Do You Have a Spirited Child?
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
Jack London (1876-1916)
Jack London, a talented and popular writer of adventure tales, including Call of the Wild, the story of a sled dog in Alaska, spent his adult life writing, championing social causes, and struggling for peace of mind. London was probably once a spirited child, the kind of child that prompted the late humorist Sam Levenson to quip that "insanity is hereditary you get it from your children." If you have a child who is driving you crazy, chances are that you are grimacing rather than laughing right now. I'll also wager that you find yourself angry a lot. You may feel like one mother who confided to me recently, "I never even knew I could get angry until I had Alex!" Some kids just seem to know how to push our buttons in ways we never dreamed possible.
Such kids have been called by many different names over the years and to be sure, they are not all alike. They used to be simply referred to as "defiant" or "rebellious." Later, books were written about "the problem child," "the strong-willed child," and "the difficult child." They are often described as impulsive, hyperactive, aggressive, noncompliant, difficult to manage, ornery, temperamental, oppositional, or just "all boy." Some kids even get diagnostic labels such as ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), obsessive-compulsive, bipolar, and so on. Sometimes these labels are useful for knowing what, if any, medication might be prescribed to help a child. I'm not here to engage in label bashing because, when medication can help, I'm all for getting that help to children and their parents. I'm also not suggesting that all of these children are the same. There are often important differences between children diagnosed one way or another, differences that affect the choice of treatment.
But often labels are merely arbitrary handles that writers and mental health professionals use as shortcuts for fuller descriptions of behaviors that they think get in the way of a child's successful functioning in society. We also know that such judgments are specific to our time and place in history. A hyperaggressive child might have been highly functional in a war-making society in the Dark Ages, for example, but in this century he will likely wind up in the principal's office, the boss's office, and the warden's office unless he changes his ways. Jack London, though one of the most talented and successful writers of his time, suffered from alcoholism and depression, and died at the young age of forty an unhappy man, his spirited nature never successfully tamed.
Changing the Child's Ways, Not the Child's Being
The one thing that all of these labels have in common is that they are negative. Defiant, problem, rebellious, strong willed, and the like all smack of an underlying condition that needs to be healed. They suggest that there is something abnormal about the child at a very deep level. Something seems to have gone terribly wrong in the child, and it must be remedied. Once this is understood, the theory goes, it can be treated; and once treated, the child can be returned to normalcy. This will ensure that he no longer spends time in the principal's office, the boss's office, or the warden's office. Instead he will function as a contributing member of society, pay his taxes on time, and contribute to a growing gross national product.
This pathology-based approach is not always all bad. A lot of kids and their parents have been helped by it, and many more will be helped by it. The problem, however, is that by dwelling on a presumed underlying problem, we can miss the real strengths these nonconformist kids bring to the table, the gifts that characterize spirited children. They are not pathological at their core. Most have a fire and energy at their core that, if harnessed, might fuel a lifetime of great achievement. While their particular ways of expressing this energy is often out of sync with the times in which they live, the power within them should be a source of inspiration for the rest of us. Certainly they may need to redirect their gifts, so that they do not become the unwanted warriors in a time of peace, the unacknowledged iconoclasts in an age of conformity, or the untamed thoroughbreds never invited to the Kentucky Derby. Which brings me to the following analogy.
Seabiscuit Rides Again
The movie and book Seabiscuit stole the hearts of the public in 2003. In 1938, the underdog horse upon which the story was based became the champion by defeating the legendary War Admiral by four lengths. Seabiscuit became a hero during a period of American history, the Depression, when people needed to believe that the little guy could succeed in spite of overwhelming odds. Seabiscuit, a small horse with a huge spirit, came to the rescue of a nation.
Of course, if you saw the movie, you'll remember that Seabiscuit wasn't always a champion. In fact, he was actually an untamed, out-of-control terror that was almost put to sleep because he caused so much chaos. Fortunately, a wealthy owner saw promise in Seabiscuit's rebelliousness and bought him, saving the future champion from a bullet. There is a powerful scene in which five or six handlers try to rein in Seabiscuit, while he struggles mightily against their attempts to harness him. They are losing the battle and ready to give up when a young red-headed jockey (the story's other hero), who has a partially untamed spirit of his own, also sees something special in this defiant, strong-willed, difficult to manage, magnificent horse. The talented and caring jockey is able to win Seabiscuit's trust, tame him, and help realize the championship potential with which this spirited horse was born.
It is obvious where I am going with this, right? Inside many spirited children are champions who need the taming of firm and loving parents, or surrogate parents, to bring out their best and perhaps save them from self-destruction. Without such taming, the lives of these kids can go further and further wrong, often ending up in one form of confinement or another. In and out of time-out as children, they resign themselves early to being at odds with any form of authority. As teens, their spirited behavior gets them into more and more trouble sometimes landing them in jail, a hospital, a psychiatric unit or worse.
