From his birth almost seven years ago, my middle child has always been more sensitive, more sensory seeking, more- well- everything. He exemplifies Mary Sheedy Kurcinka‘s definition of a Spirited Child as being “normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, energetic, and uncomfortable with change than other children.” He experiences life in a series of highs and lows that can change swiftly and leave me both delighted and exhausted, and I remind myself almost daily that if I feel this way, how it must feel for him to be in his body and experience the range of emotion- frustration and joy- that he does every day. He is constantly moving, constantly making noise, and constantly thinking of new ideas or stories or …. ! He is happiest and most calm outside in nature, where he can climb trees and hunt for bugs. He doesn’t need to be professionally tested, but he does need to be parented in a different way and we have learned to work with him so that he can recognize in himself what his triggers are and when he needs to self-regulate. It is a journey we are still on.
Putting him in school was never really a consideration, though to be fair I was already homeschooling his older brother and building a community around that choice. I remember towards the end of his two years at a play-based cooperative preschool, one of his teachers said to me, “You aren’t going to send him to public school, are you? It will be hard for him, and honestly it might squash his creativity and love of learning. If you are going to put him in school, it needs to be a small class size with lots of freedom, movement, and creativity. Probably a private school. But I hope you homeschool him like your older kid.” Frankly, just because I had already made the decision to homeschool him didn’t mean that I wasn’t thrilled to hear that someone else saw it too. That there was a good chance for failure in the way public school is designed. Now, I would argue that the public school system doesn’t meet the developmental needs of most students, but that is another post. My point is that that rather than take the chance, we decided to go with who he is and create an environment that set him up for success. And that has been the key.
In “Raising your Spirited Child,” Kurcinka very succinctly sums up a four step process to working with Spirited children, and it’s worked well for us:
1. Predict the Reactions
2. Organize the setting
3. Work Together
4. Enjoy the Rewards
In homeschooling, we had already applied some of these concepts successfully, but I think we were lacking in follow-through for a while. It turns out that for our spirited child, predictability and routine was more important than we realized. One of the best things we ever did was keep a journal for the week and document everything: every food, every activity, every interaction, and every reaction or mood. Yes, it was a lot of work, but it gave us such great insight to what his triggers were and where we could help him be more successful and confident, rather than the constant focus on making him behave that is the trap parents of spirited children often fall into. I say it’s a trap because 1. constantly disciplining children who are spirited doesn’t really work because they don’t often understand why they are in trouble because 2. they often can’t help it and 3. it sets up a dynamic of anger, resentment, and distrust when 4. parents need to focus their attention on what the triggers are and help the child learn to cope. Once we figured out the situations that were difficult for him or the food that hurt his body more than it helped, we could approach everyday with a plan rather than be in constant triage mode. Based on this information, we needed to make some changes in the way we homeschooled.
In early childhood (ages 0-7), I put a lot of ideas and experiences in my children’s path, play a lot of games, and trust that their basic skill needs were being met through daily life. And it works. Developmentally, this is exactly how young children learn best and studies have shown over and over that formal academics before the age of 7 is at best unnecessary and at worst detrimental. As an educator, I wholeheartedly agree with this science. As my oldest got older, I imagined on continuing down this same path, perhaps in a more sophisticated manner with a more formal method guiding our madness. The thing is, you never know what is going to work for your family, or for a particular child. And that’s fine. What we learned was that our middle child craved a routine and accountability he could rely on, and I required the same to make sure every member of our family was getting their needs met and maintain a measure of success for my middle son. Other spirited children need different things. I would say that we are still on the relaxed/unschooling side of the homeschooling spectrum, but I now include very consistent daily lessons 3-4 days a week which I list every day on a whiteboard along with any other activities we are doing so he knows what our plan is. If something changes, I let him know as soon as I can. We start every day with some kind of physical activity. I try to keep as much of his work using movement or hands-on activities based on his interests as much as possible because that is how he learns best and it touches on his sensory-seeking needs- which I also address by signing him up for as many classes as we can afford that use heavy body work. Right now, he is taking hip-hop, pottery, and flying trapeze for example. We have learned that he is not ready for classes that require a lot of sitting and listening. He can, however, listen and process well if there is movement in the class. We are very careful with our language to not associate anything we do as “because your brother needs this” or the like, especially in front of my oldest son (my youngest is too little to be affected) as to not contribute to a blame dynamic. We simply have family rules and responsibilities. We make sure this doesn’t limit my oldest, however, by taking him individually to events, letting him spend time at a friend’s house, or working on a project with him alone. I limit the amount of media he gets because there is a certain point (yes, we have figured that out too!) where he gets overstimulated and can not easily recover physically and emotionally. I try not to make promises I can’t keep or frame anything as set in stone, because spirited children like mine usually deal in absolutes. I give him reminders and touch his arm or head at the same time because he often is so focused on a task that he literally can’t hear me. We eat healthy and organic at home, use frequent snacks to keep his energy level steady, and he does not get any high fructose corn syrup (a serious trigger!). Socially, I try to have more playdates one-on-one or smaller groups and I monitor him at large parkdays to make sure he is not getting overwhelmed and reminding him of coping skills when he is. I also make sure he has quieter moments, time to recharge his batteries, away from stimulation and people.
