He’s not emotional; he’s intense.
He’s not easily distracted; he’s perceptive to his environment.
He’s not wild; he’s energetic.
He’s not manipulative; he’s charismatic.
He’s not aggressive; he’s assertive.
He’s not difficult. He’s spirited.
This book … ohhhh, this lovely, lovely book.
This book is teaching me who my son is.
After a long meeting with Ryan’s three preschool teachers and preschool director — a meeting that was necessary because of Ryan’s increasingly spirited behavior in the classroom — one teacher gently recommended I read it.
I’m sure she’s had Ryan pegged as “spirited” from about Week Two of the school year. But she probably didn’t want to label him or suggest I needed to read up on my own kid. It wasn’t until I sat in the school office near tears, saying I was out of ideas. That his tantrums and his aggression were only getting worse as he got older and bigger and that nothing we tried seemed to work. That I wished I knew what to do; that I really did take it seriously and was trying to get it under control.
Only then did this teacher explain how her her middle child is much like Ryan. She told me it wasn’t a bad thing; it just meant we might need to use different approaches than you would with a non-spirited child of his age.
I searched for the book and opened up the sample on amazon. I read the first two paragraphs and started crying.
It has felt like raising Ryan was harder than average. I have always felt deep down that there was something about him that was more. But how could I explain this; how would I really know? I’ve only got one kid, so what do I have to compare him to? Everyone says Age 3 is hard, right?
I didn’t have the right words or the parenting confidence to vocalize what I truly knew. So instead, I worried I was a subpar parent. I wondered why other parents so easily controlled their kids while it felt like mine ran me ragged. I was frustrated that I found myself going through ridiculous routines time after time after time to keep him happy, while other parents laughed and said, “There’s no WAY I’d do that. I would just tell him no…”
I would think, “No, you wouldn’t. Maybe you would with your kid; but if this kid were yours, you’d play along, too.”
In case you’re curious (or you suspect your own child might be spirited), here are the characteristics:
- Intensity / Their reactions to things are best described as powerful. They seem like overreactions. You might call him emotional; you might call him dramatic. He’s the happiest kid you’ve ever met one second and displaying utter despair the next.
- Persistence / Once they lock into an idea, good luck changing their minds. You cannot ignore a spirited child and wait for him to give up. Spirited kids do not give up. Ever.
- Sensitivity / They are keenly aware of everything. Noise, smells, lights, textures. These are the kids who are throwing things out of the cart at the end of a simple grocery shopping trip because the lights and sounds of the store have overwhelmed them. They’re the kids who insist their sock isn’t on right or a tag on a shirt hurts their neck and will not go on with life until you have shifted the sock into its rightful spot or have cut the offending tag. They are sensitive to your own mood; they’re your own little household emotional barometer. When you’re stressed, they act up. When you’re happy and patient, they are all smiles.
- Perceptiveness / They notice everything. The way the sunlight plays on the wall, the truck rumbling three streets away, the fact that you moved a toy from one spot to another while they were sleeping. They might seem easily distracted (because it takes 15 minutes to get them dressed) or they might seem like they’re not listening (because you’ve asked them to get into the car seat 49 times and they’re still brushing snow off their shoes) but the truth is that they have a lot of information coming at them all at once. They’re the definition of the word observant and they’re not sure what information is the most important right now.
- Adaptability / As in, they have a really, really hard time adapting. To anything. Not fans of change, these kids. We’re not just talking big changes – like, ahem, moving across the country – we’re also talking about simple, daily transitions like ending playtime to come to the dinner table. Morning can be especially rough because they need to eat breakfast, get changed, brush teeth and get ready to go out the door for school, and the spirited kid is thinking dear god, it’s all too much!
For the most part, all spirited kids score high in every one of those categories. There are also some bonus categories that some – but not all – fit into. These are regularity (those who don’t seem to keep a schedule), energy (it’s off the charts) and “first reaction” (as in, they always say “no” first to any question, no matter what).
