Posted by: scintillatingspeck | January 25, 2010

My spirited child.

Upon the recommendation of my trusted friend Adrie, I’ve started reading Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka.  Starting with the premise that some children are particularly spirited, i.e., more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, and energetic, and that parenting these children presents certain, ahem, shall we say, challenges, the book goes on to offer some suggestions and strategies for coping with the challenges.

I have only read a small part of it so far, but immediately I am struck by a few insights, or rather, I am reminded of what I know to be true already, but this book is helping me put those truths at the forefront:

  • Lily may look a lot more like Daddy, but her temperament (so far) is a lot like Mama’s.  Which means her temperament is a lot like Nonna’s (my mother’s) as well.
  • We can choose to see basic temperamental traits as problems or as strengths, and it is probably best for all involved to emphasize the strengths and work together to handle the more challenging aspects.
  • Lily is most definitely intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, not very adaptable to change, and has a hard time with schedules.

I should mention at this point that it is not out of idle curiosity that I’m motivated to read this book right now.  Lily has been having huge, HUGE tantrums lately.  HUGE.  They are not brief, they are not mild, they are HUGE and LONG and PAINFUL.  Seemingly with the tiniest, subtlest of triggers, despite all of my and Tom’s efforts to head them off at the pass, despite using every idea or method we have ever heard of (well, we haven’t hit or spanked her, and I’m not going to consider that an option ever), still, multiple times every day, Lily flips out, screaming at the top of her lungs, flailing, kicking, pushing, hitting– it has been extremely trying on all of us.  Triggers have included getting dressed, getting undressed, diaper changing, suggesting the potty, going outside, coming inside, wanting to be carried everywhere instead of walking, refusing to get in the car seat, refusing to get out of the car seat, leaving a friend’s house… probably enough of a list for now, but I could go on.

Yes, we know all about trying to give her lots of advance warning about changes and giving her lots of time.  Yes, we know about offering choices.  Yes, we know we’re not supposed to ever lose our cool and start yelling back (sorry, haven’t been perfect in that regard, and don’t get me started on the guilt that results).  In fact, right now, I want to make a very serious and formal request: if you are tempted to offer us advice, please don’t.  Let me repeat that.  Please do NOT rush in with your wonderful advice that works like a charm for your child.  Our child is not your child,  and we are not you.  I don’t care how well-meaning your intentions are.  Part of what makes this so hard is that so many people think they have The Answer or at least An Answer, and we need for people to TRUST that we are trying everything and doing our best.  We are not lacking for advice and ideas.  We know how to ask for help when we need it.  The problem with being bombarded with advice is that, often, the message sounds like, “Look, you’re not doing this right.  You’re screwing up, obviously.  Let me fix you before your child grows up to be an impossible mess.  This is all about you and your bad parenting.”  Now, this message may be the furthest thing from your mind when offering advice, but nevertheless, there is a big, gigantic difference between your intentions and how words can come across.  So, no advice right now.  Okay?  Okay.

The fact that one of the first things to come up for me in reading this book is to feel upset about all the judgment directed at us (especially at me– isn’t it lovely how mothers are held more accountable than fathers for their children’s behavior?) is interesting.  It reminds me that in all of my interactions with Lily, even when we are alone, it feels like there is a silent crowd standing around, passing judgment, and I can’t stand it, I want that crowd to leave.  I don’t want my words and actions to be overly influenced by that crowd.  I want to do what feels good and right for my family.

Kurcinka offers some ways of gauging temperamental traits.  This is incredibly helpful, I find, because it somehow legitimizes what’s happening (e.g., I’m not imagining things, my child really is more sensitive than the average child) as well as offering insight into the temperaments of parents.  At various points in my parenting journey, it has been pretty intense to realize that not only am I learning about Lily and helping her to grow, I’m learning almost as much about myself, reviewing a huge amount of my past, recalling my experience with my own mother, understanding more and more about why I think and act the way I do today and seeing how that is shifting with the added experience of being Lily’s mother.  It’s a wild ride.  I mean, I’ve known for a long time that I very much possess the temperamental trait of intensity, but it’s easier to suppress the full, embodied knowledge of it as an adult.  In fact, the culture I grew up in demanded that I suppress this in order to become more socially acceptable.

Since I’m using intensity as an example, let me show you how Kurcinka defines it.  She asks, “How strong are your child’s emotional reactions?  Does he laugh and cry loudly and energetically or softly and mildly?”  Then she provides a five-point scale, with 1 being a mild reaction (“squeaks when cries, it’s almost a surprise when he gets upset, reactions are mild, smiles when happy, usually works through a problem without becoming frustrated”) and 5 being an intense reaction (“never just cries–wails, a living staircase of emotion–up one minute and down the next, every reaction is deep and powerful, shouts with glee, easily frustrated”).  This scale was helpful in that I could easily see that both Lily and I are somewhere in the 4 to 5 range.

