Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain (2012)
Part IV. HOW TO LOVE, HOW TO WORK
Chapter 11. ON COBBLERS AND GENERALS
How to Cultivate Quiet Kids in a World That Can’t Hear Them
With anything young and tender the most important part of the task is the beginning of it; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression more readily taken.
—PLATO, THE REPUBLIC
Mark Twain once told a story about a man who scoured the planet looking for the greatest general who ever lived. When the man was informed that the person he sought had already died and gone to heaven, he made a trip to the Pearly Gates to look for him. Saint Peter pointed at a regular-looking Joe.
“That isn’t the greatest of all generals,” protested the man. “I knew that person when he lived on Earth, and he was only a cobbler.”
“I know that,” said Saint Peter, “but if he had been a general, he would have been the greatest of them all.”
We should all look out for cobblers who might have been great generals. Which means focusing on introverted children, whose talents are too often stifled, whether at home, at school, or on the playground.
Consider this cautionary tale, told to me by Dr. Jerry Miller, a child psychologist and the director of the Center for the Child and the Family at the University of Michigan. Dr. Miller had a patient named Ethan, whose parents brought him for treatment on four separate occasions. Each time, the parents voiced the same fears that something was wrong with their child. Each time, Dr. Miller assured them that Ethan was perfectly fine.
The reason for their initial concern was simple enough. Ethan was seven, and his four-year-old brother had beaten him up several times. Ethan didn’t fight back. His parents—both of them outgoing, take-charge types with high-powered corporate jobs and a passion for competitive golf and tennis—were OK with their younger son’s aggression, but worried that Ethan’s passivity was “going to be the story of his life.”
As Ethan grew older, his parents tried in vain to instill “fighting spirit” in him. They sent him onto the baseball diamond and the soccer field, but Ethan just wanted to go home and read. He wasn’t even competitive at school. Though very bright, he was a B student. He could have done better, but preferred to focus on his hobbies, especially building model cars. He had a few close friends, but was never in the thick of classroom social life. Unable to account for his puzzling behavior, Ethan’s parents thought he might be depressed.
But Ethan’s problem, says Dr. Miller, was not depression but a classic case of poor “parent-child fit.” Ethan was tall, skinny, and unathletic; he looked like a stereotypical nerd. His parents were sociable, assertive people, who were “always smiling, always talking to people while dragging Ethan along behind them.”
Compare their worries about Ethan to Dr. Miller’s assessment: “He was like the classic Harry Potter kid—he was always reading,” says Dr. Miller enthusiastically. “He enjoyed any form of imaginative play. He loved to build things. He had so many things he wanted to tell you about. He had more acceptance of his parents than they had of him. He didn’t define them as pathological, just as different from himself. That same kid in a different home would be a model child.”
But Ethan’s own parents never found a way to see him in that light. The last thing Dr. Miller heard was that his parents finally consulted with another psychologist who agreed to “treat” their son. And now Dr. Miller is the one who’s worried about Ethan.
“This is a clear case of an ‘iatrogenic’ problem,’ ” he says. “That’s when the treatment makes you sick. The classic example is when you use treatment to try to make a gay child into a straight one. I worry for that kid. These parents are very caring and well-meaning people. They feel that without treatment, they’re not preparing their son for society. That he needs more fire in him. Maybe there’s truth to that last part; I don’t know. But whether there is or not, I firmly believe that it’s impossible to change that kid. I worry that they’re taking a perfectly healthy boy and damaging his sense of self.”
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a bad fit when extroverted parents have an introverted child. With a little mindfulness and understanding, any parent can have a good fit with any kind of child, says Dr. Miller. But parents need to step back from their own preferences and see what the world looks like to their quiet children.
Take the case of Joyce and her seven-year-old daughter, Isabel. Isabel is an elfin second grader who likes to wear glittery sandals and colorful rubber bracelets snaking up her skinny arms. She has several best friends with whom she exchanges confidences, and she gets along with most of the kids in her class. She’s the type to throw her arms around a classmate who’s had a bad day; she even gives her birthday presents away to charity. That’s why her mother, Joyce, an attractive, good-natured woman with a wisecracking sense of humor and a bring-it-on demeanor, was so confused by Isabel’s problems at school.
In first grade, Isabel often came home consumed with worry over the class bully, who hurled mean comments at anyone sensitive enough to feel bruised by them. Even though the bully usually picked on other kids, Isabel spent hours dissecting the meaning of the bully’s words, what her true intentions had been, even what the bully might be suffering at home that could possibly motivate her to behave so dreadfully at school.
