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The High-Spirited Child: Taking The Very, Very Long View

I laugh at – and pity – the pregnant me. Fellow first-time moms, you may be familiar with this version of yourself and you may also, from time to time, sympathetically snicker at that silly, naïve, large-bellied lady.

When I was pregnant, people spent a lot of their energy telling me how things would be once baby arrived. I swear there’s a large (kind of evil) group of parents walking around out there, on a mission to squash pregnant couples’ beautiful ambitions of a dreamy life with baby. They intently giggle at your silly sleep schedules and your feeding calendars.

And, man, I was ripe for the pregnant-bliss picking. Those smug (wise) already-parents tried hard to break my spirit, but I remained stubbornly confident that my child was going to be an excellent sleeper, a champion breastfeeder, and would have the gentlest of sweet puppy dog cries. Our days would be filled with giggles, nursery rhythms and butterflies, and our evenings would be filled with sleep, sleep and more sleep. Do you see why I laugh now at pregnant me?

Here’s the thing: based on my extensive research of a few fellow, first-time moms who surround my immediate, very small bubble, I think there are actual babies out there who gave their parents that mystical unicorn of infanthood. They were amazing sleepers who only cried when they needed to be fed or have a diaper changed. These babies then turned into toddlers who simply go with the flow and who keep their emotions in check. Crazy talk you say? I have proof! Many of my mom friends are already well into their second pregnancy, not even two years recovered from birthing the first one!

If you are a mom who did actually have one of those beautiful unicorn babies and are already happily on to creating more of them, then a head’s up that you might not totally relate to some of this article…although I do envy you and your glorious little ones.

No, this article is for the moms out there who might be more like me and who might also be in procession of a “high-spirited” child. Amazing children that we absolutely love with all our might – but who also challenge us every minute of every day (and many minutes of the night too). Perhaps you can relate when I tell you that, from the day she entered this world, my little one has been a metaphoric teenager slamming her bedroom door while also screaming, “I didn’t ask to be born!”

Yes, my now-22-month-old daughter has often been referred to as “high-spirited,” or some other incarnation of the term. I’m starting to realize that all of it might just be a sympathetic way for nice people to respond when they’d rather not say, “damn your child has a set of lungs on her!”

Shortly after she was born, my little girl was handed to me, hysterically crying, by a nurse who looked me in the eyes and said, “well mama, you’ve got a feisty one on your hands.”

And feisty she has been, spending much of her early months crying all evening, throughout the night, and then for many hours each day. When she was happy, she was very happy….and when she was angry, she was very angry. She was, and still is, an emotional roller coaster. And like every good roller coaster, the ride is both scary and awesome.

As my baby has turned into a toddler, she has become known in our classes as the one who always cries and who can never be far from mommy. Anytime she is outside her comfort zone, which is most any time and most any place, my daughter has found the experience challenging. It can be mentally exhausting for both her and me.

The thing of it is, mommies, our “feisty” kids are dealing with emotions that are just too big for their current little selves. They are Beyonces living in a Peppa Pig world. They are ahead of their time right now, and when you’re ahead of your time as a baby, toddler or child, you tend to fall into the “high-spirited” or “challenging” category. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that categories can be dangerous. When you spend too much time trying to place people (including those tiny people we call babies) into predetermined groups, you end up missing the uniqueness of that person.

So I’ve been trying to make a very conscious effort not to place my daughter (or anyone else’s child) into a particular group, even if others might put a label on her. This is easier said than done of course, considering we live in a world totally covered in labels (hashtags anyone?).

Here’s a fun game to play. I’m going to give you a list of traits. Check off each quality that your child processes. If you’re like me, as you go down this list, you might have less than lovely flashbacks of your child demonstrating them – probably in public, with a lot of people watching:

  • strong-willed
  • perceptive
  • stubborn
  • empathetic
  • sensitive
  • independent

Was that a fun walk down toddler tantrum memory lane? Ok, now try and zip ahead to the not-so-distant future and imagine your child as a young adult (gulp). He or she is moving out of the house for the first time to start at their first real job. Perhaps they’re moving alone to a big new city where they don’t know a soul. Now go down that list of traits again. Suddenly those currently challenging aspects of your kid’s personality take on a whole new aura. They might just turn out to be some of the qualities in your child that will help them to thrive the best in this world.

Go figure.

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