Ryan has always been a great sleeper and kept a pretty predictable schedule. It is our one saving grace because it means we are all rested and ready to start a new day. So “regularity” has not been an issue for us. But he definitely fits into the “energy” and “first reaction” bonus categories.
Of course, no three year old is perfect. None of them wants to share. They all have their own opinions. They all get mad, they all throw tantrums. This isn’t really the issue for us. It’s more the incessant debates, the constant, all-day-long objection to EVERYTHING.
Before I read this book, the main word I would have used to describe Ryan right now is aggressive. I have been very hesitant to write and post details that describe exactly what I mean by this. While I think blogging is at its best when it is completely honest and I think parents truly learn from each other in these types of forums, I don’t want to paint an unfair picture of my child.
Because while he may frustrate me and worry me at certain times during any given day or week, he also is the most creative, imaginative and beautifully sensitive child I have ever known.
The book has taught me this: Spirited kids are persistent, sensitive, intense, perceptive and uncomfortable with change. They are amazing. They are a joy; you just have to teach them how to manage their strong emotions, to tune in to what is important and ignore what isn’t, and to deal with all the changes life throws at them.
These qualities make them a challenge to parent. Their emotions are off the charts. They are extremely focused in when you want them to move on and they’re extremely distracted when you want them to focus in. They feel your emotions and amplify them: Get frustrated with them and you make things a million times worse for everyone. They rail against any and all change – even the suggestion that they move from an activity they like to one they love.
These are not children you can simply redirect. They know precisely what they want, and they will tell you what that is. Over and over, louder and louder, until you relent or until you kneel down to his level to have a lengthy conversation about why it’s just not possible. There is much negotiating (yay, positive!) and bribing (boo, negative!).
But the best part, the part that makes me swell with pride is this: these qualities Ryan has, the qualities that make it challenging to raise a young spirited child … these are qualities we all admire in adults.
They grow up to be leaders who envision a better world and are so determined to change it that they actually make a positive impact. They don’t talk; they do.
They are sensitive, loving partners. They are incredibly empathetic because they feel everything.
They are intensely energetic, dramatic, creative individuals.
They’re the co-workers who effortlessly spout out five innovative ideas at a meeting about a topic you’ve been studying for months.
They are so smart, so full of life.
They make us better because we feed off their energy. They reinvigorate us about life and work when we feel we’ve hit a wall because they are always striving toward the next goal, ready to tackle the next big thing.
It’s only been a couple of weeks since I read this book and already I see a difference in his behavior and in the general emotional tone in our home.
The reality is this: He is who he is. The things he feels, the way he reacts — it’s all very real to him. He is not trying to give me a hard time and he’s not trying to manipulate me. He really feels all of it.
Really, the thing that has changed the most is my reaction to him. My understanding of why he is feeling this way and why it is manifesting itself in the way that it is.
I am yelling less and listening more. I am giving him the words for what he is feeling and showing him how to reign in his reactions.
It is my job to teach him why he feels the way he feels, to learn how to control his emotions. My job is not to change him; he is amazing the way he is. So I will teach him to take deep breaths, to go for quick walks around the house, to find a quiet place to close his eyes and count to five. To listen to his body and know when he’s had enough for the day. When he’s older, to call me on the phone to vent.
He isn’t the same as Every Single Three Year Old. Actually, he’s a lot like me. The book taught me something else: I’m a spirited adult.
I have intense emotional reactions, I’m sensitive, I’m persistent and I struggle with change. The one thing I’m not – the main difference between us – is perceptive.
This is why I lose my mind when Ryan can’t stay on task for the 45 seconds it should take to get dressed. I am supremely focused on the task at hand and when I’m holding a pair of jeans for Ryan to step into and he has to hum and dance across the room and then climb onto his bed to fix a blanket that is askew over and over, I want to crawl out of my own skin.
Recognizing and understanding our differences is so important. I can tell myself that the askew blanket is making him as crazy as the way he is making me feel by not.freaking.getting.dressed.
And then I can laugh, which makes him grin back at me … and then he steps into his jeans.
Progress, not perfection. That is our goal. That is all any of us can really hope for ourselves and for our children.