Thursday, March 8, 2007

Spirited Addie


I've been reading this book by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka called Raising Your Spirited Child.  Honestly, I have no idea how I came by it, but I know we've had it since before Addie was born.  I think it appeared in one of the dozens of boxes of hand-me-down clothes and baby gear that (thank God) appeared upon our doorstep as soon as we got pregnant.

Anyway, if you know me, you know I'm kind of a sucker for whatever I'm reading at the moment.  So I may change my mind about this later.  But I'm pretty convinced that Addie is a textbook introverted "spirited child."

According to Kurcinka, a spirited child is a child just like other children, except she is "more":  more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, and resistant to change.  Furthermore, argues Kurcinka, there are two types of spirited kids (and adults, for that matter).  There are extroverts, who get their energy from interaction with others, and there are introverts, who get their energy by having time to themselves or in focused activity (note here that extrovert and introvert do not refer to social skills.  Addie can be sociable but actually is introverted in that she gets her energy renewed through focused, individual activity rather than social interaction).

Anyway, Addie has many of the signs of the "spirited" introvert:  she has very deep, powerful reactions, and her emotions swing pretty wildly within short periods of time; she "locks in" deeply to ideas or activities and rarely takes no for an answer; she is very sensitive to noise, textures, smells, tastes, and other people's emotions; she is very perceptive and struggles with multiple directions; she adapts slowly, needing a set schedule; and she is "irregular" when it comes to feeding schedules and preferences or bodily eliminations (which may be why potty training has been so difficult).

Many of these things could be considered typical two-year-old stuff.  But taken together they make up a child who has "spirit," who is intense and focused, dramatic and precocious.  Kurcinka's goal is to get parents of spirited kids to use these types of words instead of "demanding," "obnoxious," "annoying," or "stubborn" (all of which I've used a million times to describe Addie, by the way).  She also suggests that paying attention to the way your child gets energy, and making sure she gets those refills in the way she needs, can head off a lot of challenging behavior.

Anyway, I'm thinking a lot about this.  I like the idea for a few reasons.  Addie can be deeply inflexible and difficult, and her emotions often seem far out of proportion to what is actually going on.  I've been caught up in the intensity of all this myself, and then worry that my child is going to be over-emotional the rest of her life, or that I might need to "toughen" her up, or that my own emotionality has somehow seeped into my child.  This book freely acknowledges that while "nurture" is extremely important, "nature" is, too.  In other words, kids come into this world with temperaments.  How you raise them can highlight or suppress parts of those temperaments, but there is a certain amount of formed material there that you've just got to work with.

The book also encourages a lot of creativity and patience on the part of parents, rather than frustration and internalizing.  If your kid (okay, my kid) has a total meltdown because there happens to be one small stem on the blueberry in her yogurt, you can make up a story about it or joke about it or do whatever you need to do to avoid the meltdown.  You're not coddling her by doing so; you're helping her manage the situation.  It also says stuff like it's okay for introverted spirits, for example, to recharge by watching t.v. now and then.  It allows them to go internal and recharge. 

It's important to underscore that "spirited" is not a negative label.  But defining it might help parents like us to focus on the positive parts of raising a kid like Addie, who is so intense and dramatic.  It might give us ideas for helping her work through her most dramatic feelings.  And it helps to remind us that these qualities are actually quite wonderful:  she is smart, very verbal, perceptive, artistic, interested, and unique (not to mention one of the most beautiful kids ever born).  And those are great things for a kid to be.


  1. This is all quite interesting from the perspective of mother to child. But what about us–the adult 'spirited children'? We are all spending time and money in therapy because we never learned how to recharge, how to truly blossom in the face of our own uniqueness. Maybe there should be a new book called "How to fix your broken inner spirited child". We do still act out in the same manner in which the children you speak of act out, mind you, a bit more refrained. So when we act stubborn, obnoxious, whiny, incorrigible, etc- we may need to seek our own way of embracing the spirit within us and finding new, healthy ways of recharging. In the meantime, good for you on the shift of perspective. I think we could all use that- children or no children.

  2. The scary thing would be the unlucky case of a "spirited" child in a family of tough-lovers, or Dobson-style, "let's spank the evil out of children to make them docile and submissive," or "good." I'm afraid such dreadful upbringings happen far more often than the sensitive, insightful one Addie finds herself in now. What a blessed child she is.

  3. For what it's worth, I think my brother was the one who fit the "spirited child" description in my family. My mom did much better with him than my dad, the "tough-love-meets-James-Dobson" parent. But as the child who *didn't* throw the tantrums and was pretty good at "being a good girl" or whatever, I always felt like a) I didn't get as much attention or leeway as the dramatic/stubborn sibling; b) it took me forever to learn how to know what I wanted and hold out for the pursuit of it against parental resistance. So you might keep Nolie in mind for these kind of overshadowed-by-the-high-maintenance-sibling experiences.