Sunday, October 25, 2009
Intact but Exhausted: On Parenting the "Spirited" Child
Spirited. What a lovely euphemism for a tempestuous temperament. A while back, I posted, here on this blog, an essay called “Seatbelt, Please,” which chronicled, to some extent, the joys and frustrations of parenting a “spirited” toddler. In my post, I quoted Dr. Sears, whose “Fussy Baby Book” brought me much validation and comfort during some dark times with my volatile daughter, Alexa. Sears sings the praises of “fussy” children, arguing that they generally grow up to be more vivacious, more interesting, more spirited than the average child.
In our culture, 'good' children are ones who do what they're told, without discussion. They sit quietly in their high chairs and eat what they're fed. They obey the Sunday school teacher and take their seat when asked. They don't talk in class at school and they certainly don't argue with their parents.
"I've met very few children like that, yet we persist in the fiction. . . . (Sears, 160-61).
In response to this passage, I wrote, “I love a good fiction like anybody else, but I also love a roller coaster.”
And it’s true; I do seem to seek out chaos and drama, at least on occasion. But, man, I’m finding that this particular ride quite often turns my stomach upside down, and I’m finding it difficult to locate the good-natured, retrospective mood that seemed ever-present in that earlier essay. For the present, I’ve abandoned Dr. Sears, and have turned instead to one who provides a different kind of perspective: Dr. Merlot. He’s sweet and smooth and invariably brings a little tingle of warmth. He doesn’t question my parenting strategies. He lets me lie back in his warm, liquid arms.
Woops—pardon my reverie. For actual advice, I do turn, on occasion, to books. I found this statement in Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s “Raising Your Spirited Child” (there’s that lovely term again):
“Spirited kids like to make very sure the limits stand firm. As a result, they test more than other kids. This is not a figment of our imagination”(Kurcinka, 169).
Let me raise my glass to Kurcinka for taking time to point out that I’m not crazy. Because last week, when I picked up Alexa, kicking and screaming, and marched across the playground in front of two of her friends’ moms, I definitely felt, for a moment, like Joan Crawford. I imagined my hair flying all around my face, a savage frizzy mane; pictured my face in white Kabuki makeup, my eyes wild, bursting from their sockets with rage, as in the “wire hanger” incident in “Mommie Dearest.”
But I’m sane, so that’s good.
Here’s what triggered it: my cute little three-year-old has started rolling her eyes—in appropriate moments, no less. And the eye-roll is a punctuation mark, an exclamation point at the end of a whole lot of attitude. It started last Tuesday, at the Hamden YMCA, where Dylan was a guest in his friend Matthew’s swim class. Lexi pouted for a good 45 minutes, saying, grumpily, “I wanna swim.”
And at first I was sympathetic. It was 4:00 in the afternoon, not a good time for three-year-olds under the best of circumstances. “Lexi,” I said patiently, “I know you’re upset, but do you know why Dylan gets to swim today? It’s because. . . .”
And I never got to finish that sentence, because she hit me with the first eye roll, a very dramatic, eyes-back-in-your-head maneuver, followed by an exaggerated sigh. I was dumbfounded.
“Whoa,” my friend said slowly, equally floored.
Then, the next day, at the playground, it happened again. She wanted to take off her shoes. I said I thought it was a bad idea. I said, “It’s not summer. It’s fall. It’s cold. Do you understand?”
“No,” she replied, her eyes innocent. “I don’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Lexi,” I said, my voice clearly showing signs of anger, “If you want to stay at the playground, then you need to be a good. . . .”
There it was again: the eye roll. Not quite as dramatic, but enough to make an impact.
“Use a Firm Voice,” instructs Kurcinka’s book. “A firm voice,” she goes on to explain, “is not harsh or loud. It is simply a voice of conviction—a voice that states clearly, ‘The rule is . . . I will help you follow the rule.’ The tone communicates to your spirited child that you are committed and willing to get up and enforce this rule every time” (Kurcinka, 168).
If nothing else, I think I have been consistent in the area of rule enforcement, even if, in certain moments, it’s Joan Crawford-Kabuki-style enforcement.
In my previous post, I wrote:
Discipline. Sears says that attachment parenting is discipline in and of itself: when your infant cries and you hold her, you are teaching her that the world--or at least her world--is a place of comfort and love, and this, according to Sears, will give her the confidence she needs to go forward. I mean, really, can a 2-month old manipulate us, as many popular books suggest? When Alexa cried, I nursed her. I held her. I cursed her silently at times (sometimes not so silently), and Bryan and I bickered like brats in the middle of the night. (Me, March 2008)
And despite her ability to drive me to the edge of reason, I still find that she responds so well to love and nurturing, that even though she tests, and tests, and tests, there is a loving little creature inside that devilish costume. And I confess, too, that I find her adventurousness amusing, even thrilling. After her “time out” in the playground, she was back on the merry-go-round, hanging upside down, being thrown from the reckless ride two or three times, and jumping back on to exercise her athletic prowess. It was frightening and entertaining all at once. I was sure she was going to leave with a broken arm, but in the end, we all left intact, if a bit exhausted.
Hail to the blithe little spirits of the world.
I’m off to my appointment with Dr. Merlot.