Taming, Not Breaking
Some parents mistakenly believe that they need to break the will of a spirited child, even punishing him into obedience, like a horse trainer who beats a horse until the animal breaks. This was not how Seabiscuit was tamed, and it's not about to work with most spirited kids. The problem with the heavy-handed approach is that spirited children have a keen sense of respect and disrespect. When parents rely on punishment, especially harsh punishment, to break the child's will, the child feels trampled on and becomes resentful. Since these kids are anything but passive, they do not take such perceived injustices lying down. They rear up like Seabiscuit and rebel. Some of these kids can rebel very well and very long, which accounts for that feeling of anger on the part of the parent that I acknowledged in the opening paragraph. Parents who try to break such children are in for the fight of their lives often becoming frustrated and angry, if not thoroughly defeated. I'll talk more about these kinds of power struggles, and about methods to avoid them, later in the book. I'll also teach you methods for taming spirited children that are much more respectful of you as a parent and your child as a person, as well as more successful.
Some parents are thinking right now that they know of at least one child who has been successfully broken by a strong-willed parent who used a lot of harsh discipline. There are even well-known child experts, whose books suggest breaking the child's will through punishment. But even if you could use sufficient force to break the child, here's my question: Why would you want a broken child when, with a different approach, you could have a whole child who behaves well? I speak from experience, as well as from my professional training. Our son, Benjamin, was a spirited child. He would throw the most impressive tantrums, the reverberations from which may have registered on a Richter scale someplace. He had his own mind, and he wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. By the time he was four, we knew it was time to intervene. Oh, he was also charming, happy, funny, smart, and otherwise a joy to be around. Our job as parents was not to break him, and risk losing all of these positive gifts, but rather to tame him so that he learned to use his gifts in positive ways.
For years I had been teaching other parents strategies for raising challenging, powerful children. I had worked with hundreds of frustrated parents in therapy sessions, and over two million parents had completed my Active Parenting courses, six-session video-based groups that teach a complete approach to parenting. Many had taken time to write about how well these methods worked, not only to change their children's lives but to improve their own lives as well. We had some twenty different studies showing the effectiveness of these methods and thousands of parent educators who endorsed and used our programs.
But now it was time to practice with our own spirited child what I had preached. The shoe was on the other foot, and at times it pinched. My wife and I found that though these strategies worked, they required a patience and awareness not as necessary as when parenting our other, quite-different child. I'll share these strategies in detail in this book, strategies that I know work from firsthand experience. It may have taken us a little longer to see a change in our son, but it was worth it; by age six his tantrums and other misbehaviors were well behind him. He's now a thriving teenager who lives within the rules and shows his spirit productively while enjoying life fully.
Nature, Nurture, Genes, and Parenting
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when many psychologists thought that children came into the world as blank slates, to be written upon by their environment. In other words, their personalities were shaped almost entirely by parents, teachers, and other agents of society. Genes were given credit for eye color and other physical attributes, but not much for intelligence, personality, and behavior. If you had a spirited child (by any name), then you could be sure, according to the blank-slate theory, that somebody had turned the child that way. That "somebody" was usually the parent, who inevitably got a lot of the blame for the child's robust behavior and misbehavior.
Numerous studies, using the handy circumstance of genetic twins who were separated at birth and raised in different environments, pointed out the overwhelming fallacy of the blank-slate theory. So many of these twins were so much alike in their behavior and personalities, in spite of vastly different upbringings, that even the most nurture-oriented of those in the field of psychology had to admit that much of who we are as individuals seems to have been genetically programmed. Parents and other forces in a child's upbringing, to be sure, do play important roles in determining what choices the child makes regarding these inherited genetic traits whether he becomes Batman or the Joker, for example. But the basic cards have been dealt.
This is a good news-bad news proposition. The good news is that you probably aren't to blame for your child's spirited disposition. That was in all likelihood part of the hand he (and you) were dealt in the great genetic poker game. The bad news is that you aren't entirely off the hook, either. You and other forces in your child's environment (his siblings, teachers, other adults, life experiences, what he reads or sees or listens to all that and more) do play a huge role in either taming your spirited child so that he uses his unique gifts for the common good or influencing him to become more defiant, rebellious, and out of control, until he eventually does damage to himself and others, winding up in trouble, in jail, or in the morgue. Throughout history, some spirited children have become great leaders, or at least contributing members of society, while others have become dastardly villains, or at least obnoxious neighbors. And their parents probably did play an important role in determining which road they eventually traveled.
