Parenting - and Loving - a Spirited Child

Today, Facebook shared a memory with me and when I saw it, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was one of those inspirational parenting quotes, text laid over the backdrop of waves crashing on rocks, and it read:

Strong-willed children become adults who change the world as long as we can hang on for the ride and resist the temptation to “tame” the spirit out of them. (

Apparently, I posted that two years ago, as the single mother of a three year old, certain that as the mama of a threenager I knew what “strong-willed” was all about. Because, three year olds, amiright? I look back at that more innocent version of myself through the cynical eyes of a mama to a now five (“ALMOST SIX!!!” he constantly reminds me) year old, and bless my own heart.  While three certainly came with its challenges, three ain’t got nothing on five, at least not where my kid is concerned. I don’t know if “hanging on for the ride” is what I’m doing as much as grasping wildly for the reins, desperately trying to keep us both from careening off the side of a cliff; and at this point, the only person in this household who’s had their spirit tamed might be me. I kid, I kid. Sort of.

That the age of five is its own unique and infinitely challenging series of meltdowns, questions, negotiations, and fandoms is not solely due to the age; some of it, I realize, is my fault. I ponder the deep questions with him – even though he’s supposed to be in bed. I am honest with him, probably to a fault, which means he has opinions on everything from Trump (“asshole!”) to his father’s much younger girlfriend (“maybe my dad likes to be objectified by ladies”). And as tired – weary, exhausted, utterly drained tired as I am physically and definitely mentally – I wouldn’t have it any other way. I may have created a monster, of sorts, but he’s my monster, and I couldn’t be more proud of him. Because I have to remember that every time he interprets my request that he go to bed as a jumping-off point for negotiation, I see those wheels turning in that clever little head of his as he exercises cognitive flexibility and problem solving skills.

When I ask him how his day was at school and learn that actually today Ben 10 came to Kindergarten and things blew up and bad guys were thrown through walls, I know his imagination and curiosity and storytelling abilities are in full effect, and maybe he’ll grow up to be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.

When he enthusiastically bombards his baby sister into brother-bear hugs accompanied by high-pitched squealed declarations of love that can be heard only by dogs, I know that he loves with his whole heart, without restraint.

And when he refuses to put on his coat or put on his pajamas, declaring “my body, my choice,” I know that he is exercising agency over his body that will one day become personal responsibility, and that he understands that he, and others, have autonomy, and that consent is vital.  

I hear his little feet pattering in the hall right now, two hours past the time I put him to bed, and am trying, through weariness, to appreciate his tenacity, and remember that this means he is not a person who gives up easily.

His capacities for critical thinking, for curiosity and creativity, for limitless love, for agency and autonomy, for perseverance, will serve him well as he grows. And while I think most mamas wish for their children to develop these characteristics, I want them for him with a little extra fervor. My son has cerebral palsy, and it takes all that grit and zeal and love to keep him hanging in there day after day, alongside his typically abled peers. His perseverance graduated him from a walker to independent mobility. His tenacity and sense of autonomy gave him the courage to throw down his forearm crutches and begin walking on his own. That boundless love in his heart keeps him helps him recover from anger at the injustice he feels as he comes to understand the ways in which things that come naturally to his classmates are so much more challenging for him. That love helps him feel empathy for the differences all people experience, in one way or another.

So, I’m hanging on for the ride – and bribing him back into bed – in spite of those inevitable moments of exhaustion and frustration, because two years ago, I posted that quote for a reason. I have no doubt that this spirited, independent, brave, loving little guy of mine will change the world. He’s well on his way, already. And he needs his mama right there by his side, wondering and laughing and loving right along with him. Even if I’m tired as hell.