That brings me to the social challenges of having a spirited child. Some spirited children leap in and some pull back. My son is very social, likes to make friends, goes for it. When he was younger we worked on watching a group or another child before he jumped in to assess what they were doing and what role he could play (either supporting their game in progress or asking them to begin a new game). Now our issues mainly revolve around reaction. He does best one on one with friends, and is loyal and kind. The problems arise when he is overwhelmed, either because- in the classic middle child way- he tends to be attracted to his older brother’s friends and is overcompensating to get their attention, or because he has been hurt emotionally or physically. In either case, there is no obvious gradual buildup with spirited children. If you don’t learn to recognize and watch for the signs, the reactions can seem explosive and extreme. In the worst case, this can be alienating when other children (or parents) are hurt or confused by the spirited child’s reactions. Luckily for us, this has been minimal, mostly due to having a community of friends who see the whole child and are willing to work on relationships and strategies for making everyone comfortable and to our commitment towards setting our child up for success. I mention it because it can happen to any family, but especially those with a spirited child, and it’s hard to not feel judged or frustrated. Communication with other families you trust and consistency seem to be the key. That and trusting it will get easier as you find what works. And it does! We have been teaching our son to read his own feelings and recognize the physical signs of when he is starting to become angry or overwhelmed or even excited. If you connect each of those feelings with a positive and appropriate action, it’s like an emergency plan in their head. You can even make a picture diagram for visual reinforcement. We talk to him about how he feels, or might feel in certain situations and different ways he could handle his emotions or the actions of others. When things don’t go well, we pretend we have a do-over and consider what other options he had and how to remember to use those ideas should that situation happen again. We make note and celebrate when we have a really good time, or if he handled something really well. We have also started limiting the situations that are harder on him, when he might be expected to handle more than a 6 year old can and there are no other options or activities to redirect him to or conditions in which he might be bored. Then every once in a while, we try something that didn’t used to work, and see if anything has changed. This idea goes back to setting your child up for success, because the more success he/she has, the more likely to grow and cope in a positive way. That does not mean there are no consequences, but focusing on what the spirited child needs means less likelyhood you need them. And when you do, they are often natural and more meaningful to the spirited child. If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But it is a lot less work than the alternative, which would be ignoring who he is and has the potential to impede his development and create a negative self-image. If he is constantly “in trouble”, that is how he will begin to see himself- as a trouble maker. It is self-fulfilling.
Having a spirited child has taught me new ways of seeing the world. Whenever we have to stop for the 1000th time along a trail because he saw some tiny insect or plant and has to study it, I marvel in his perception and focus. When he is constantly making noise or singing, I stop and think about what a great entertainer he is and how that might be an excellent future for him. And even in our most challenging moments where he has exploded with anger, I honor the intensity of emotion he must be feeling. It is very real and raw. He has taught me to embrace my passions and express myself more honestly and completely. When I need inspiration, I think of Thomas Edison, who was deemed “unteachable,” and “addled,” and a “dreamer” by his teacher. His mother pulled him out to teach him at home and gave him a basement workshop to experiment in. The rest is history. My son has that same imaginative curiosity. There isn’t a better place for him to learn and grow into himself than home.