It’s official. I am the parent of what people diplomatically like to call a “spirited” child. It’s code for “high maintenance” or — the less polite version — “demanding little shit”. When did I discover this? I think it first really dawned on me when the woman who ran my little girl’s family daycare called to tell me she was giving us notice and that she’d had enough of madam’s difficult behaviour. Mortified doesn’t even begin to express my reaction. Devastated, angry, shocked, confused — I was all of those things (but more on that later.)
According to — let’s call her Bev — my sweet darling child, who had for the last year been playing harmoniously with her little friends at daycare and generally loving life, had over the last month or so developed a penchant for snatching toys, grabbing, hitting and being an all round disruptive little turd. Not that it was happening constantly — it was maybe one day in every five that it was rearing its ugly head — but clearly it was enough for Bev to put her in the “doesn’t play well with others” category.
Now, I feel it important to add this little detail here as it does have some bearing on the situation. My daughter is 20 months old. That’s right, she’s not yet two. I’m no childrearing expert or cognitive scientist, but it’s a universally known fact that toddlers aren’t too hot at reasoning or impulse control. It’s not until they hit three that the part of their brain develops which allows them to exercise self-control and develop those all-important social skills.
So as you can understand, my first response was: isn’t this behavior pretty normal? Is this not just a classic toddler phase that we can work through together as her caring team? Apparently not. After a year of getting to know my little girl and us (I naively thought we were friends!) and having no problems or concerns whatsoever, all of a sudden Isla was deemed “not the right fit”. No discussions, no “let’s try this and see how it goes”, it was game over.
The challenges with finding another childcare space at short notice notwithstanding, I found this a really hard pill to swallow. I’ll admit, Isla is high maintenance. She’s boisterous, energetic, bossy. She likes things her own way. She sometimes says “no” just to see what I’ll do. Right now she’s testing the waters, seeing what she can get away with. But she’s also charming, hilarious and loving. She responds with affection to people who engage with her. She’s whip smart — already — and curious about the world around her.
For someone who knows and has developed a relationship with my child to want to suddenly wash her hands of her was completely devastating. It was rejection — plain and simple. I felt — I still feel — incredibly let down.
I spent 24 hours obsessing over the situation, doubting myself and my parenting skills, my stomach a big heavy knot of anxiety. How could she do this to us? Didn’t she love Isla? Doesn’t she care what happens to her and want to help her? And also, bubbling away behind all of the hurt, how the hell am I going to find another childcare place? I’d turned down two spaces in the last three months for places we’d been waitlisted for from before Isla was born, because I foolishly believed we’d found the perfect environment.
I even took to my parenting group on Facebook to ask other mums if they thought the behavior Bev was describing warranted this extreme reaction. That’s what really helped put things into perspective for me. The support I got from other mums — including my own, herself mother to a very spirited child — was incredible. Yes, they said, she may be more ‘spirited’ than some other kids her age, but this kind of behavior IS normal. It IS a phase. It IS something that a childcare professional should be equipped to deal with — and frankly, if they aren’t, then they’re in the wrong job.
Most importantly, they reminded me that my daughter is better off in a place with someone who makes the welfare of the children they look after their priority — not someone who’s looking for an easy ride. (Again, I’ll reiterate: if an easy life is what you’re after, a career in childcare is probably not “the right fit” for you either.)
Unfortunately, I learned that this isn’t an isolated incident. There are some carers out there who pick and choose the kids in their care to make sure they’re surrounded with placid, easygoing children who sit and play quietly by themselves all day (and that’s their prerogative). Don’t get me wrong, those kids are wonderful too, and if you have one, then lucky you! But rejecting a more demanding child because you can’t be bothered to explore or work through a problem…well, that’s just failing in your duty of care.
We place such a huge amount of trust in the people that look after our kids. We close the gate, jump in the car and drive off to work assuming that the person or people caring for them have their best interests at heart. We hope that they will come to love them and that our kids will love them back, if for no other reason than it helps assuage the guilt of leaving them.
To learn that this isn’t always the case — that for us it was in fact the opposite — was quite a shock. It’s certainly given me a very different perspective on childcare and reminded me that, as much as we would love to think otherwise, it’s ultimately a paid transaction. We give them money, they look after our kids. Love isn’t part of the deal — at least, it’s not an essential.
So to those parents who, like me, have a ‘spirited’ child: I hope you don’t have to go through this, or something similar. But you probably will at some point — maybe you already have. Our kids can be polarizing. They feel things more keenly, they express themselves more loudly, they react more intensely. But when they charge at you for a cuddle, when they shower you with ferocious kisses or cling to you for dear life because you’re the most important person in their world and no one else comes close…that’s when you know you wouldn’t have it any other way.
And if nothing else, we now have an excellent anecdote for her dad’s father-of-the-bride speech. “We knew we weren’t in for an easy ride when, at aged 20 months, our daughter was expelled from daycare.” You can’t make that shit up.