mutual guidance

I’ve been meaning to post for a while on what a difference Raising Your Highly Spirited Child has made in our family. But this article in The Atlantic pushed me to post sooner. (The article details how researchers have shown that, while some people have a genetic predisposition to psychological catastrophes, those same people, if nurtured well, can turn their potential liabilities into measurable assets.)

Our dear little Peanut, the tightly wound, sensitive, intense, persistent, introverted, empathetic, strong willed child is my greatest challenge. (When I typed “three-year-old” as a tag for this post, wordpress automatically suggested a previously used tag: “help, I’m being held hostage by a three-year-old.” ‘Nuff said.)

I can handle demanding bosses and confrontational colleagues and obtuse clients and tight deadlines, but my child is harder than anything I’ve ever come across. Because I want to do more than just love him; I want to allow him to be himself, guiding him to a future in which his self esteem and social skills will allow him to do whatever he wants with his life. I want to help him become his best self without squashing his individuality or molding him to my will. I want to find a way to apply gentle, attachment parenting styles to a child most parents would beat into submission and who, daily, takes way more out of me than I have to give. I want him to exist within firm, thoughtful, and broad boundaries within which he is free to explore with wild abandon whatever interests and compels him. I want him to be a full participant in our family, not a pet or accessory. I want what might seem like weaknesses now to become strengths, not just memories.

But it often feels like he is killing me.

To that end, I greatly appreciate Mary Kucinka’s Raising Your Highly Spirited Child because she breaks down some of the personality traits that parents find difficult to manage in typically developing children, and offers an empathetic perspective and some very practical advice on guiding (rather than managing or changing) behavior. One obvious technique she dispenses with quickly, before a lengthy quiz in which readers can discern just where on the spectrum their child resides and the specific realms in which she is “more” than other children, is to rename characteristics as assets. “Difficult” children can be strong willed, energetic, or cautious rather than stubborn, out-of-control, or shy.

What I appreciate even more than the specific advice, the enumerated parameters, and the reassurance, really, that my child has always been a whole handful and a half (and it’s not just my imagination), is the section that acknowledges that oftentimes the almost constant stream of adrenaline that comes from raising a spirited child intensifies when parents are highly spirited, too. I have been called by my family most of the negative terms Kurcinka urges us to reframe as strengths. Her bold acknowledgment that “recommending that spirited parents keep their cool was a denial of their own intensity….It doesn’t work to simply say, ‘I am supposed to be cool.’ The fact is, you’re not” rocked my world. I thought I was a failure for not keeping cool all the time. Now I know I was being me and just need different tools to keep both Peanut and myself from losing it at what turn out to be easily forseeable moments.

The retraction of Kurcinka’s former stance that parents should just stay calm during a child’s most intense moments absolutely melted me. Her book is not a license to autocratic parenting behavior, as so many are, and her suggestions are teaching me how to guide myself as I am guiding Peanut. For instance, I taught him (very easily because he was open to both the technique and the acceptance of his intense passions it implied) that it’s okay, when other people are too much, to politely excuse yourself to your room to have some quiet time and get enough energy to deal with them again. That frustration and anger and hitting come from feeling like you can’t get away but that, really, you can notice that before it happens and get the space you need. Now I have allowed myself to say the same thing to him. “Love, I’m out of people energy and need a little quiet time with a book; I’ll be in my room for a few minutes and you’re welcome to come with me to quietly read your own book” is now something we both respect (and really enjoy). He usually declines because he doesn’t find me draining, exhausting, or infuriating most of the time. When he does want to rip my throat out, he tells me in calm, reasonable tones that he doesn’t like my approach and offers his own suggestions for making things better. We work on issues until we find a solution we both like (unless it’s a non-negotiable issue, in which case I have firm boundaries. But at almost four he’s way beyond fighting sunblock, seat belts, or holding hands in the street.) But when we’re not pressed up against on of those, we’re having a much better time figuring everything out.