By second grade, Isabel started asking her mother not to arrange play dates without checking with her first. Usually she preferred to stay home. When Joyce picked up Isabel from school, she often found the other girls gathered into groups and Isabel off on the playground, shooting baskets by herself. “She just wasn’t in the mix. I had to stop doing pickups for a while,” recalls Joyce. “It was just too upsetting for me to watch.” Joyce couldn’t understand why her sweet, loving daughter wanted to spend so much time alone. She worried that something was wrong with Isabel. Despite what she’d always thought about her daughter’s empathetic nature, might Isabel lack the ability to relate with others?
It was only when I suggested that Joyce’s daughter might be an introvert, and explained what that was, that Joyce started thinking differently about Isabel’s experiences at school. And from Isabel’s perspective, things didn’t sound alarming at all. “I need a break after school,” she told me later. “School is hard because a lot of people are in the room, so you get tired. I freak out if my mom plans a play date without telling me, because I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings. But I’d rather stay home. At a friend’s house you have to do the things other people want to do. I like hanging out with my mom after school because I can learn from her. She’s been alive longer than me. We have thoughtful conversations. I like having thoughtful conversations because they make people happy.”*
Isabel is telling us, in all her second-grade wisdom, that introverts relate to other people. Of course they do. They just do it in their own way.
Now that Joyce understands Isabel’s needs, mother and daughter brainstorm happily, figuring out strategies to help Isabel navigate her school day. “Before, I would have had Isabel going out and seeing people all the time, packing her time after school full of activities,” says Joyce. “Now I understand that it’s very stressful for her to be in school, so we figure out together how much socializing makes sense and when it should happen.” Joyce doesn’t mind when Isabel wants to hang out alone in her room after school or leave a birthday party a little earlier than the other kids. She also understands that since Isabel doesn’t see any of this as a problem, there’s no reason that she should.
Joyce has also gained insight into how to help her daughter manage playground politics. Once, Isabel was worried about how to divide her time among three friends who didn’t get along with each other. “My initial instinct,” says Joyce, “would be to say, Don’t worry about it! Just play with them all! But now I understand that Isabel’s a different kind of person. She has trouble strategizing about how to handle all these people simultaneously on the playground. So we talk about who she’s going to play with and when, and we rehearse things she can tell her friends to smooth the situation over.”
Another time, when Isabel was a little older, she felt upset because her friends sat at two different tables in the lunch room. One table was populated with her quieter friends, the other with the class extroverts. Isabel described the second group as “loud, talking all the time, sitting on top of each other—ugh!” But she was sad because her best friend Amanda loved to sit at the “crazy table,” even though she was also friends with the girls at the “more relaxed and chill table.” Isabel felt torn. Where should she sit?
Joyce’s first thought was that the “crazy table” sounded like more fun. But she asked Isabel what she preferred. Isabel thought for a minute and said, “Maybe every now and then I’ll sit with Amanda, but I do like being quieter and taking a break at lunch from everything.”
Why would you want to do that? thought Joyce. But she caught herself before she said it out loud. “Sounds good to me,” she told Isabel. “And Amanda still loves you. She just really likes that other table. But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you. And you should get yourself the peaceful time you need.”
Understanding introversion, says Joyce, has changed the way she parents—and she can’t believe it took her so long. “When I see Isabel being her wonderful self, I value it even if the world may tell her she should want to be at that other table. In fact, looking at that table through her eyes, it helps me reflect on how I might be perceived by others and how I need to be aware and manage my extroverted ‘default’ so as not to miss the company of others like my sweet daughter.”
Joyce has also come to appreciate Isabel’s sensitive ways. “Isabel is an old soul,” she says. “You forget that she’s only a child. When I talk to her, I’m not tempted to use that special tone of voice that people reserve for children, and I don’t adapt my vocabulary. I talk to her the way I would to any adult. She’s very sensitive, very caring. She worries about other people’s well-being. She can be easily overwhelmed, but all these things go together and I love this about my daughter.”
Joyce is as caring a mother as I’ve seen, but she had a steep learning curve as parent to her daughter because of their difference in temperaments. Would she have enjoyed a more natural parent-child fit if she’d been an introvert herself? Not necessarily. Introverted parents can face challenges of their own. Sometimes painful childhood memories can get in the way.
Emily Miller, a clinical social worker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told me about a little girl she treated, Ava, whose shyness was so extreme that it prevented her from making friends or from concentrating in class. Recently she sobbed when asked to join a group singing in front of the classroom, and her mother, Sarah, decided to seek Miller’s help. When Miller asked Sarah, a successful business journalist, to act as a partner in Ava’s treatment, Sarah burst into tears. She’d been a shy child, too, and felt guilty that she’d passed on to Ava her terrible burden.
