How my spirited child makes me a better parent

A sensitive and unpredictable kid can test any parent's patience—but can also teach valuable life lessons.

strong willed children
Four-year-old Gillian is Jennifer’s strong-willed child. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

I refer to my four-year-old daughter, Gillian, as my “spirited” child. Sometimes, a scratchy seam in her pants will result in an explosive tantrum. Other times, she’ll cry foul because her older brother drank from her favourite blue cup or because I ate the last piece of bacon at breakfast. The majority of the time, there’s no predicting what will set her off.

Sometimes I’ll sit patiently while she screams and pounds her little fists at my chest, or on the walls, or into her pillow. Other times, I simply cry with her—because I don’t know how to help her manage her big feelings.

“Is she always like that?” asks my husband who, because of work, was absent for almost an entire year’s worth of tantrums.

I want to say no, but that would be lying.

Read more: When parenting becomes too overwhelming>

The tip-off that Gillian would be a demanding and independent child dates back to when she was only five weeks old. I was getting her ready for bed one night and I tried to breastfeed her on my right side, but she clawed and cried until I switched her to my left breast. When she’d finished eating, I put her down gently into her bassinet and turned off the light (because that’s what all the books said to do). Immediately, she started crying and only stopped when I flicked the light switch back on.

I quickly learned that parenting this spirited little girl would be nothing like parenting her older brother who, by comparison, is an even-tempered boy. Although I hate to admit it, I wanted the gender stereotype of a sweet and quiet baby girl to be true. But forget sugar and spice and everything nice—my daughter was outright spicy. And, more than anything, I was desperate to know how I—a laid-back introvert—had gestated and birthed such a rambunctious Type-A personality.

Read more: Parenting an extrovert… when you’re an introvert>

Last week, Lynnette Sheppard’s Huffington Post blog post”Strong-Willed Children Are A Blessing, Not a Curse” came at the perfect time for me. I’d had a particularly draining week, as each of Gillian’s daily tantrums left me doubting my skills as a parent. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, how I’d failed her or how I’d broken her. Although Sheppard’s children are older now, she harkens back to those trying toddler years in her piece:

“There have been times in the midst of teaching such a child when I have felt like I was teaching a brick wall. There have been times when I have felt like I was going backwards instead of forwards. There have been times when I have desperately wanted to throw my hands in the air and scream, and times when I have done just that. But there have also been moments when I have felt like I was the student instead of the teacher.”

Read more: Extreme tantrums may signal mood disorder>

I’ve learned more about myself through parenting a spirited daughter than I did with my even-tempered son. Gillian has made me a more patient and empathetic person. I’ve had to learn to really stop and listen to her needs. For example, the tantrum about the last piece of bacon isn’t really about the bacon at all—it’s about missing a hunger cue. And I need to remember that this fire in my daughter’s belly is a personality trait that will serve her well as she grows up.

Yes, I’ll admit that in the middle of my daughter’s tantrums I lose sight of this fact. Sometimes, as we muddle through this, I forget that we’re both still learning. For Gillian, the lesson might be how to deal with disappointment or anger. For me, it’s the realization that I’m not a bad parent. I’ve since learned that I’m better parent—and it’s because of my spirited little girl.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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