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What I Wish Other Parents Had Known Before Judging My Spirited Toddler

I messed up last night. No matter how many times I tell myself that nothing good happens on the internet after 10pm, I did it anyways. I kept scrolling through Facebook long past when I should have closed my laptop, and then I stumbled across a post in a toddler parenting group.

In this post, a mother was explaining how her child, who had just turned 2.5, was so sweet, and helpful, and verbal, and responded so well to logical explanations and thus rarely required re-direction. Her mother watches her son during the week, and also cares for their nephew, who is nine months younger than her son. And apparently this nephew has some behavior problems, and the mom is wondering if it’s worth finding alternate care. These behaviors include “throwing toys, standing on furniture, standing in highchair, throwing food, throwing bibs, banging spoon/fork on plate, screaming at parents, screaming in general as a way to communicate, throwing major fits without even trying to communicate or remain calm, constant whining, using binki constantly…”

I read through this list, and my heart thudded down into my stomach.

Because I’ve been that mom. The mom of the wild one. I know what it’s like to have to leave toddler music class early 3 out of 5 times because my kid was stealing all the other kids’ instruments or screaming or running around the room uncontrollably. Or to see the other mom sigh with exasperation when my two-year-old grabs her kid’s toy at playgroup (again). I know what it feels like to have everyone staring at you as you stand outside your car in 10 degree Boston weather, desperately trying to get your flailing child into their carseat…and failing. For forty-five minutes. In the snow.

I have been that mom.

Don’t get me wrong, I sympathized with the mom in this post, who apparently is about to have her second baby. She has this great kid who has been very easy, and the wild younger nephew is difficult to deal with for everyone. But then she went on to say that the nephew’s parents recently split, mom isn’t really in the picture, and dad works very long hours.

So. Here we have this small child who is going through immense change and stress at home, and who is exhibiting typical two-year-old behavior that is likely being ramped up by the stress at home. And this mom wants to change caregivers to keep her kid away from this naughty toddler who is apparently such a bad influence.

Deep breaths, Elizabeth, deep breaths.

When my oldest was a toddler, we had just moved to a new continent (Bogota, Colombia to Boston, Massachusetts). We had no family, no support. We were having issues with daycare that I wasn’t aware of until too late, and we were dealing with immense emotional stress between our two miscarriages and my crazy job as an ER nurse. And to top it all off, I had this spirited two-year-old who was already a lot to handle.

The judgment from the other moms did not help.

Trust me, I was doing enough self-flagellation for the both of us.

The thing these other parents don’t see is that what constitutes “good behavior” for my kid might look like out-of-control behavior for another child with a calmer temperament.

When you have a spirited child, the term “choose your battles” takes on a whole new meaning.

You see my child grabbing toys from another, and I’m breathing a sigh of relief that she didn’t smack the kid first.

You see my child running wildly around the park, screaming her head off a rock-concert level decibels. I see her burning energy and using her “outside voice” (at least she’s not doing it in the house!)

You see my kid having a meltdown in the parking lot. I see an overstimulated kid who really just needs some quiet to decompress.

You see my kid building a slide down the staircase using couch cushions. I was grateful for 10 whole minutes of relative quiet while I tried to make dinner.

Don’t get me wrong, I intervened in every one of those scenarios and set boundaries and provided redirection.

But please keep in mind that the parent of a spirited toddler is also very, very tired.

Because when you have a spirited child, every second of every waking hour is exhausting. And home life can turn very negative, very quickly, when you spend every single second of the day chastising or disciplining or re-directing your child.

So you pick your battles. Which is why my kid went out nearly every day looking like a tiny homeless person or in her pajamas (not worth the fight over getting dressed). And it’s why at the two hours of playgroup each week, I just wanted to SIT DOWN and talk to another human being who understands basic table manners. And it’s why at the park, I’m happy to let her run a little bit wild, because at least she’s burning off some of that endless energy.

funny and crazy toddler outfits
Parenting a spirited toddler means choosing your battles. Which also means that your toddler occasionally looks like a thrift store threw up on them.

Every time I got into one of those situations, I wanted to tell the other parent — yes, I am a good parent. Yes, I’ve read that parenting book (trust me, I’ve read them all). Yes, I’ve talked to a therapist (many of them). Yes, we limit sweets. Yes, we’ve tried cutting out dairy/food dyes/gluten/fun. Yes, we set boundaries. Yes, we’ve tried time-outs/taking away privileges/explaining consequences. Yes, I am a good mom.

I wish the other parents could see how hard I worked at home, all day long, to teach my child how to regulate her emotions and her behavior appropriately.

