I've Got Spirit, how 'bout you?

Raising Your Spirited Child Workbook
by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
HarperPerrennial, 1998
$14 paperback

On this fine spring morning in a windowless cinder-block room, one five-year-old is hopping and howling in protest of a chair that's "too hard." Two children are en route to the Social Skills office after redirection has failed to calm their primal shrieking. The rest squirm to various degrees. Not bad. This St. Paul kindergarten classroom is jam-packed with the kind of kids author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka would call "spirited."

Twin Cities-based Kurcinka, whose newly published workbook follows up her 1991 volume Raising Your Spirited Child, defines the kids behind the label as "more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, and energetic."

I'd like to think that my own child has all of these qualities to some degree, but even on bad days he's reliably low-key. So when I set out to review Kurcinka's book, I ran through my list of mom- and teacher-friends who have more intimate knowledge of kids with "spirit." The winner: my friend who spends her days nurturing twenty-eight five-year-olds who live in superlatives.

With characteristic patience, my friend grabs a late afternoon cup of decaf, adjusts her glasses, and settles into a two-foot-tall chair. She gives Workbook a focused twenty minutes. "It's good," she says, "but it's really just about parenting. For everybody."

She points to chapter two, "A Different Point of View: Building on Strengths," the section on positive labeling. Kurcinka writes, "Your positive perspective is an essential ingredient for your spirited child's success. The formation of that vision begins with the words you use to describe your child." A panacea for "spirited" kids only? "Every child needs that," my teacher friend says. She confirms what I suspected as I read Kurcinka's book: that the term "spirited" is more about permission and packaging than some kind of breakthrough in behavioral science. It puts the focus on kids so parents who would be uneasy walking up to the Barnes & Noble counter with a book called, say, Parenting is Harder than I Thought and Some Days I Hate It can seek good advice without shattering their own self-assurance.

The advice really is good. Activities focus on tuning into the whole family's range of needs and desires; respecting kids' ways of thinking and behaving as genuine and rational, if different from parents' own; and keeping a sense of humor. One exercise involves listing "trigger transitions" for each family member. The example includes: for dad, "kids refusing to go out the door"; for mom, "phone ringing when making dinner"; for the kids, "losing a game," "getting in a car seat," "diaper change," "different movie," and "changing clothes." The point is to help families identify transitions and prepare for them so that daily life is smoother, fuller, and happier.

Throughout the workbook Kurcinka tells readers to stop and savor family successes. It's one of her most valuable messages, and it gives the readers some relief from elaborate list and chart exercises (some of which involve markers for color-coding). Kurcinka's detailed descriptions of the families who attended her Spirited Child workshops also add warmth. Her narratives read like good fiction. Kurcinka admits that she took a creative writing course to help bring those descriptions to life. It worked.

What doesn't work about the book is the premise, the label, the "spirited" part. It has a built-in appeal to moms and dads looking not for self-reflective parenting exercises but for child-centered wrongness, a syndrome, a thing to fix. Kurcinka provides it, complete with generalizations and checklists and even (in the original book) a credo. It includes the phrases "you are not alone" and "you did not make your child spirited." Way too close, I thought, to the language of books designed for parents of seriously ill or disabled children. When I asked Kurcinka if she had drawn on such sources she said she wasn't aware of any similarities.

I talked this over with my teacher friend, and we tried to let Kurcinka off the hook. After all, labels are hot. Why not cash in on the obsession with naming and fixing? If it means that good, basic parenting strategies will reach people who otherwise might not let themselves slow down and think through their family's "trigger transitions," then the "spirited child" paradigm is a good thing.

Maybe. But it's too bad that the worthwhile stuff is couched in a shallow device. It makes me wish for the twenty-eight kids who bounce and howl through my friend's kindergarten class that authors and experts would find a way to teach balanced, respectful parenting without using any labels at all.

Kurcinka will teach workshops on power struggles at St. Paul's Jewish Community Center this fall. Her third book, also on power struggles, is due to be released in 1999.

Ann Rosenquist Fee is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent.

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