“I hide it better now, but I’m still just like my daughter,” she explained. “I can approach anyone, but only as long as I’m behind a journalist’s notebook.”
Sarah’s reaction is not unusual for the pseudo-extrovert parent of a shy child, says Miller. Not only is Sarah reliving her own childhood, but she’s projecting onto Ava the worst of her own memories. But Sarah needs to understand that she and Ava are not the same person, even if they do seem to have inherited similar temperaments. For one thing, Ava is influenced by her father, too, and by any number of environmental factors, so her temperament is bound to have a different expression. Sarah’s own distress need not be her daughter’s, and it does Ava a great disservice to assume that it will be. With the right guidance, Ava may get to the point where her shyness is nothing more than a small and infrequent annoyance.
But even parents who still have work to do on their own self-esteem can be enormously helpful to their kids, according to Miller. Advice from a parent who appreciates how a child feels is inherently validating. If your son is nervous on the first day of school, it helps to tell him that you felt the same way when you started school and still do sometimes at work, but that it gets easier with time. Even if he doesn’t believe you, you’ll signal that you understand and accept him.
You can also use your empathy to help you judge when to encourage him to face his fears, and when this would be too overwhelming. For example, Sarah might know that singing in front of the classroom really is too big a step to ask Ava to take all at once. But she might also sense that singing in private with a small and simpatico group, or with one trusted friend, is a manageable first step, even if Ava protests at first. She can, in other words, sense when to push Ava, and how much.
The psychologist Elaine Aron, whose work on sensitivity I described in chapter 6, offers insight into these questions when she writes about Jim, one of the best fathers she knows. Jim is a carefree extrovert with two young daughters. The first daughter, Betsy, is just like him, but the second daughter, Lily, is more sensitive—a keen but anxious observer of her world. Jim is a friend of Aron’s, so he knew all about sensitivity and introversion. He embraced Lily’s way of being, but at the same time he didn’t want her to grow up shy.
So, writes Aron, he “became determined to introduce her to every potentially pleasurable opportunity in life, from ocean waves, tree climbing, and new foods to family reunions, soccer, and varying her clothes rather than wearing one comfortable uniform. In almost every instance, Lily initially thought these novel experiences were not such good ideas, and Jim always respected her opinion. He never forced her, although he could be very persuasive. He simply shared his view of a situation with her—the safety and pleasures involved, the similarities to things she already liked. He would wait for that little gleam in her eye that said she wanted to join in with the others, even if she couldn’t yet.
“Jim always assessed these situations carefully to ensure that she would not ultimately be frightened, but rather be able to experience pleasure and success. Sometimes he held her back until she was overly ready. Above all, he kept it an internal conflict, not a conflict between him and her.… And if she or anyone else comments on her quietness or hesitancy, Jim’s prompt reply is, ‘That’s just your style. Other people have different styles. But this is yours. You like to take your time and be sure.’ Jim also knows that part of her style is befriending anyone whom others tease, doing careful work, noticing everything going on in the family, and being the best soccer strategist in her league.”
One of the best things you can do for an introverted child is to work with him on his reaction to novelty. Remember that introverts react not only to new people, but also to new places and events. So don’t mistake your child’s caution in new situations for an inability to relate to others. He’s recoiling from novelty or overstimulation, not from human contact. As we saw in the last chapter, introversion-extroversion levels are not correlated with either agreeableness or the enjoyment of intimacy. Introverts are just as likely as the next kid to seek others’ company, though often in smaller doses.
The key is to expose your child gradually to new situations and people—taking care to respect his limits, even when they seem extreme. This produces more-confident kids than either overprotection or pushing too hard. Let him know that his feelings are normal and natural, but also that there’s nothing to be afraid of: “I know it can feel funny to play with someone you’ve never met, but I bet that boy would love to play trucks with you if you asked him.” Go at your child’s pace; don’t rush him. If he’s young, make the initial introductions with the other little boy if you have to. And stick around in the background—or, when he’s really little, with a gentle, supportive hand on his back—for as long as he seems to benefit from your presence. When he takes social risks, let him know you admire his efforts: “I saw you go up to those new kids yesterday. I know that can be difficult, and I’m proud of you.”
