Review: ‘Raising Your Spirited Child’


Children are hard. You know this.

But every child is different, and thus common sense says that some children are easier than others. Even within the neurotypical range, temperament is a wide spectrum.

Having a child on the far right of that spectrum gets to you. Books and articles seem bafflingly irrelevant. You begin to wonder why your child is so different. You begin to think that maybe you actually are doing something wrong.

Cover by William Morrow and Company
Cover by William Morrow and Company

You’re not, says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, the author of Raising Your Spirited Child. Your child is simply genetically “more.” More intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, and energetic. And more work. Based on her research, a mix of academic literature — sadly not listed in a bibliography — and hands-on experience with parents, about ten to fifteen percent of people fall into this range as she defines it. Some people roll a pair of dice and get a seven. Some roll twelves.

That reassuring note to parents is a constant refrain in the book, but it’s not the most important one. We as a society, and certainly as caregivers of spirited kids, need to change the words we use about them. Many of the traits we find challenging in spirited kids are, she says, desirable traits in adults. Out with “stubborn.” In with “persistent.” Out with “aggressive.” In with “assertive.” Out with “picky.” In with “discerning.” Kids who are spirited aren’t “bad” any more than kids who aren’t spirited are “good.” (I suppose I should also stop referring to kids on the other side of the range as “animatronic.”)

Partly this advice sounds like any other advice book: Embrace what is special about you, magic snowflake.

But it’s actually an important shift. If I could wave my hands and make that section required reading for everyone, I would.

Focus on the positive instead of the negative, and your attitude changes. No one wants to have the “difficult” baby. But who wouldn’t want a spirited one? Who wouldn’t want a fierce little girl full of fire?

Thinking this way also helps you find others in your shoes. Are you going to pipe up in a social situation and say your child is difficult? You’ll get judgement and unwanted, useless advice in no time. But find words you feel good about saying, and you’ll speak out more and discover a supporting community of parents tackling the same challenges.

Kurcinka’s book is divided into two broad sections. In the first, she talks about the half-dozen or so traits that make your child (and perhaps you!) spirited and how to talk about those traits, think about them, and manage them. In the second part, she helps you plan for the problematic parts of every day: sleeping, waking up, meal time, shopping, dealing with other kids, and so on. She abbreviates her system as POWE: Predict the problems, organize for success, work together, and enjoy the rewards. It’s a mindset you can use to get through the day.

You may find that you’ve already stumbled upon many of these techniques. But you may learn new ones, learn how to better articulate the techniques you’ve figured out, and at least learn that you’re not alone. If nothing else, it will feel like a miracle to read an advice book that actually clicks with your situation.

But it won’t make everything in your life smooth-sailing. She’s honest about that. Your kid is still spirited, after all. And you want them to be! But maybe the successes can begin to outnumber the struggles. That’s the win that parents of spirited children can aim for.

Though she touches on this here and there, I’ll tell you now that society at large will judge you for using these techniques to navigate your day. People will tsk that you’re letting your child run your lives. You’re giving in. Spoiling them.

But those people don’t matter in your child’s life as much as you do. And, frankly, judging parents seems to be society’s favorite sport, so anything you do is going to get sneered at by someone anyway. At which point, you might as well ignore them and do what’s best for your family. In the end, that’s all you’re responsible for, and Kucinka wants to help.

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