Science of Parenting: How to Parent Spirited Children

February 1, 2012, 9:57 am | Donna Donald, Lori Korthals, Laura Sternweis

AMES, Iowa — When it comes to temperament, some kids are as dependable as pickup trucks, while others are as touchy as high-end sports cars. This month’s Science of Parenting podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach examines the “engine” that drives a child and how parents can manage spirited children.

Temperament describes what is “under the hood” of a child, said author and licensed parent educator Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, who has a doctorate of education and is director of

“There are kids who are like the Chevy truck — it will get you where you want and it’s very dependable,” Kurcinka said. On the other hand, “some children, by their very nature, have a more active arousal system. Some of them have what we would call a Lamborghini engine inside. It takes more skill to work with spirited kids, but the ride is also much more exciting.”

During the 30-minute Science of Parenting podcast, program host Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and extension specialist at Iowa State, “parent-on-the-street” Mike Murray and Kurcinka discuss how parents can help children understand their temperament and use these traits in a positive way.

The podcast is available for free download from the Science of Parenting website or can be subscribed to in iTunes.

These Kids Are ‘More’

“When we talk about temperament and the kids with the Lamborghini engines, these are the spirited kids. By nature they are ‘more.’ They’re normal, but they’re more intense, more persistent, more sensitive, more energetic than the average child,” Kurcinka said.

Intensity, persistence and sensitivity are valued in adults, but spirited children need some help in learning to use these traits well. The first step is the parents’ attitude toward the child, Kurcinka said. Parents can view a spirited child as a stubborn, hyper brat, or they can see that child as incredibly sensitive and passionate with amazing energy.

“Those labels actually change how you see that person and the interaction,” she explained. “When that child looks at you and says ‘make me,’ … if you can look at that child and say ‘wow, he’s four and he is really committed to his goals,’ it just changed the interaction. So that’s a beginning. It changes how I approach him. ... I also need to teach him problem-solving skills so that he’s flexible, he can work on a team and he can work with others. I recognize there is strength here. I focus on a positive label for that strength, and then I teach the skills to use it in a positive way.”

Punishments aren’t effective with spirited children. Threaten them and they’ll say, “go ahead,” Kurcinka continued. “Your power is in the relationship.”

Spirited children can learn to manage their intensity and be assertive, yet respectful to parents and other people, Kurcinka said.

Science of Parenting Resources for Parents

The Science of Parenting podcasts offer research-based parenting advice from experts across the country. The monthly podcasts are available for free download from the Science of Parenting website, or can be subscribed to in iTunes. Each month a new, 30-minute Science of Parenting program will be available, as well as previous podcasts and other research-based parenting information.

Through the Science of Parenting blog,, ISU Extension and Outreach specialists share and discuss research-based information and resources to help parents rear their children. Parents can join in the conversation and share thoughts and experiences, as well as how they handle parenting responsibilities.


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