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I am raising an introvert – and parenting one can be really difficult in a world that celebrates extroversion. Here’s what I do as a parent.
When every parent I knew would ask about their child’s academic performance, my husband and I would always ask about our daughter’s social life in school. “Does she speak up and ask questions?” or “What about friends?” were standard questions that were trotted out every parent-teacher meeting. In return, the feedback was always to the effect that she takes her time to warm up, that she is quiet and has one best friend.
To their credit, her teachers have thus far looked beyond her silence to her quiet strength. “It isn’t that she doesn’t know….but hers will not be the first hand up!” is also standard feedback.
In a world of extroverts, introverted children stand out and sometimes flail a bit, before (hopefully) making peace with their personalities to work on their strengths and pushing themselves out of their comfort zones.
Let’s take a look at the archetype of an ‘ideal’ student/employee. Taking charge is rewarded as are good social skills and likeability. Starting up a conversation, finding common interests, sharing personal details enough for others to feel like they know you make you ‘likeable’. A charming, outgoing person is termed as having a ‘pleasant’ personality.
Contrast this to a typical introvert who needs time to process things, time to him/herself to recharge, someone whose hand isn’t the first to volunteer but who will get the job done well if picked…it is a hard world for an introvert today. Quiet is often confused with lack of confidence, the fact that someone isn’t forthcoming with personal details is interpreted as ‘anti-social’. What if someone does not want to share personal details even with those they have known for a decent period of time? What if someone has two or three good friends versus a huge set of friends from many circles? In a world that often values the form over substance, introversion gets a bad rap. This child isn’t going to always ask and the world isn’t interested in stopping enough to observe!
What is a parent to do then? We have done our share of worrying – is she upset? Is something bothering her? Is she picky or not flexing a bit on her part to maintain a friendship? Underlying this worry were our own levels of comfort with extroversion. Many introverts from previous generations have learned that hiding their natural personality is smart, that a façade needs to be maintained, that some faking until things become true is par for the course!
Pushing didn’t work…or pushing without preparation and lots of foundation-laying doesn’t work. Embarrassing the child doesn’t work – it doesn’t work for anyone but certainly not for the introverted personality. What works then and what are parents to do when they find that their child is happily introverted?
Some suggestions worth trying are:
It is important to differentiate quiet from diffidence. A question I found useful to ask was whether this is her regular behavior or is it specific only to certain people/situations. For example, any place with a large number of people is likely to get an introvert to clam up. Quieter, more intimate gatherings are more their cup of tea. They do not ‘perform’ to a crowd, quite content with being on the sidelines and watching, having a good time without overtly wearing their enjoyment on their sleeve. How do you know that they are having a good time? Many times you don’t! How do you know they aren’t having a good time? Almost immediately!
Everyone cannot be the life of the party – that would be cacophony and quite painful. You need the observer, the listener, the person who asks a question that makes you stop in your tracks and think, the stranger who exudes a sense of being comfortable in their skin, happy enough to have a one-on-one conversation when needed and equally happy to be comfortably silent. Even extroverts need some time off!
Quiet by Susan Cain rose to the bestseller lists in 2012 for her skillful explanation of what introversion is, what general strengths are of introverts and what their needs are likely to be. This is a good place to start if you want to understand an introvert – yourself or others in your life. The version of Quiet for teens is called Quiet Power that might be a good gift to adolescent children.
Introversion has many strengths: people who are quieter by nature tend to go deep versus wide in their areas of interest, they observe enough to come up with implementable solutions, they spend a lot of their time thinking through knotty problems without giving up easily. This is but a sample of their strengths, a good place to calm yourself as a parent raising an introvert.
It has become a fad to use words identified with hardcore psychology to emphasize our feelings: we are ‘depressed’, not ‘sad’! Words like psychopath, autistic are used to show our extreme dissatisfaction with some traits or people. First, there is the larger issue of using words that have a medical meaning flippantly in every day life. Next, such usage trivializes the condition itself – depression is a serious condition needing professional help, not something one chooses to be once in a while, for fun! Lastly, there is a sense of disparagement…this implication of a stigma towards these conditions.
