phrases.

Spirited child need their parents, teachers, and mentors to have a deep level of confidence. They need the adults around them to be able to react to their questions and insights productively. Adults who didn’t have a habit of self-analysis before encountering a spirited child run the risk of feeling undermined by spirited children and often react in one of three ways: lashing out at the child, withdrawing from the child, or indulging in self-recrimination.

Spirited kids’ inherent ability to see two or three levels deeper into their experiences than many of their peers can be the basis for enormous success throughout their lives, but only if handled with sensitivity. Spirited children’s energy can easily be misdirected toward destructive behaviour, especially if the adults around them react defensively to children’s questions and insights.

Alongside the need to question everything comes stubbornness. It’s infuriating and inconvenient, often embarrassing, and sometimes dangerous. The last thing that you need when ushering your child through a busy parking lot, for example, is to have a discussion on why the parking lot is dangerous.

Why the World Needs Spirited Children

About a month ago, ldskatelyn asked on Facebook, “What do you do with a super stubborn child? Other than completely lose your mind? (‘Cause I’ve already tried that and it didn’t work so well.)”

This was my response:

  1. Choose your battles.
  2. Listen. With M and J, stubbornness is usually simply a way of telling me that they don’t feel heard. I found that an, “I understand that you want A, but I am telling you B” response resolved 90% of our issues.
  3. Give choices. Provide two options that you can live with and let your child choose. They feel empowered. You get your way.
  4. Think long term. Do you want your daughter to be a person who does whatever her friends tell her? Or do you want her to stand up for what’s right?

Point 4 is the beauty of the spirited child. Spirited kids will change the world for the better. In questioning everything, they question things that need to be rethought. Infuriating though it may be to have every single choice I make be second-guessed by 8-year-olds, my daughters have forced me to parent consciously, thoughtfully, always seeking improvement.

I know that my girls will stand up for their friends. When her class whispered “mean things” at the sight of a blind student walking through the school halls, my daughter M called them on it. Along with her friend Jocelyn, she gave them a lecture on compassion, understanding, and appreciating differences. When one teacher forgot to implement another’s stricter rule during recess, my daughter J brought it up with the more lenient teacher, who thanked her for the information and told her it was okay. When a teacher humiliated another student in class last year, J talked to me about it. She then elected to speak to her teacher about how uncomfortable she had felt. In all cases, their feedback was well-received and other children were better off (or at least no worse off).

I know that my spirited children will always think for themselves, and in knowing that, I am confident that they will have, on balance, what I wish for them: a healthy, productive, happy and whole adulthood.

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the single mother of 8-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, but now also blogs at and Multicultural Mothering.

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Raising Your Spirited Child – A Book Review

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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.

spiritedKurcinka 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.

A caveat

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 and Multicultural Mothering.

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