September 24, 2015


Raising Your Spirited Child, 3rd Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic. By Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D. William Morrow. $17.99.

     We live in an age when every bug is a feature. Nothing is supposed to be “wrong” anymore, just “part of the package.” OK, perhaps that is not entirely true when it comes to computers, where the whole bug/feature debate has raged for years, but it is most assuredly true when it comes to human beings. There is no such thing as hyperactivity or over-intense inward focus in children anymore – instead there is “spiritedness,” as in the title of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child.

     On one level, this is a very good thing. Growing up, in this or any age, is difficult enough for children without their being typecast by other kids, adults, and “the system” of school and healthcare. It is all too easy to dismiss a child when one can label him or her “hyperactive” and prescribe Ritalin or some other psychoactive drug to tamp things down. It is much harder to see the “spirited” personality as whole and integrated in and of itself and to handle it accordingly. And parents of children with this personality, however it may be labeled and however it may manifest itself, need all the help they can get, as Kurcinka makes clear in the latest edition of her well-thought-out book.

     On the other hand, the “spirited” label reeks of political correctness run amok, and hasn’t there really been enough PC-ism already? It is very difficult to draw the line between a child whose personality lies outside the norm in terms of intensity and one who lies so far outside the norm that some sort of medical intervention (through mental-health counseling if not with drugs) really is indicated. But drawing such a line is extremely important, because all the “mainstreaming” in the world will not help kids who are genuinely hyperactive or severely withdrawn – nor will it help their parents. And it is distinctly detrimental to other children who must interact with a hyperactive child and who get less attentive treatment and less help with their own needs because there is, after all, only so much time and effort available to a given adult in a given day, and the “spirited” child takes up a disproportionate amount of it.

     Kurcinka’s generally no-nonsense, well-considered approach does smack a bit too much of political correctness – not for parents of “spirited” children, perhaps, but for parents and kids who may encounter the “spirited” child or happen upon this book. The underlying theme here is a kind of raising of self-esteem for “spirited” kids and their families: “labels spoken and unspoken” can be deleterious, parents of “spirited” kids must be “empowered” to redefine who they and their children are in the face of a lack of understanding and empathy from others, and so on. Although admirable for parents facing everyday life with “spirited” children, this approach smacks a bit too much of entitlement to be fully comfortable for those who do not have such children but must interact with the “spirited” ones. Calling “spirited” children “more than normal” does not help matters: it tries to counter others’ perception of there being something “wrong” with the “spirited” child by denigrating “non-spirited” ones, and there is nothing admirable about that.

     Most of the book, though, is better than this, thank goodness. Parents with “spirited” children really do need a way to cope with a kind of manic-depressive everyday family dynamic, in which the “spirited” child may deliver outsize joy one day and equally outsize trouble the next (or even later on the same day). The most valuable part of Kurcinka’s book is Part Two, “Working with Spirit,” whose 10 chapters deal in some detail with intensity, meltdowns, persistence, sensitivity, distractibility, adaptability and other major issues. Again and again, Kurcinka states, “As you work to understand your spirited child, you also need to understand yourself,” emphasizing the importance of knowing yourself in order to know and interact with your child in the ways that will be most appropriate for your own health and well-being. It is easy for a parent to forget to take care of himself or herself in the everyday intensity of raising a “spirited” child, and Kurcinka’s reminder that self-care matters as much as child care is important – even if her comments on the importance of addressing your own needs do not always connect with reality (it sounds fine to say adults should have uninterrupted conversations and time for lovemaking, but between the press of work and the intensity of child-rearing, which is even greater for “spirited” children than for others, these good-sounding notions can easily turn into pipe dreams). Kurcinka’s reminder that parents do not “make” their children “spirited” is welcome, and her suggestion to reach out to relatives and friends for help is a good one, provided that relatives live nearby and/or friends are close enough emotionally and geographically to be brought into the family dynamic – again, the reality of life may not be quite as neat as Kurcinka wants it to be.

     Although not all the suggestions and prescriptions in Raising Your Spirited Child will be practical for all families, and some families will be hard-put to implement any of them at all, one thing that Kurcinka urges makes especially good sense. And that is to celebrate your child – not his or her “differentness,” but the positive aspects of his or her outsize personality. This is not necessarily easy – Kurcinka speaks at one point, almost poetically, of “spirited” children who are “drenched in their perceptions or fired by their intensity.” But it is important, perhaps even more important in the case of “spirited” children than in others, that parents accept their kids for who and what they are and provide them with a safe haven. They will likely need it as they learn that people outside their families, including adults as well as children, simply will not give them the levels of attention and sufferance that Kurcinka says are important for “spirited” children to have in order to reach their full potential and function within society as they grow toward and into adulthood. “Establish Realistic Expectations,” as one chapter subheading says – and those must include the expectation that other people will not bend over backwards to accommodate the special needs of “spirited” children, no matter how “PC” it may be to demand that they do so. The strength of these children, like that of all young people, must ultimately come from within – after being formed and guided by parents who can provide them with much more time and special attention than the rest of the world can or will.

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