Let The Quiet Ones Shine
How to nurture introverted kids and give them a leg up
From the time I was little, I preferred being on my own, reading or listening to music than socializing. People around me, including my parents, struggled to understand me. Consequently, there was always a sense of tension and dissatisfaction at my being so asocial. As I grew up, in my attempt to fit in, to adhere to what was expected of me, I became a 'pseudo-extrovert'. I pretended to be outgoing and social when all I wanted to do was to find a corner and snuggle with a book. It took a long time for me to be able to tell myself and my loved ones, "I am fine the way I am."
As a society, we value and find worth in a narrow range of personality styles. We all want our children to be outgoing, bold, popular, assertive, sociable, exuberant and confident. In one word—an extrovert.
Actress Emma Watson shared in one of her interviews, "If you're anything other than an extrovert, you're made to think there's something wrong with you."
Introverts struggle with invisibility. They are the quiet ones who are not so social, popular, assertive and out there. They prefer hanging out with a couple of their friends or better still spending their break in the library. They avoid attracting attention, so generally do not raise their hand to ask questions, give answers or offer more than necessary information. Many times their talents go unnoticed, as they would rather not talk about it. They happily, or most times unhappily, stand in the shadows while others, less talented and skilled than them, take away all the limelight.
There are many complex, multilayered personality tests out there (Myers-Briggs is a prominent one and is used primarily for adults). However, for our understanding, just dividing children into two temperaments—extroversion and introversion—is sufficient. Extroverts are energized by social interaction and being with others where introverts can find that draining and exhausting. They get energized by quiet reflection, reading and being on their own. Temperament refers to the innate, biologically based behavioural and emotional patterns whereas personality is a complex cocktail that is also impacted by culture and experiences. Temperament is the foundation and personality is the building.
We also tend to confuse shyness with introversion when actually they are quite different. Shyness is fear of being socially judged or disapproved whereas introversion is preference for quieter pursuits. Introverts can be socially adept. Many times, through repeated messages that we give an introverted child, he might become shy as he starts thinking something is wrong with him and therefore fears social rejection.
I was observing a class where there was an adorable, quiet little boy sitting next to me. He tried raising his hand tentatively to answer and at times even tried calling out gently for the class teacher. Unfortunately, the teacher was too busy responding to the louder voices vying to grab her attention. After sometime I saw him give up and just sit back, quiet and dejected.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain highlights research that indicates that there is a tendency in all of us to admire the Extrovert Ideal. The research highlighted how people who are more talkative, speak with higher velocity and volubility (typical extrovert) were rated as smarter compared to people who spoke less or more slowly.
Schools are perfect examples of this bias. Children who shine on stage or in student councils are generally typical extroverts. Introverts are generally hauled up for not raising their hands, speaking up or being bold enough.
I am not saying that we should let introverts be as they are. Gentle nudges to go out and play, attend parties occasionally, participate in school events, speak up in class are necessary. Just as we need to train extroverts to be a little more reflective, sensitive, learn to spend time on their own and appreciate their internal world. As Susan Cain explains, our children's temperaments are like rubber band; they can only stretch a little. The trick is to accept, balance and then celebrate.
Let Them Bloom
ACCEPT: Introverts end up carrying a huge sense of guilt and anxiety for not being good enough. Nowadays, in most progressive schools there is a lot of focus on group learning. The assumption is that only through collaborative work can children learn effectively and that will encourage essential life skills. This is good for extroverts but what about introverts who learn best in solitude? A child who understands 'I might be different from others, but I am fine', will be in a much better position to explore her strengths rather than wasting her time pretending to be who she is not.
BALANCE: Try to gently encourage introverted children towards being a little more adventurous. Talk to her and help her understand that having 'people skills' is also a life skill. Work towards an agreement whereby she could do one thing every week/fortnight/month that helps her build social skills. It could range from doing a show and tell, speaking at the assembly, preparing on a topic before a class discussion or performing in front of a small group of friends and teachers. As long as the child is feeling accepted and she has a sense of ownership of what she needs to do, she will be learning an important life lesson.
CELEBRATE: Can you imagine what our world would have been without amazing people like Satyajit Ray, Premchand, Proust, J. K. Rowling and Steven Spielberg? Introverts are the thinkers, listeners, poets, writers, creators who love dwelling in their rich inner life. Known for being highly sensitive, they perceive and feel the world much more strongly. Go ahead and celebrate your introverted child. He might not be the star of the party, but his sparkling mind can shine like none other if given the space to be.
Dr Shelja Sen is a Delhi-based child and adolescent psychologist with Children First.