They just may not have played as conscious a role as you are going to after you finish reading this book.
Traits of the Spirited Child (CAPPS)
When I was a young and spirited child, I used to have a cap pistol. And like a lot of boys of my generation, I'd run around the yard playing cowboy and making loud noises by shooting off my caps. This was a lot of fun until the day I brought the gun inside and woke up my baby sister while chasing imaginary bank robbers through the house. My parents were not amused.
While every child is unique in his own way, spirited children do share some commonalties. They tend to be extra Curious, Adventurous, Powerful, Persistent, and Sensitive. CAPPS like capital letters they tend to be bigger than life; like my childhood cap gun, explosive, full out, and energetic. See how many of these traits apply to your child. The more they have and the more often they exhibit them, the more likely that you are the proud parent of a spirited child.
Spirited Children Are More Curious
Tania (age eleven) was described by her mother as a royal pain to take shopping. "We could never get out of there," she complained. "Tania was always seeing something else that she wanted to look at. I'd be ready to check out, only to turn around and find her across the store, looking at something else."
Peter (age seven) was hardly ever able to get himself dressed and downstairs for breakfast on time. Something would always catch his attention and distract him along the way.
Whatever George (age nine) was thinking about at the time, he was absolutely absorbed in it to such a degree that his parents would have to call his name two or three times before they could get his attention. They complained in frustration that "he never seems to be listening."
George, like many spirited kids, was listening. He was listening to his own mind explore the curiosities of the world in which he lived. Spirited kids often get so fixated on something of interest to them like a dog, a crack in the cement, or how high a ball can bounce when dropped out of the second-story window that any distraction will be unheard or ignored. It doesn't seem to matter whether the object of their attention is right there in front of them or only in their mind's eye. Their curiosity and focus can be profound. This may drive parents and others trying to break through to them crazy, but the upside is that spirited kids often use their heightened curiosity to make great contributions later in life. I'd bet that Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ford were spirited children.
Spirited Children Are More Adventurous
Wanda (age five) would get up early in the morning and go exploring downstairs while her parents and siblings still slept. One morning her mother came down to find Wanda sitting amid a box of Pop-Tarts, which she had spread creatively across the floor in a life-size mural.
Jonathon (age seven) was, in his mother's words, "without fear. He was the type of kid who will always leap before he looks." Consequently, Jonathon spent many an hour getting stitched and mended in emergency rooms when his leaping came to unfortunate ends.
Jerry (age twenty) dropped out of college after his second year to travel the country in his van. He figured that "there was just too much of life out there that I was missing sitting in the classroom day after day."
It isn't that any of these children are bad or malicious. Rather, they have been given a temperament that makes them want to experience life in as big a way as possible. They yearn for adventure. Like Jack London, they want to journey to distant lands, to zip across the cosmos like a "superb meteor." Like Pablo Picasso, they want to create something new and different and if the nose ends up on the side of the head instead of in the middle of the face, so much the better! Like Amelia Earhart, the first woman of aviation, they seek to go where no one has gone before. Of course, this inevitably brings them into conflict with parents, siblings, teachers, and others who live within the boundaries of "reasonable expectations." After all, adventure isn't always safe, and parents have a vested interest in keeping their children safe. Amelia Earhart, it might be noted, was lost at sea while piloting her plane across the Pacific.
Spirited Children Are More Powerful
Kyle (age three) yelled at the top of his lungs for an hour and a half in protest against his father's demand that he take a bath. You just don't find that kind of rebellion much less strength in your average three-year-old.
When Lisa was fourteen, she and a friend defied her parents' orders and snuck the car out one icy evening to go joyriding. They returned with a crack in the windshield and a bump the size of an egg on the friend's forehead. Power, as we'll see in chapter 4, isn't always upfront and active. Sometimes it's downright sneaky.
John (age seventeen) still lights up a room when he enters it. His big-hearted laughter is contagious, and when he sings in the shower, it is at the top of his lungs. His dad describes him as "a full-out kind of kid someone who never holds back. He's great now, but, boy, did we go through some awful times trying to teach him to take no for an answer."
Spirited kids seem to have more energy and power than most kids. They do not like to be controlled, and they use their power to thwart attempts to rein in their freedom. It is as if they view the universe as their personal playground on which they should be able to romp, play, and explore unobstructed by the rules and order that limit others. Again, it is not that they are being intentionally bad or "acting out" negative emotions through misbehavior; they simply want what they want and aren't inclined to let much stand in their way of getting it. When channeled effectively, such power is the stuff that creates leadership. Where would Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt have been without the personal power to stand up to Adolf Hitler? At its worst, power is also a calling card of warlords, bullies, and dictators. There again is Adolf Hitler.
