The concept of the "spirited child" has become part and parcel of our cultural lore but there's no such thing as a psychological diagnosis of having extra spirit. All children have spirit, and I've begun to wonder what the heck is going on with all of these spirited children. Is a "spirited child" even really a thing?
The answer is yes and no, according to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State University, Los Angeles. There's no clinical criteria for establishing whether a child is spirited but Durvasula says there's no doubt some children are more spirited than others. She describes a spirited child as one who is especially enthusiastic and curious, and who can be very opinionated, experience stronger moods and emotions than other children, and have trouble regulating all of those big feelings.
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The problem with the idea of spirited children is many parents embrace it as an excuse for poor behavior, at least according to Durvasula (and everyone who's ever encountered a child running wild while their parent sighs and calls them "spirited"). These parents frequently express their fears of "crushing or quelling" their children's spirits and hesitate to impose limits and boundaries on their behavior.
That's exactly the rationale I encountered when I spoke to the mother of two self-proclaimed spirited children. Katie, who asked that I not use her last name, told me the biggest challenge of raising two spirited children is "trying to set limits and give them a framework without quashing that absolutely gorgeous framework of wonder that's within them. Once that gets stepped on and crushed, it's really hard to get that back." If that sounds a little hippie dippie crunchy granola to you, it might be because your parents didn't crush your authentic little self (you lucky bastard).
Many parents, like Katie, who cling to the idea of having spirited children were raised in households where children weren't allowed to express their feelings or be themselves. These parents have good intentions but often don't know how to reign in their children without reverting to their own parents' authoritarian methods. They tend to perceive their children's wild and crazy spirits as a sign they are doing better than their own parents -- after all, isn't being a little too spirited better than the alternative?
Not necessarily. Lacking appropriate parental limits and boundaries, spirited children can turn into a headache for parents, teachers, and even their peers. Since parents are rarely open to hearing about problems with their children's behavior, they tend to react with anger and denials when teachers and friends try to approach them with their concerns. This knee-jerk defensiveness can encourage children to continue acting out while planting the seeds of entitlement. Instead of learning important social skills, these kids learn that society's rules don't apply to them.
The fallout from this reaction can be children who never learn how to work cooperatively with others and who expect society to conform to their needs instead of finding their own place within society. They have more problems fitting in as they get older and many of them end up feeling alienated as they reach adolescence and adulthood.
"Parents think they are protecting their kids but it backfires," Dr. Durvasula says. "It's a lot less painful to learn a lesson from mom and dad than it is to learn that lesson from your teacher or peers."
So what's a parent of a spirited child to do? Most of us want to nurture our children's individual and unique personalities, but no one wants to raise a total brat. If we have spirited children who feel things incredibly deeply (and have the meltdowns to prove it), how can we reign them in without forcing them into a box that doesn't fit? It sounds nice to "meet each child where their temperament is," as Durvasula suggests, but what does that mean when your three-year-old is on the floor kicking and screaming for an hour because she asked for the red sippy cup and you gave her the blue sippy cup?
It's important to at least consider whether there might be an underlying reason for your child's extra spirit. No one wants to overdiagnose mental health or developmental disorders, but Durvasula says it's critical for parents to consider the possibility when teachers or doctors raise the concern. Katie concedes that both of her kids have developmental and mood disorders that at least partially contribute to their spirit, and they receive appropriate services through their schools.
Parents should also listen to their own inner voices. When a parent is constantly at the end of their rope, frazzled and exhausted by their child's behavior, it's time to consider the possibility that something else is going on. "I don't want to diagnose a child for having a big spirited personality but if that is getting in the way of other areas it's time to make sure this isn't something more," says Durvasula.
If your child really is just spirited, the key is for parents to be self-reflective. If you're one of the parents trying to undo your own austere childhood through relaxed parenting, Durvasula suggests you try to separate your childhood experiences from your parenting strategy and focus instead on being warm, consistent, and loving while you implement firm limits and boundaries with your children. "You don't ever have to break your child," she says. "You don't have to reign in your child entirely. You just have to teach them how to behave in public."
This doesn't mean society gets a free pass to judge or criticize parents. There are still many places where children get the stink eye simply for existing and that's no reason for parents or children to feel like they need to silence themselves. Children and families can and should go out into the world, and it's important for children to do just that in order to learn how to interact with other people appropriately.
No matter how much due diligence parents do beforehand, there will always be babies crying on airplanes, children tantruming their way out of the toy aisle, and kids simply being kids. That is just part of being a human, and Dr. Durvasula says parents need to grow a thick skin and use any inappropriate criticisms they receive from others as teaching moments with their children.
That's why being honest and self-reflective is so important for parents trying to teach their children to be citizens of society -- all of us need to be real about our kids' behavior and create limits for them that reflect their personalities and respect the needs of others, too.
"Your child's spirit shouldn't be a 'get out of jail free' card. When your spirited child is actually disrupting the experience of other people that's just not how society rolls," Durvasula says. "It's a balancing act between allowing independence to soar and grow while helping that child understand time and place."
Jody Allard is a writer and mother living in Seattle. Her work has appeared online in Time, Scary Mommy, Babble, The Establishment, and The Washington Post, among others.
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