You could say I’m an extrovert. In high school I was a cheerleader, participated in Student Council, took leading roles in plays and musicals, was voted both Homecoming Princess and Best Personality, and drove my parents crazy with my incessant need to hang out with friends. (Why is this so embarrassing to me now?) Even though I’m now a much more subdued forty-something who no longer needs to be the center of attention, I still derive my energy from being around other people. I am instantly perked up by a lunch with friends, I enjoy public speaking, and I have no problem striking up conversations with total strangers. In fact, I dream of being a talk show host where I can meet new and interesting people and talk to them all. day. long.
Introverts, on the other hand, derive their energy from being alone, and get worn out (even stressed out) from too much social activity and small talk with strangers. They usually only have a few close friends (think quality over quantity), tend to enjoy solitary activities such as reading, and don’t share their feelings easily. Introverts do more listening than talking, enjoy watching from the sidelines, and can become deeply humiliated after making a mistake in public. But before you think of being an introvert as a deficit, in many circles introverts are considered “more intelligent, more reflective, more independent, more level-headed, more refined, and more sensitive,” as Jonathan Rauch wrote in his Atlantic article, “Caring For Your Introvert.”
So what does it look like when an extroverted mother tries to raise an introverted child? (Some estimates put introverts at almost half the population, so this could definitely be you!) For me, not so pretty at first.
As a new mother, I just assumed all my children would be little chips of the old block. As such, I didn’t even think about (let alone try to understand) introverts or the possibility that one of my children might be one. In my world, being an extrovert wasn’t just normal, it was good and right. After all, being friendly, outgoing, and popular is a sign of being happy and well-adjusted, isn’t it? And assertive, outspoken people who can comfortably take the lead (and the spotlight) get the best jobs and make the best leaders, right?
Not always so, says Susan Cain in her landmark book on Introversion, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. In her book, she not only explains the fundamental shift in our society from a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality”, but how despite that shift, introverts still live perfectly happy, well-adjusted lives and are among our greatest thinkers and leaders we have. (Think Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, and Ghandi.) In fact, she suggests that if introverts were simply left alone to do what they do best in the environment of their choosing (as opposed to the pervasive message from society that they should act more like extroverts), we would probably have even more creativity and leadership coming from the introverted crowd. (And if you don’t believe our society is geared toward extroversion, consider why my daughter’s Driver’s Ed class would required a group video making project this past summer.)
But again, I didn’t know anything about introversion when I was raising my first (very introverted) child, so I was constantly worried about her shyness. (And you should know there is a big difference between shyness and introversion–a shy person wants to join in but is afraid, whereas an introvert truly wants to watch from the sidelines or go home and read a book. They should not be treated the same way.) I was convinced I could train her to be a “happy, well-adjusted” extrovert like me with enough time and exposure to the right situations. I organized play dates, planned big birthday parties with group games, encouraged her to do group sports (a total flop!), and had many heartfelt (and not so heartfelt) conversations with her about how she should be interacting with other people. To be honest, I got very frustrated at times, because I just couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to be beloved by all and constantly interacting with her fifty closest friends. It just didn’t compute in my extroverted brain.
This wedge between us only escalated when she became a teenager and still didn’t exhibit what I thought were “normal” behaviors. Why wasn’t I having to tell her to get off the phone to do her homework (like when I was a teenager)? Why didn’t she want to hang out with friends on the weekend (like when I was a teenager)? Why wasn’t she signing up to be on the Student Council (like when I was a teenager)? Why didn’t she have more friends (like when I was a teenager)? What was wrong with her? Well, as you can probably guess, the problem was mine. I just didn’t understand and appreciate my daughter for who she really was–a true blue introvert, which is something to be celebrated.
I’m still learning and adjusting my own behavior, but I’d like to share with you five things (tips, if you will) that I think every extroverted mother should know when raising an introverted child.
- Understand the personality traits of an introvert. I would recommend the book I already referred to, Quiet (Susan Cain also has an excellent TED talk ), but you can find a slew of information on the internet as well. Extroversion and introversion are inherent personality traits that come with their own unique set of characteristics. An introvert can no more “come out of their shell” than an extrovert can be happy living in solitude. But that doesn’t mean introverts can’t or don’t want to socialize, they just need to do it in their own way and with their own boundaries. (I have the best one-on-one conversations with my daughter!) If you are an extroverted mother like me, understanding the inherent personality traits of your introverted child can go a long way in stamping out your unnecessary worries and giving you much needed insights for raising an introverted child.
- Help them develop their passions. Introverted kids often have the capacity to develop great talents and passions. Encourage them with enthusiasm! The ability to focus intensely on an activity is an introvert’s strength and can bring them a great sense of happiness and well-being in addition to the confidence that comes from developing their talent. Group sports like soccer may not be in the cards for your introverted child, but try to think outside of the box and notice what interests them. My daughter is a gifted artist, loves to read and write, and plays the harp. If these solitary activities bring her happiness and success, why would I push her to do something else?
- Follow your child’s lead. Forcing your introverted child to spend more time socializing or participating in a million activities is not going to make them more outgoing, it’s going to stress them out. I have long since given up on group sports for my daughter (she does like golf), and it took her about three years after moving to Utah (at the time she was entering junior high–ugh!) to establish two very good friends. While she does get together with her friends almost every weekend, she still has weekends when she prefers to be alone. This may sound painful to an extrovert, but I’ve learned to follow my daughter’s lead when it comes to socializing and let her do what makes her comfortable and happy.
- Respect your child’s need for quiet time and space. With all the group projects (and even group seating!) that happen in schools today, your introverted child will most likely come home exhausted and need to recharge alone in their room with the door closed. Respect that. Again, the most generic definition of an introvert is someone who gets their energy from being alone, so let them be alone in their own private space. If they have a birthday party to attend, arrive early so they don’t have to break into the group, and let them retreat or stay on the sidelines as they wish. Don’t plan too many play dates for your child and preferably not with a large group of friends. Your introverted child is perfectly happy spending time alone or only occasionally getting together with one or two close friends. Remember, an introvert thrives in beautiful ways when they are left alone. Being alone is only sad to an extrovert!
- Accept and love your introverted child just the way they are. Introversion is not a dysfunction, it’s a personality trait. Again, don’t try to turn your child into an extrovert. By responding to your child’s normal behavior as though there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed, you are giving them an unintended message that may damage your relationship with them as well their sense of self-worth. If you’re worried you may have already done some damage, resolve today to let them be who they really are and then find common ground and interests you can enjoy together. As an example, my daughter turned 16 this past September, and instead of planning an elaborate surprise birthday party for her (something I would haveloved as a teenager), my husband and I surprised her with a long weekend trip away (just the three of us) where we did some of the things she likes best: hiking in the great outdoors and visiting art museums. Introverts are typically very smart, deep thinking, good at problem solving, focused, creative, sensitive, and fascinating to talk with one-on-one –what’s not to love?
While the thought of being a cheerleader or hanging out with friends every spare minute of the day makes my daughter cringe, I’ve finally come to not just understand and accept her, but to feel a great sense of love and pride for who she really is. Because of her introversion, she has developed great musical and artistic abilities that bless everyone around her, and she is much more mature and not nearly as affected by the opinions of others as I was as a teenager. In fact, she was perfectly comfortable with herself long before I was. The lesson here for the extroverted mother raising an introverted child is to remember that just because they are your child doesn’t mean they will be just like you. In fact, they may be even better.