Since part of our job as parents sometimes is to get in our kids' way by setting limits on behavior, teaching them the rules of the land, and otherwise saying no a lot, it is no small wonder that parents of spirited children wind up in so many power struggles. Understanding these power struggles and how to deal with them effectively is the subject of chapter 5.
Spirited Children Are More Persistent
Mother told Donella (age six) that she would make pizza for dinner. But when she went to get the pizza out of the freezer, she was surprised to find that there was none left. She explained to Donella that they would have to have something else, an explanation that did not go over very well. To say the least. Donella cried, "But you promised!" so long and so loudly that her mother finally gave in and ordered a pizza. When it finally arrived, Donella cried and cried, "This is the wrong kind!" because it wasn't exactly like their usual frozen brand.
David (age ten) would play an interactive video game with online players for hour after hour. When his father told him that he needed to do something else, David argued and argued for more time. He just would not take no for an answer.
Megan (age four) hated change. After returning home late one night from a trip, her mother suggested that she needed to take her bath and go straight to bed. But Megan complained, "You always read me a story!" Her mother recognized the signs of an impending tantrum, and decided to go ahead and read her the customary story.
To the average reader, these kids may sound spoiled, but spoiling is a different sort of thing. Spoiling comes from the outside in. In other words, the parent spoils the child by giving him too many privileges, too much freedom, or too many objects. The child learns to expect these things whenever he wants them. When he doesn't get what he wants, he becomes frustrated and complains. Sometimes the complaint becomes a whine, a yell, or a full-fledged tantrum. The child has become spoiled by his parents.
Spirited kids are different in that they are not spoiled into becoming easily frustrated; they are born that way. They seem to have a high capacity to focus on a goal and not give up until they achieve it. When a parent blocks that goal, as in the above example, they become frustrated and emotional but do not give up on the goal. This frustrates the parent, and pretty soon there are two emotionally charged individuals in a struggle for power. The positive side of this equation is that when spirited kids focus on a useful task, their persistence compares favorably to Michelangelo's while painting the Sistine Chapel. When they refuse to be stymied in their pursuit of a goal, they are exemplifying a trait that Alexander Graham Bell needed to invent the telephone, and Bill Gates needed to found Microsoft. This persistence can be a great asset. Most entrepreneurs will tell you that the number-one ingredient in their success was the ability to keep going when others would have quit to refuse to take no for an answer. This persistence can pay major dividends later on although it can drive a parent crazy in the short run.
Spirited Children Are More Sensitive
Lauren (age four) complained that her shirt scratched her. When her father checked and didn't see anything wrong, and told her so, Lauren burst into tears, pulled off the shirt, and cried until she fell asleep.
Michael (age ten) was a very gifted and competitive athlete. He didn't just not like losing, he hated it. When he was losing, he would yell at his teammates, often abusively, to play better. And when he lost, he would often leave the field or court in tears.
Ben's (age six) mother was sure that her son had ESP, because he had an uncanny ability to read her moods. "He would just know how I felt about something without even asking," she said.
Spirited children are often described as thin skinned, high strung, intuitive, and just plain sensitive. Sometimes this means that, like Lauren, they are physically sensitive to textures, noises, bright lights, and other environmental stimuli that do not bother other children or adults. Other times this means that they are emotionally sensitive to criticism, to slights, and, like Michael, to losing or failing. They can become easily frustrated and fall into tantrums when things do not work out for them. On the positive side, they are often highly attuned not only to their own sensitivities but to those of others. Like Ben, they often have a heightened ability to read other people.
This is not a definitive list of traits that are common to all spirited children. You will not find that all spirited children exhibit each of these traits, and you may find other traits that are typical of many other such children. My purpose is to give you an overview of what to look for, not to give you a checklist for making a diagnosis. You will also find that spirited kids vary in the degree to which they exhibit these traits. Some may show their persistence by crying until they fall asleep, while others might be more prone to argue until you wish that they would fall asleep.
I also hope that I have made convincingly the point that the traits of a spirited child are a double-edged sword. They have their obvious downside in the conflicts they cause at home, at school, and in the community. But they each have a wonderful upside that, if channeled properly, has great value. Once tamed, the positive aspects of these same traits can lead the child to huge personal successes, as well as to making a significant contribution for the rest of us. Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Ted Turner, and countless other successful men and women my guess is that all were spirited children who were at least partially tamed by loving parents, teachers, and others and who grew up to use their myriad talents to achieve a success unknown to most of their more conventional peers. If you are the parent of a spirited child, or of a child who shows some of the traits of spirited children, you have an opportunity to help nurture this potential. And who knows? You may have a champion chomping at the bit for his invitation to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael H. Popkin, Ph.D.