The Spirited Child

If you’re lucky, one of your kids (but not more than one) will be a spirited child.

The spirited child keeps you on your toes, stretches your boundaries, pushes the envelope. The spirited child is always on the precipice. He (or she … no gender bias here) is the one who makes you grip the parenting safety bar with all your might. The highs are high and the lows are low on this wild ride. You’re exhilarated by their life force and scared to death at the same time.

Our spirited child is Younger Son. He arrived that way, requiring a mid-forceps delivery (an obstetrical technique no longer practiced), and has traveled his own path ever since. He has been my personal life lesson in choose your battles.

He was the one with an ear shattering case of colic that could only be soothed by running the water in the kitchen sink — any kitchen sink — full blast, while he lay in his infant seat on the nearby counter. No other technique was the least bit effective, and I tried them all. We even attempted a high quality audio recording of the crashing water, to no avail. The water bills for those eight or ten weeks could have supplemented his college fund. I still haven’t gotten over the guilty waste of natural resources.

He’s the one who insisted on being completely naked whenever possible from age two to four. I drew the line when it came to going out into the world, and insisted he wear clothes to preschool, but if it were up to him he would have been in the buff 24/7. At the end of his day he would come inside and immediately strip down. It was his moment to exhale.

He’s the one who developed a personal relationship with Abraham Lincoln. If he were older it would have been called a man crush, but in kindergarten it was just adorable and funny. He ate up every tidbit of info he could find about Honest Abe and called him “my best friend”. On a family trip to Washington we were all held hostage at the Lincoln Memorial while he basked in the glow and read every word of every speech carved into the marble.

He’s the one who came to me during the final weeks of first grade and asked to dye his hair blue for the last day of school. First grade. Blue hair. That might have been my first clue. Thus began a unique tradition that would last throughout elementary school. Each year he would show up on the very last day with a different vibrant, unnatural hair color.

He’s the one who requested navel piercing at age eight as a reward for a near-perfect report card. In a world of choose your battles, this was one I had to seriously consider. Instead of screaming, “Oh my god — are you kidding me?? NO freakin’ way!!”, I chose a different approach. I went online and searched ‘body piercing and infection’. We looked at the graphic photos together and after a few minutes he reconsidered. “Mom, I think I’ll wait ’til I’m a little older.” He’s still piercing-free.

He’s the one who came home for winter break during freshman year of college and announced that he planned to take the next year off from school to travel across the country doing community service jobs, one city at a time. Alone. When we played the money card and responded, “that’s a lovely idea, Honey, and we’re proud of you for wanting to give back, but we’re not paying for that,” he answered, “of course you’re not; that would ruin it.” He went on to earn the money, budget $15 a day (including transportation), and embark on a 9 month odyssey that would change all our lives.

Our spirited child celebrated his 22nd birthday this week. He’s still pushing the envelope and I’m still choosing my battles and hanging onto that safety bar for dear life. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m grateful that his brother and sister are blessed with temperaments that are more predictable.

So if you have a spirited child, consider yourself lucky. Jump on the ride of your life and enjoy every minute. Don’t bother trying to slow them down, it’s not their nature to be cautious. They’re the ones who blaze the trail, ruffle the feathers, and shake things up. Someone has to.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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