Raising Spirited Kids Is Hard, But There's An Upside

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
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You know how everybody has muscles, but bodybuilders have super muscles? That’s comparable to the extra level of stubborn tenacity you’ll find in a spirited child – above and beyond the average, the undisputed champions of digging in their heels. They don’t understand the phrase “give it up,” and they’re not having any of your nonsense suggestions about doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing.

And much like a “normal” person trying to keep up with a bodybuilder in a weightlifting contest, it’s exhausting. Especially when all you’re trying to do is get your kid to wear a coat in subzero temperatures or participate in an activity that everybody else’s kids are doing obligingly, and you’re tempted to yell “Will you just! Follow! The damn! Directions!”

Spirited kids push the limits, never content with accepting the status quo, always questioning. They say, “Why?” when others simply say, “Okay.” They don’t take anybody’s word for anything, preferring to test theories on their own, even if that means learning something the hard way.

It’s exhausting and maddening, no doubt, but there’s also beauty in their boldness – they’re not afraid to take a risk, and they learn through experience rather than relying on secondhand information.

Their energy seems boundless, from the time their eyes fly wildly open in the morning (okay, the predawn) to the time you force them into bed at night even though they’re “not tired.” It’s just that the world is their oyster – or at least that’s how they see it – and they want as many waking hours as possible dedicated to conquering it. It’s an admirable trait, but harder to admire if you’re the one trying to constantly talk them down.

Obedience is not their strong suit, but it isn’t because they’re deliberately trying to make us lose our shit; it’s because they obey only when our requests align with their opinions. If they don’t see the sense in doing whatever we’re asking them to do, or if it feels wrong, they simply don’t do it. Of course, obedience is necessary in some cases, like when we say “don’t stick your finger in that outlet” or “look both ways before you cross the street.” Sometimes, kids just have to do what we need them to do, whether they want to or not.

But for the more inconsequential things, we have to ask ourselves if it’s really worth the battle. Pigeonholing a spirited kid into taking orders just for the sake of being obedient is a constant struggle – but worse, if we do manage to break down that iron will and achieve complicity, we’re sending the message that obeying is more important than doing what they feel is right. And a kid who follows without question is so focused on doing what’s asked of them that they may not even notice whether it isn’t in their best interest. Just think of it this way: their determination to go their own way is frustrating now, but it’ll be fantastic when other kids their age are succumbing to peer pressure.

As difficult as it can be to raise a spirited kid, it’s got to be even more difficult to be one. They are square pegs that everyone’s always trying to force into round holes. Their feelings and opinions are big and intense, and so is their inclination to follow them come hell or high water – which doesn’t always translate well into scenarios where they’re supposed to be compliant and follow directions. They can be flagged as “problems” or as having “disciplinary issues,” when really all they want is autonomy — to be allowed to march to the beat of that different drum.

Sure, there are rules that everybody has to follow, but these are kids who practically walked out of the womb ready to do their own thing, so allowing them some independence where you can is critical to their happiness (and yours). Let them make their own lunch even if it isn’t what you’d pack. Let them choose their own outfits, because they don’t care whether plaid matches stripes if it makes them feel good, and neither should you. You might get some side-eye from onlookers, but it’s only because they don’t know what you’re dealing with. If they had your kid for a couple of days, they’d quickly come to realize that you can’t fight tooth and nail over everything.

Yes, the judgment can be strong when it comes to raising a dynamo. It’s challenging enough to parent these hard-headed little humans without the input you seem to receive on a near-daily basis. Opinions you never asked for fly at you with all the unwelcome unpleasantness of poop flung by a chimpanzee. Have you tried eliminating gluten and red food dyes? Perhaps too much screen time is to blame for all this excessive energy. You just need to find a good chiropractor/acupuncturist/faith healer! A good old-fashioned spanking might help!

Ignore the comments, take a cue from their stubborn persistence, and keep on keepin’ on (you’ll need more coffee). It’s gonna be a long ride, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Because the same qualities that sometimes make your head explode now will serve your spirited child well as an adult. You’re raising the entrepreneurs, the pioneers, the go-getters; their internal motivation, that fire within them, will propel them into new territories someday.

You haven’t been cursed with a hard-to-manage kid, you’ve been entrusted to shape a powerful force. They’ll mature into grown-ups with the kind of traits we all wish we had more of, and be the kind of people who will lead the charge and change the world.

As long as you can, you know, survive the next 10 to 20 years.

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