I was especially struck by this, however: “Spirited kids experience every emotion and sensation deeply and powerfully.  Their hearts pound, the adrenaline flows through their bodies.  There is actually a physical reaction that occurs more strongly in their bodies than in less intense individuals.  They are not loud because they know it irritates people; they are loud because they really feel that much excitement, pain, or whatever the emotion or sensation might be.  Their intensity is real.  It is their first and most natural reaction.”  (pp. 28-9)

How can I explain how much it means to me to see this spelled out?  How can I express the longing to turn back the clock 37 years and hand this book to everyone who knew me?  It’s excruciating sometimes to review all of the cultural damage my body and soul endured over the course of a lifetime; being a parent has forced me to look back at a lot of stuff I thought I had dealt with and shut the door on, but now it’s all coming back.  Simply looking at this one trait, intensity, brings a flood of thoughts: maybe if I had received more recognition and support for being an intense person, I wouldn’t have felt the need to dissociate so much from my physical self.  Maybe it would have been safe for me to feel all those intense feelings.  Maybe I wouldn’t have hated myself and become severely depressed.  Maybe my pain wouldn’t have become life-threatening.  And then hard on the heels of those thoughts, how can I support Lily so that she does not have to suffer in the same way?  How can I make sure that she is resilient and strong and loves and accepts herself?  How can I resist the pressure to make her conform?  How can I empower her to be fully herself and not find it necessary to truncate her soul in order to survive?

If there is anything I appreciate most about this book, it is the encouragement to view one’s child with love and kindness, and not as a problem to be fixed.  In the moment, when Lily is screaming her head off and pushing and kicking me and I’m feeling frustrated, angry, overwhelmed and sometimes embarrassed if we’re in public, it is so easy to think things like, “I refuse to be manipulated… she’s acting like a little monster… I need to show her who’s in charge… I can’t allow people to think I’m a bad mother… ” etc.  It can so easily turn into an adversarial relationship.  I don’t want that.  I want to be on Lily’s side no matter what.  I don’t want my love to be masked by frustration, even though it’s possible and even legitimate to feel both at the same time; I want the love to always, always come through, so that both she and I can see it clearly, even when things feel difficult and rotten; I want Lily to know that I understand how she feels and that I’m here for her, here to help, here to accept, here to love.  I want to model ways of expressing emotion that Lily can use.  In return, Lily is reminding me of the value of authenticity and being true to one’s self.  Who is learning more?  Hard to tell.



  1. Skirting the boggy swamps of advice with this one hope–that you will add to your invisible audience my voice, saying, “You Go, Jen! You’re on the right track, and you’ll get there!!”

  2. Big hugs to you, Lily, and Tom. Add me to the cheering section! You are all amazing! I hope the journey gets a little smoother for all of you soon. Wishing you all the best Jen.

  3. Well, no wonder Lily and I love each other so much! That list of her characteristics describe me perfectly! Now, I know you told us not to give advice but I am compelled to. When my kids are having tantrums I send them out to the manure pile. They love it! They play there and eat all the manure they want. When they come back in everyone feels better: A little stinky maybe but it’s worth the trade off. Is that in your book? 😉

  4. Jen, I love your honesty and I’d love to borrow the book when you are done. When Grace was Sarah’s age she was more mild mannered. Her temperment is very similar to mine. I was bewildered when Sarah came into full force with her anger and will. She is intense! I’m still trying to figure out a loving way to be with her when she is like this. She can go from exuberant to rageful very easily. I’m hoping, that similar to Grace, she will kind of mellow out when she learns more social and emotional skills. But, you are giving me a different perspective on it that is more accepting of where she is at.

  5. that is a lot to deal with on a 24/7 basis. this book sounds great! i am going to get it as a present for a friend with a spirited child who is going through a hitting phase. i won’t give advice about parenting, but jen i hope you can allow yourself to take some time for you!

    i hope to see you soon 🙂

  6. I was an obedient child. My mom likes to remind me/brag about it to this day. Sadly, I grew into an obedient teen and an obedient adult, which means I never quite spread my wings the way that perhaps I should have. Main stream society though will tell you that I am shining example, but I disagree.