The same goes for new situations. Imagine a child who’s more afraid of the ocean than are other kids the same age. Thoughtful parents recognize that this fear is natural and even wise; the ocean is indeed dangerous. But they don’t allow her to spend the summer on the safety of the dunes, and neither do they drop her in the water and expect her to swim. Instead they signal that they understand her unease, while urging her to take small steps. Maybe they play in the sand for a few days with the ocean waves crashing at a safe distance. Then one day they approach the water’s edge, perhaps with the child riding on a parent’s shoulders. They wait for calm weather, or low tide, to immerse a toe, then a foot, then a knee. They don’t rush; every small step is a giant stride in a child’s world. When ultimately she learns to swim like a fish, she has reached a crucial turning point in her relationship not only with water but also with fear.
Slowly your child will see that it’s worth punching through her wall of discomfort to get to the fun on the other side. She’ll learn how to do the punching by herself. As Dr. Kenneth Rubin, the director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland, writes, “If you’re consistent in helping your young child learn to regulate his or her emotions and behaviors in soothing and supportive ways, something rather magical will begin to happen: in time, you might watch your daughter seem to be silently reassuring herself: ‘Those kids are having fun, I can go over there.’ He or she is learning to self-regulate fearfulness and wariness.”
If you want your child to learn these skills, don’t let her hear you call her “shy”: she’ll believe the label and experience her nervousness as a fixed trait rather than an emotion she can control. She also knows full well that “shy” is a negative word in our society. Above all, do not shame her for her shyness.
If you can, it’s best to teach your child self-coaxing skills while he’s still very young, when there’s less stigma associated with social hesitancy. Be a role model by greeting strangers in a calm and friendly way, and by getting together with your own friends. Similarly, invite some of his classmates to your house. Let him know gently that when you’re together with others, it’s not OK to whisper or tug at your pants leg to communicate his needs; he needs to speak up. Make sure that his social encounters are pleasant by selecting kids who aren’t overly aggressive and playgroups that have a friendly feel to them. Have your child play with younger kids if this gives him confidence, older kids if they inspire him.
If he’s not clicking with a particular child, don’t force it; you want most of his early social experiences to be positive. Arrange for him to enter new social situations as gradually as possible. When you’re going to a birthday party, for example, talk in advance about what the party will be like and how the child might greet her peers (“First I’ll say ‘Happy birthday, Joey,’ and then I’ll say ‘Hi, Sabrina.’). And make sure to get there early. It’s much easier to be one of the earlier guests, so your child feels as if other people are joining him in a space that he “owns,” rather than having to break into a preexisting group.
Similarly, if your child is nervous before school starts for the year, bring him to see his classroom and, ideally, to meet the teacher one-on-one, as well as other friendly-looking adults, such as principals and guidance counselors, janitors and cafeteria workers. You can be subtle about this: “I’ve never seen your new classroom, why don’t we drive by and take a look?” Figure out together where the bathroom is, what the policy is for going there, the route from the classroom to the cafeteria, and where the school bus will pick him up at day’s end. Arrange playdates during the summer with compatible kids from his class.
You can also teach your child simple social strategies to get him through uncomfortable moments. Encourage him to look confident even if he’s not feeling it. Three simple reminders go a long way: smile, stand up straight, and make eye contact. Teach him to look for friendly faces in a crowd. Bobby, a three-year-old, didn’t like going to his city preschool because at recess the class left the safe confines of the classroom and played on the roof with the bigger kids in the older classes. He felt so intimidated that he wanted to go to school only on rainy days when there was no roof time. His parents helped him figure out which kids he felt comfortable playing with, and to understand that a noisy group of older boys didn’t have to spoil his fun.
If you think that you’re not up to all this, or that your child could use extra practice, ask a pediatrician for help locating a social skills workshop in your area. These workshops teach kids how to enter groups, introduce themselves to new peers, and read body language and facial expressions. And they can help your child navigate what for many introverted kids is the trickiest part of their social lives: the school day.
It’s a Tuesday morning in October, and the fifth-grade class at a public school in New York City is settling down for a lesson on the three branches of American government. The kids sit cross-legged on a rug in a brightly lit corner of the room while their teacher, perched on a chair with a textbook in her lap, takes a few minutes to explain the basic concepts. Then it’s time for a group activity applying the lesson.
“This classroom gets so messy after lunch,” says the teacher. “There’s bubble gum under the tables, food wrappers everywhere, and Cheese Nips all over the floor. We don’t like our room to be so messy, do we?”
The students shake their heads no.
“Today we’re going to do something about this problem—together,” says the teacher.
She divides the class into three groups of seven kids each: a legislative group, tasked with enacting a law to regulate lunchtime behavior; an executive group, which must decide how to enforce the law; and a judicial branch, which has to come up with a system for adjudicating messy eaters.