As parents, it is good to use strength-based words to describe our children, especially if you are raising an introvert. Words like ‘shy’ and ‘anti-social’ are not great options when ‘determined’ and ‘confident’ exist.
Normally, one is used to kids coming home after school and blurting out everything that happened within minutes of seeing the ear they were interested in seeing! Not so with the introverted child. He or she is likely to come home and keep quiet in comfort…reading their book or doing an activity of interest to them, eating a snack before opening up on their day.
“How was your day?” is more likely to be answered monosyllabically than a ‘what were two fun moments and two moments that caused you to squirm in your seat?’ A list of different questions really helped my husband and I find out more about what was happening in her life! A blanket ban on words like ‘nice’, ‘good’, ‘okay’ meant that we heard other single words – introverts are quite creative, nothing the matter with the vocabulary at all!
Being thinkers, introverts have a good sense of what their strengths are, what they are good at and what they want to do. Being an introvert does not equate to being a pushover – these are quiet and often determined individuals we are dealing with.
Our worries and theirs are usually very different. Asking children to rate themselves on certain skills required for life would be a non-intrusive way to have them understand their areas of improvement. These kids are masters in catching on from subtle signals.
Our standard phrases are “I am concerned that your not speaking up in class will be seen as disinterest on your part. Could you please make sure to find ways to express yourself? When you don’t do that, others can’t figure out where you are or what you are thinking.”
People can’t read minds and with time being a very real pressure, many people in our kids’ lives may not take the time to stop and ask or give these kids the time they need to think things through. Sometimes, introversion could come across as arrogance or disinterest. This is subject to interpretation but the consequences of interpretations are often unfavourable to the introvert.
Often, what is a problem to the outside world isn’t a problem to the introvert. And why should it be? Research seems to suggest that introversion/extroversion is a biological trait. We wouldn’t ask someone to cut off a part of their hand to make it more attractive, why require submerging a significant personality trait to make a person more palatable?
“Just speak up” doesn’t work when someone is hard wired biologically to keep quiet. Can the child write a letter or suggestion and drop it into a suggestion box or the teacher’s drawer? Can they write a story to express their thoughts and therefore some of their challenges? Can they get into the others’ shoes enough to identify the issue at hand, separating out the emotions for a second? Identifying the problem gives us much scope to help the child find suitable solutions. Getting stuck with who said it and how is of little use. Encouraging our children to focus on what was said and why would be a better start.
An introverted child will not always walk up and tell the teacher or authority figure. Expecting this can lead to a lot of frustration on the part of the parent and potential lying by the child – they might just tell us that they spoke up to get us off their backs, preferring to find their solution independently or continuing to suffer whatever it is!
Our suggestions need to be appropriate to both the situation and the child expected to redress it!
We all learn from doing new tasks. Many times, we are scared to try something new because mistakes are stigmatized. There can be no learning without mistakes. In our home, mistakes are celebrated. As are any new skills learned.
Do encourage your children to broaden their comfort zone, volunteering for something they might not have naturally done like being a class monitor candidate, starting a petition and getting enough signatures or volunteering for a cause they believe in. These are natural situations where they will interact with others without being overwhelmed constantly.
“I know that it was hard for you to handle the crowd at Kapil’s birthday party but I noticed that you took it in your stride, participated in all the games and more!”
Your child not only knows that you care but also that the positive steps they take are observed. Everyone likes to know that they have the attention of those they care about.
When we have made our peace with the fact that our child is an introvert, it becomes essential to advocate for her/him where required. This involves informing teachers about introversion as one of your child’s qualities, inviting a friend or two over instead of a whole crowd, referring Quiet or an article written about it to those interested in understand their students more, talking about your child’s strengths and interests because they might not do it for themselves and encouraging teachers to work with your child to interest them in opportunities outside of their comfort zones, etc.
While the world might not appreciate introversion enough, there is no doubt that introverts are the need of the hour…in the midst of the shouting and non-listening, this kind of quiet confidence needs a lot more credit.