    Winston on the contrary will only do things that he wants to do and the way that he wants to do them. Bribery will not even begin to work (not that this is a method I normally advocate, but it would be a nice tool to have in my back pocket). My hope is that by the time he is 30 he will happily live life as he chooses rather than according to how his mother told him to…

    And so, I see the wisdom in your words and your wishes and although your path may be long and winding, it sounds like you ” took the one less traveled by, And that {will have} made all the difference.”

  7. CTR: I am picturing you literally skirting the boggy swamps, and literally cheering. It raises my spirits.

    Heather: You are a big love.

    Carla: The book has not mentioned the option of sending her out to eat manure. Too bad we don’t have any handy piles of manure around. Oh wait, there’s the henhouse. Maybe I should put her in there for a while. She does love the hens. Come to think of it, I may very well drag a few chairs down into their fenced-in run, sit in there with Lily, and see what happens.

    Susan: if I owned the book I’d be happy to lend it, but I borrowed it from the library. I do recommend it. It also talks about how to manage similarities and differences between kids’ and parents’ temperaments.

    Kathleen: thanks for your reminder to take time for myself (it’s hard to arrange, but I will try) and I hope to see you soon too!

    Alison: pros and cons no matter what, eh? We can’t choose our temperaments or those of our kids, so we might as well appreciate whatever there is to appreciate about all of them. In any case I think you are a shining example, but for reasons other than being obedient. 🙂

  8. I’m glad you found her book – I got a lot out of Sleepless in America, another book by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I haven’t read the spirited child book, but have read Kids, Parents and Powerstruggles… fun, fun.

    We had a longstanding problem with James at this age that we just could not solve. And it made us so mad – he was hurting Cecelia – so of course it got a big reaction from us – we couldn’t not take it seriously. But nothing we tried seemed to make a difference – tried being understanding, tried being strict, tried quiet and calm and dead serious, tried yelling and showing honest emotion at how upset it made us, tried more connection, tried separating him from the scene, more attention, less attention, tried to fix underlying causes, tried to reason with a not-quite 3yo… everything except corporal punishment. It was like some kind of Zen koan that you could look at from many angles and not be able to penetrate. it was quite a lesson to feel that powerless! and to try to keep a consistent fundamental message of love and safety when we felt so frustrated.

    it’s a real gift that you recognize how much your child can teach you, and are open to that, even when it hurts.

    i would tell you how it all ended, but you might construe it as advice 😉 although it was entirely factors beyond our control, as you can plainly see that we tried to control everything we could control, to no avail. eventually The Shift did happen, though, and i pray in my non-religious way that you will get there with Lily when the time is ripe and right. and i know whenever it is, you will get there with your values intact, that you will have learned some deep lessons from Lily and that she will have received the same from you.

  9. Love this. So true true true.

  10. I am right there with you parenting an intense 3 year old. It can be so wild, both wonderful and terribly trying. We are not alone! I will check out this book right after I finish reading The Out of Sync Child Has Fun which is giving me lots of great ideas to use with him.

  11. Rosemary: thanks for the reminder that sometimes it’s all out of our control, and for your faith in me and Lily!

    Adrie: thanks! And thanks also for sending me the link to the Parenting Passageway.

    ThriveMom: thanks for your solidarity–I just checked out your blog and it looks like you’re up to some great stuff.

  12. Dear Lily,

    Tell your mom you are not going to call Guam anymore (you can call from my house). Then tell her you would like to be dropped off at my house one Saturday morning and not picked up until 5PM so we can play with horses, sing in the woods, and throw snowballs at the trees. (Trees are incredibly playful you know!) Anyway, your mom needs daddy and mommy time. And we need Auntie-Moe -n-Lily time. Everybody wins. So, best cease “YAWPING” in public and just very eloquently let your mom know of our plans. Hope to see you soon. Love, Auntie Moe

  13. Dear Jen,

    You are so amazing. I love your brain. Sometime I admit I have to look up the hard words in a dictionary…hee hee…but mostly I get what your brain is saying. I think you are an amazing mom. I appreciate everything you do to remind me of what a good mom does. You always think of Lily. You are always there for her. I am certain of one thing–Lily will always know this one thing–you love her. I am so grateful to be a part of your life, of Lily’s life. Hang in there. If I give advice (which I may try to do) just say SWORD WARNING and I will get it–ha ha ha.
    Now, Lily and I have been chatting and we would love some Auntie/Lily time. Please let us know if we could have a playdate. A Saturday would be cool. You are welcome to drop her off in the am and pick up in afternoon–I promise to feed her, nap her and play with her ALL day…as does, April/Tigger/Nesta/Jack/Buddy and Rosie…

    With much respect and admiration, Moe.

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