The kids break excitedly into their groups, seating themselves in three large clusters. There’s no need to move any furniture. Since so much of the curriculum is designed for group work, the classroom desks are already arranged in pods of seven desks each. The room erupts in a merry din. Some of the kids who’d looked deathly bored during the ten-minute lecture are now chattering with their peers.
But not all of them. When you see the kids as one big mass, they look like a room full of joyfully squirming puppies. But when you focus on individual children—like Maya, a redhead with a ponytail, wire-rimmed glasses, and a dreamy expression on her face—you get a strikingly different picture.
In Maya’s group, the “executive branch,” everyone is talking at once. Maya hangs back. Samantha, tall and plump in a purple T-shirt, takes charge. She pulls a sandwich bag from her knapsack and announces, “Whoever’s holding the plastic bag gets to talk!” The students pass around the bag, each contributing a thought in turn. They remind me of the kids in The Lord of the Flies civic-mindedly passing around their conch shell, at least until all hell breaks loose.
Maya looks overwhelmed when the bag makes its way to her.
“I agree,” she says, handing it like a hot potato to the next person.
The bag circles the table several times. Each time Maya passes it to her neighbor, saying nothing. Finally the discussion is done. Maya looks troubled. She’s embarrassed, I’m guessing, that she hasn’t participated. Samantha reads from her notebook a list of enforcement mechanisms that the group has brainstormed.
“Rule Number 1,” she says. “If you break the laws, you miss recess.…”
“Wait!” interrupts Maya. “I have an idea!”
“Go ahead,” says Samantha, a little impatiently. But Maya, who like many sensitive introverts seems attuned to the subtlest cues for disapproval, notices the sharpness in Samantha’s voice. She opens her mouth to speak, but lowers her eyes, only managing something rambling and unintelligible. No one can hear her. No one tries. The cool girl in the group—light-years ahead of the rest in her slinkiness and fashion-forward clothes—sighs dramatically. Maya peters off in confusion, and the cool girl says, “OK, Samantha, you can keep reading the rules now.”
The teacher asks the executive branch for a recap of its work. Everyone vies for airtime. Everyone except Maya. Samantha takes charge as usual, her voice carrying over everyone else’s, until the rest of the group falls silent. Her report doesn’t make a lot of sense, but she’s so confident and good-natured that it doesn’t seem to matter.
Maya, for her part, sits curled up at the periphery of the group, writing her name over and over again in her notebook, in big block letters, as if to reassert her identity. At least to herself.
Earlier, Maya’s teacher had told me that she’s an intellectually alive student who shines in her essay-writing. She’s a gifted softball player. And she’s kind to others, offering to tutor other children who lag behind academically. But none of Maya’s positive attributes were evident that morning.
Any parent would be dismayed to think that this was their child’s experience of learning, of socializing, and of herself. Maya is an introvert; she is out of her element in a noisy and overstimulating classroom where lessons are taught in large groups. Her teacher told me that she’d do much better in a school with a calm atmosphere where she could work with other kids who are “equally hardworking and attentive to detail,” and where a larger portion of the day would involve independent work. Maya needs to learn to assert herself in groups, of course, but will experiences like the one I witnessed teach her this skill?
The truth is that many schools are designed for extroverts. Introverts need different kinds of instruction from extroverts, write College of William and Mary education scholars Jill Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. And too often, “very little is made available to that learner except constant advice on becoming more social and gregarious.”
We tend to forget that there’s nothing sacrosanct about learning in large group classrooms, and that we organize students this way not because it’s the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with our children while the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the prevailing model. The purpose of school should be to prepare kids for the rest of their lives, but too often what kids need to be prepared for is surviving the school day itself.
The school environment can be highly unnatural, especially from the perspective of an introverted child who loves to work intensely on projects he cares about, and hang out with one or two friends at a time. In the morning, the door to the bus opens and discharges its occupants in a noisy, jostling mass. Academic classes are dominated by group discussions in which a teacher prods him to speak up. He eats lunch in the cacophonous din of the cafeteria, where he has to jockey for a place at a crowded table. Worst of all, there’s little time to think or create. The structure of the day is almost guaranteed to sap his energy rather than stimulate it.
Why do we accept this one-size-fits-all situation as a given when we know perfectly well that adults don’t organize themselves this way? We often marvel at how introverted, geeky kids “blossom” into secure and happy adults. We liken it to a metamorphosis. However, maybe it’s not the children who change but their environments. As adults, they get to select the careers, spouses, and social circles that suit them. They don’t have to live in whatever culture they’re plunked into. Research from a field known as “person-environment fit” shows that people flourish when, in the words of psychologist Brian Little, they’re “engaged in occupations, roles or settings that are concordant with their personalities.” The inverse is also true: kids stop learning when they feel emotionally threatened.
