Parenting A Spirited Kid Will Test You In Every Way

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Malte Mueller/Getty

“Ugh, I thought I was tired back then…”

“Ha! I thought things were hard back then…”

It’s the classic parenting line, isn’t it? Thinking back to when we only had one kid. Or when that one kid still napped. Or when that one kid could be entertained with some Peppa Pig and a cup of Cheerios and wasn’t yet enrolled in 92 sports and extra-curricular activities that drained our bank account and every minute of our livelihood. Or when they used to go to bed at 8 p.m., not text us to pick them up at 11.

We all do it, myself included. We know we shouldn’t fault the parent we used to be, because the truth is, those Peppa Pig-Cheerio-eating-potty-training-tantruming-pleasefortheloveofgodtakeanap days were hard AF for us, just in a different way. But no, it doesn’t really ever “get easier,” does it?

My classic “Ha! I thought it was hard back then” self-criticisms often come at the expense of my poor third child who bears the brunt of my frustrations. Because as I’ve told everyone who’ll listen, I got tricked twice. I thought parenting my first child was hard. Then I thought, no, parenting my second child is what’s really hard.

I was wrong both times.

Because #1 is the calmest, easiest, most docile, follow every rule and avoid trouble at all costs kid on earth. His little sister is pretty much the same. They have their moments of wildness and get a little talking-to now and then. But if “the reason for Mommy’s exhaustion” were a pie chart in this house, let’s just say #1 and #2 would take up maybe 1/4 of that pie. Total.

It’s my wild child who takes up the rest. My strong-willed boy who throws me curve balls daily (sometimes hourly). Who wakes up ready to challenge me and keeps that mission going until he passes out every night in a sweaty heap of six-year-old little boy exhaustion.

I appreciate euphemisms like “spirited” for kids like my son. That makes it sound much more magical and so much less make-me-want-to-punch-a-wall than it is. Because he sure is spirited. AF. And often his “spirit” gives me such hope that he’ll no doubt succeed in life. But sometimes his “spirit” makes me cry and day-drink. And feel like a shitty mom.

Because spirited kids don’t stop. Or rest. Ever. They are relentless every second they’re awake. They leap out of bed, ready to fight about wearing pants on a 22-degree day. Even though yesterday it was 22 degrees, and they had to wear pants. And the day before it was 25 and they had to wear pants. Still, today’s a new day, and every day brings new opportunities, right?

And then there’s breakfast and you can try to cut up their waffle and put it on a blue plate if you want the apocalypse to happen. Because waffles do not get cut up and only green plates are acceptable.

And then there’s teeth-brushing.

And hand washing.

And face cleaning.

And shoes.

And car seats.

Megan Maloy/Getty

Every parent of a spirited kid knows that the final circle of hell is full of tiny demon spawns who can “put their shoes on themselves!” and can “buckle their seat belt by themselves!” but really can’t and you never leave the house. Ever again.

Probably one of the super best parts of parenting a strong-willed child is feeling like a big fat failure, when in reality you’ve never worked this hard at anything in your life. Waking up every day and facing whatever this child will toss at you makes you wish you could run a marathon barefoot through the snow instead, because it’s probably easier than successfully washing their hair in the bath.

Also, the icing on this cake of epic parenting failure is when your child chucks his shoe at the tampon display in Target and knocks the entire thing over and Susan Sanctimommy makes a comment or shoots you side-eye because “you really should be disciplining him.”

It takes every last ounce of civility you have to not scream OMG THANK YOU FOR THAT PEARL OF WISDOM I’VE NEVER CONSIDERED THAT. Because chances are, you already do discipline your child so damn much that sometimes you just need to let them get away with something or lower the bar for a hot minute so you can take a fucking break and have a glimmer of positivity in your day. But Bitchy Brenda at the dry cleaner doesn’t know how hard you work. All she sees is your child trying to climb up on the counter or ring that little metal bell 892 times even though you’ve asked them to stop 891 times.

Some of us got our “spirited baby” delivered when we were well into our parenting journeys, when maybe we had some semblance of confidence in what we were doing as moms. Then the stork dropped off a bundle on our porch that jumped up and said haha, sucker! NOPE.

That’s what happened to me, anyway. My first two kids have always responded to general discipline pretty well, leading me to think I somewhat had this gig down. All I had to throw their way was a pursed-lip look, and they’d shape up immediately. My third, however, shoots me a look right back, followed up with a “what else you got, lady?”

Also, spirited kids keep you guessing, as they have high emotions all over the spectrum. This one was a surprising epiphany for me, as my spirited child often struggles to control his anger, so it can look like he doesn’t have a soft heart. Yet, he’s the first one among my kids to cry or struggle to see a character hurt in a movie.

For example, since he’s a hockey-loving kid, we watched Miracle (the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team) the other night, expecting him to love every minute. Well, the reviews are in, and it’s not what we expected. While he did love the fire and passion of the players and the success story at the end, he couldn’t get past one of the main players getting cut from the team and had to leave the room a couple times to process his emotions. (And wipe his tears.)

These kids often have uncontrollable tempers, but also giant, loving hearts all wrapped up in one package. My strong-willed kid is the first to stomp his feet if he doesn’t get his way, but is also the first to jump out of bed and come give us a birthday hug and picture he drew that says “I love you.”

He fights us all day long on anything and everything — from snacks to baths to bedtime to cleaning up his toys. But then he wants to snuggle us all night long too.

That’s just one of the unexpected pieces to the “raising a spirited kid” parenting puzzle. You never know what you’re going to get on any given day. It’s all or nothing. (And really it’s just “all.” All high energy, all high emotion, all challenging, all day.)

Parenting a spirited kid means showing up sweaty to a holiday at Grandma’s after an epic battle over socks. But it also means that same spirited kid holding a homemade card that says “I luv u gramma” with their only dollar bill taped to it and hearing them say, “Here’s some money to buy your medicines so you can feel better.”

They break you. And they melt you and put you back together. Only to be broken again tomorrow.

Because honestly, here’s the best part (and I mean this): parenting a spirited child is a gift like no other. That kid will push you to the brink, and when they’re finally (blessedly) asleep, you’ll feel a surreal sense of pride in getting through another day together. Parenting a child like this forces you to dig deeper and find strength and patience and a will to keep going that you didn’t know you had because you swear there’s nothing left, but yet, they need more from you.

When you check on them later that night, you’ll lean in close, brush their hair away from their face, and whisper, “We did it. We made it another day. I love you.”

Then you’ll go pour yourself a drink and revel in the quiet, knowing it’s game time again in a few short hours.

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