I wish other parents could see that in addition to her energy level, my kid was also incredibly bright, sweet, caring, funny, and creative. I wish they could see the spectacular cities she built with her blocks or could hear her describe her favorite planets in the solar system and their identifying features. I wish they had been there the day she first met her baby sister, and held her so tenderly before kissing her cheek and whispering, “Hey there, baby sister. I’m your big sister. Remember me? I’m going to take care of you.” I wish they saw how her energy level also meant that she was incredibly brave and and outgoing, always delighted at a new challenge at the playground or happy to meet a new friend.

When you have a spirited toddler, the highs are higher and the lows are lower.

It is so much easier for the parent of those magical unicorn children — the “easy babies” — to say that we just need to work harder, set more limits, be more firm.

But they just don’t know what it’s like to be constantly worn down by the persistence and energy of a spirited child. These kids often can’t be redirected — they’re too smart for that. They won’t forget what they actually wanted just by swapping out a different toy or moving to a different room.

And don’t forget, toddlers are just one step away from babies. Just because my spirited child can talk in complete sentences about topics way above her age level, it doesn’t mean she’s emotionally mature. She’s still two.

But most all, I wish the other parents could see me. So tired, so alone, so worried about everything.

I remember one particularly bad day. We were at playgroup, and there was this one sweet little four-year-old who attended as well. The other little girl wore perfectly ironed dresses each week and liked to color quietly at the art table during playgroup (while my kiddo usually ran around in utter delight at all the new friends and new toys). I can’t remember if I was still heavily pregnant, or if I had just had the baby, but regardless, I was extra tired. And I was so grateful that my daughter was engaged (instead of pestering me to come play with her), that I let my guard down for a second.

And then we heard the four-year-old start wailing. She had drawn this beautiful and complex family portrait, and after thirty minutes of hard work, my kid had walked up and scribbled all over it. The other mom shot me, and my child, a look of pure venom.

I made my kid clean up the now-scattered art supplies. I made my kid offer to help make a new drawing. I made my kid apologize to the little girl. The other mom said stiffly, “It’s okay.”

I replied, “It’s not okay. But I promise, we’re working on it.”

We’re working on it.

I packed up our stuff and left playgroup early. Once we were in the car, my daughter tried to explain that she really liked the drawing and thought it was beautiful, and she wanted to help. It hadn’t been a malicious act, just one of exuberance and wanting to be a part of things.

And I sat in the rocking chair at home, holding my sweet, spirited toddler, and I cried. Cried, and cried, and cried.

My husband found me later and asked what was wrong.

“I just want other people to like my kid.”

We’re working on it.

What I wish other parents knew is that this is my baby. My sweet child whom I love and adore, and I would do anything to keep them safe.

So, back to the mother on Facebook. I left a comment. (Ugh, such a rookie mistake). I told her how alone I felt as the parent of a spirited child. I told her that she is blessed to have an easy child, a stable home life, and extensive parenting knowledge. She has an opportunity to show her nephew love and compassion, to show her son how to be kind to others even when it’s hard, to support her family members when they’re going through a hard time.

Is it her job to parent her nephew? No. Should she keep her son in a caregiving situation that isn’t good for the family? Of course not.

But what if the tables were turned? What if something happened in your family that you couldn’t control, and your son started acting out? How would you want others to react?

The truth is, being the parent of a spirited child is incredibly isolating at times. And we need just as much support, if not more, than families with “easy” kids.

What this Facebook mom doesn’t realize is that it’s possible that her child is the outlier. Seriously, what two-year-old doesn’t occasionally throw toys or scream or act irrationally? Particularly those who are still learning how to talk and sometimes just don’t have the words to express themselves?

I didn’t say this to the mom on Facebook, but I also secretly hope that she has a spirited child the second time around. Nothing is more humbling than having a second (or third, or fourth…) child and realizing just how very little our “parenting philosophies” affect our kids’ temperaments.

But I don’t wish this for the other mom as a curse or petty vengeance.

What I want other parents to know is that spirited kids are also wonderful.

They are creative.

They are imaginative.

They are often extra bright.

They are kind.

They are enthusiastic.

They are loving.

They are funny.

They are just kids.

And they need us. All of us. Not just their parents, but their teachers and neighbors and babysitters and friends’ parents to love them and support them, too.

We’re in it together.

We’re working on it.

Are you parenting a spirited toddler?

Please share some of the awesome things about your beautiful, spirited toddler in the comments, or email me at [email protected]. I love seeing pictures of these incredible kiddos who will one day rule the world.

And if you’re struggling today with your spirited child, I’ve got your back. I’ll be sharing a post about how to manage these incredible kids — and how we turned around months of epic, dangerous tantrums — in the next post.

In the meantime, check out this moving video by one of my favorite parenting resources, Avital. It had me sobbing big crocodile tears by the end, in the best kind of way.

don't judge my spirited toddler
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