No one knows this better than LouAnne Johnson, a tough-talking former marine and schoolteacher widely recognized for educating some of the most troubled teens in the California public school system (Michelle Pfeiffer played her in the movie Dangerous Minds). I visited Johnson at her home in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to find out more about her experience teaching children of all stripes.
Johnson happens to be skilled at working with very shy children—which is no accident. One of her techniques is to share with her students how timid she herself used to be. Her earliest school memory is of being made to stand on a stool in kindergarten because she preferred to sit in the corner and read books, and the teacher wanted her to “interact.” “Many shy children are thrilled to discover that their teacher had been as shy as they were,” she told me. “I remember one very shy girl in my high school English class whose mother thanked me for telling her daughter that I believed she would peak much later in life, so not to worry that she didn’t shine in high school. She said that one comment had changed her daughter’s entire outlook on life. Imagine—one offhand comment made such an impact on a tender child.”
When encouraging shy children to speak, says Johnson, it helps to make the topic so compelling that they forget their inhibitions. She advises asking students to discuss hot-button subjects like “Boys have life a lot easier than girls do.” Johnson, who is a frequent public speaker on education despite a lifelong public speaking phobia, knows firsthand how well this works. “I haven’t overcome my shyness,” she says. “It is sitting in the corner, calling to me. But I am passionate about changing our schools, so my passion overcomes my shyness once I get started on a speech. If you find something that arouses your passion or provides a welcome challenge, you forget yourself for a while. It’s like an emotional vacation.”
But don’t risk having children make a speech to the class unless you’ve provided them with the tools to know with reasonable confidence that it will go well. Have kids practice with a partner and in small groups, and if they’re still too terrified, don’t force it. Experts believe that negative public speaking experiences in childhood can leave children with a lifelong terror of the podium.
So, what kind of school environment would work best for the Mayas of the world? First, some thoughts for teachers:
· Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured. If an introverted child needs help with social skills, teach her or recommend training outside class, just as you’d do for a student who needs extra attention in math or reading. But celebrate these kids for who they are. “The typical comment on many children’s report cards is, ‘I wish Molly would talk more in class,’ ” Pat Adams, the former head of the Emerson School for gifted students in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told me. “But here we have an understanding that many kids are introspective. We try to bring them out, but we don’t make it a big deal. We think about introverted kids as having a different learning style.”
· Studies show that one third to one half of us are introverts. This means that you have more introverted kids in your class than you think. Even at a young age, some introverts become adept at acting like extroverts, making it tough to spot them. Balance teaching methods to serve all the kids in your class. Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation, collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects. Mix it up fairly.
· Introverts often have one or two deep interests that are not necessarily shared by their peers. Sometimes they’re made to feel freaky for the force of these passions, when in fact studies show that this sort of intensity is a prerequisite to talent development. Praise these kids for their interests, encourage them, and help them find like-minded friends, if not in the classroom, then outside it.
· Some collaborative work is fine for introverts, even beneficial. But it should take place in small groups—pairs or threesomes—and be carefully structured so that each child knows her role. Roger Johnson, co-director of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota, says that shy or introverted kids benefit especially from well-managed small-group work because “they are usually very comfortable talking with one or two of their classmates to answer a question or complete a task, but would never think of raising their hand and addressing the whole class. It is very important that these students get a chance to translate their thoughts into language.” Imagine how different Maya’s experience would have been if her group had been smaller and someone had taken the time to say, “Samantha, you’re in charge of keeping the discussion on track. Maya, your job is to take notes and read them back to the group.”
· On the other hand, remember Anders Ericsson’s research on Deliberate Practice from chapter 3. In many fields, it’s impossible to gain mastery without knowing how to work on one’s own. Have your extroverted students take a page from their introverted peers’ playbooks. Teach all kids to work independently.
· Don’t seat quiet kids in “high-interaction” areas of the classroom, says communications professor James McCroskey. They won’t talk more in those areas; they’ll feel more threatened and will have trouble concentrating. Make it easy for introverted kids to participate in class, but don’t insist. “Forcing highly apprehensive young people to perform orally is harmful,” writes McCroskey. “It will increase apprehension and reduce self-esteem.”
· If your school has a selective admissions policy, think twice before basing your admissions decisions on children’s performance in a playgroup setting. Many introverted kids clam up in groups of strangers, and you will not get even a glimpse of what these kids are like once they’re relaxed and comfortable.
And here are some thoughts for parents. If you’re lucky enough to have control over where your child goes to school, whether by scouting out a magnet school, moving to a neighborhood whose public schools you like, or sending your kids to private or parochial school, you can look for a school that
· prizes independent interests and emphasizes autonomy
· conducts group activities in moderation and in small, carefully managed groups
· values kindness, caring, empathy, good citizenship
· insists on orderly classrooms and hallways
· is organized into small, quiet classes
· chooses teachers who seem to understand the shy/serious/introverted/sensitive temperament
· focuses its academic/athletic/extracurricular activities on subjects that are particularly interesting to your child
· strongly enforces an anti-bullying program
· emphasizes a tolerant, down-to-earth culture
· attracts like-minded peers, for example intellectual kids, or artistic or athletic ones, depending on your child’s preference
Handpicking a school may be unrealistic for many families. But whatever the school, there’s much you can do to help your introverted child thrive. Figure out which subjects energize him most, and let him run with them, either with outside tutors, or extra programming like science fairs or creative writing classes. As for group activities, coach him to look for comfortable roles within larger groups. One of the advantages of group work, even for introverts, is that it often offers many different niches. Urge your child to take the initiative, and claim for himself the responsibility of note-taker, picture-drawer, or whatever role interests him most. Participation will feel more comfortable when he knows what his contribution is supposed to be.
You can also help him practice speaking up. Let him know that it’s OK to take his time to gather his thoughts before he speaks, even if it seems as if everyone else is jumping into the fray. At the same time, advise him that contributing earlier in a discussion is a lot easier than waiting until everyone else has talked and letting the tension build as he waits to take his turn. If he’s not sure what to say, or is uncomfortable making assertions, help him play to his strengths. Does he tend to ask thoughtful questions? Praise this quality, and teach him that good questions are often more useful than proposing answers. Does he tend to look at things from his own unique point of view? Teach him how valuable this is, and discuss how he might share his outlook with others.
Explore real-life scenarios: for example, Maya’s parents could sit down with her and figure out how she might have handled the executive-group exercise differently. Try role-playing, in situations that are as specific as possible. Maya could rehearse in her own words what it’s like to say “I’ll be the note-taker!” or “What if we make a rule that anyone who throws wrappers on the floor has to spend the last ten minutes of lunch picking up litter?”
The catch is that this depends on getting Maya to open up and tell you what happened during her school day. Even if they’re generally forthcoming, many kids won’t share experiences that made them feel ashamed. The younger your child is, the more likely she is to open up, so you should start this process as early in her school career as possible. Ask your child for information in a gentle, nonjudgmental way, with specific, clear questions. Instead of “How was your day?” try “What did you do in math class today?” Instead of “Do you like your teacher?” ask “What do you like about your teacher?” Or “What do you not like so much?” Let her take her time to answer. Try to avoid asking, in the overly bright voice of parents everywhere, “Did you have fun in school today?!” She’ll sense how important it is that the answer be yes.
If she still doesn’t want to talk, wait for her. Sometimes she’ll need to decompress for hours before she’s ready. You may find that she’ll open up only during cozy, relaxed moments, like bathtime or bedtime. If that’s the case, make sure to build these situations into the day. And if she’ll talk to others, like a trusted babysitter, aunt, or older sibling, but not to you, swallow your pride and enlist help.
Finally, try not to worry if all signs suggest that your introverted child is not the most popular kid at school. It’s critically important for his emotional and social development that he have one or two solid friendships, child development experts tell us, but being popular isn’t necessary. Many introverted kids grow up to have excellent social skills, although they tend to join groups in their own way—waiting a while before they plunge in, or participating only for short periods. That’s OK. Your child needs to acquire social skills and make friends, not turn into the most gregarious student in school. This doesn’t mean that popularity isn’t a lot of fun. You’ll probably wish it for him, just as you might wish that he have good looks, a quick wit, or athletic talent. But make sure you’re not imposing your own longings, and remember that there are many paths to a satisfying life.
Many of those paths will be found in passions outside the classroom. While extroverts are more likely to skate from one hobby or activity to another, introverts often stick with their enthusiasms. This gives them a major advantage as they grow, because true self-esteem comes from competence, not the other way around. Researchers have found that intense engagement in and commitment to an activity is a proven route to happiness and well-being. Well-developed talents and interests can be a great source of confidence for your child, no matter how different he might feel from his peers.
For example, Maya, the girl who was such a quiet member of the “executive branch,” loves to go home every day after school and read. But she also loves softball, with all of its social and performance pressures. She still recalls the day she made the team after participating in tryouts. Maya was scared stiff, but she also felt strong—capable of hitting the ball with a good, powerful whack. “I guess all those drills finally paid off,” she reflected later. “I just kept smiling. I was so excited and proud—and that feeling never went away.”
For parents, however, it’s not always easy to orchestrate situations where these deep feelings of satisfaction arise. You might feel, for example, that you should encourage your introverted child to play whichever sport is the ticket to friendship and esteem in your town. And that’s fine, if he enjoys that sport and is good at it, as Maya is with softball. Team sports can be a great boon for anyone, especially for kids who otherwise feel uncomfortable joining groups. But let your child take the lead in picking the activities he likes best. He may not like any team sports, and that’s OK. Help him look for activities where he’ll meet other kids, but also have plenty of his own space. Cultivate the strengths of his disposition. If his passions seem too solitary for your taste, remember that even solo activities like painting, engineering, or creative writing can lead to communities of fellow enthusiasts.
“I have known children who found others,” says Dr. Miller, “by sharing important interests: chess, elaborate role-playing games, even discussing deep interests like math or history.” Rebecca Wallace-Segall, who teaches creative-writing workshops for kids and teens as director of Writopia Lab in New York City, says that the students who sign up for her classes “are often not the kids who are willing to talk for hours about fashion and celebrity. Those kids are less likely to come, perhaps because they’re less inclined to analyze and dig deep—that’s not their comfort zone. The so-called shy kids are often hungry to brainstorm ideas, deconstruct them, and act on them, and, paradoxically, when they’re allowed to interact this way, they’re not shy at all. They’re connecting with each other, but in a deeper zone, in a place that’s considered boring or tiresome by some of their peers.” And these kids do “come out” when they’re ready; most of the Writopia kids read their works at local bookstores, and a staggering number win prestigious national writing competitions.
If your child is prone to overstimulation, then it’s also a good idea for her to pick activities like art or long-distance running, that depend less on performing under pressure. If she’s drawn to activities that require performance, though, you can help her thrive.
When I was a kid, I loved figure skating. I could spend hours on the rink, tracing figure eights, spinning happily, or flying through the air. But on the day of my competitions, I was a wreck. I hadn’t slept the night before and would often fall during moves that I had sailed through in practice. At first I believed what people told me—that I had the jitters, just like everybody else. But then I saw a TV interview with the Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt. She said that pre-competition nerves gave her the adrenaline she needed to win the gold.
I knew then that Katarina and I were utterly different creatures, but it took me decades to figure out why. Her nerves were so mild that they simply energized her, while mine were constricting enough to make me choke. At the time, my very supportive mother quizzed the other skating moms about how their own daughters handled pre-competition anxiety, and came back with insights that she hoped would make me feel better. Kristen’s nervous too, she reported. Renée’s mom says she’s scared the night before a competition. But I knew Kristen and Renée well, and I was certain that they weren’t as frightened as I was.
I think it might have helped if I’d understood myself better back then. If you’re the parent of a would-be figure skater, help her to accept that she has heavy-duty jitters without giving her the idea that they’re fatal to success. What she’s most afraid of is failing publicly. She needs to desensitize herself to this fear by getting used to competing, and even to failing. Encourage her to enter low-stakes competitions far away from home, where she feels anonymous and no one will know if she falls. Make sure she has rehearsed thoroughly. If she’s planning to compete on an unfamiliar rink, try to have her practice there a few times first. Talk about what might go wrong and how to handle it: OK, so what if you do fall and come in last place, will life still go on? And help her visualize what it will feel like to perform her moves smoothly.
Unleashing a passion can transform a life, not just for the space of time that your child’s in elementary or middle or high school, but way beyond. Consider the story of David Weiss, a drummer and music journalist. David is a good example of someone who grew up feeling like Charlie Brown and went on to build a life of creativity, productivity, and meaning. He loves his wife and baby son. He relishes his work. He has a wide and interesting circle of friends, and lives in New York City, which he considers the most vibrant place in the world for a music enthusiast. If you measure a life by the classic barometers of love and work, then David is a blazing success.
But it wasn’t always clear, at least not to David, that his life would unfold as well as it did. As a kid, he was shy and awkward. The things that interested him, music and writing, held no value for the people who mattered most back then: his peers. “People would always tell me, ‘These are the best years of your life,’ ” he recalls. “And I would think to myself, I hope not! I hated school. I remember thinking, I’ve gotta get out of here. I was in sixth grade when Revenge of the Nerds came out, and I looked like I stepped out of the cast. I knew I was intelligent, but I grew up in suburban Detroit, which is like ninety-nine percent of the rest of the country: if you’re a good-looking person and an athlete, you’re not gonna get hassled. But if you seem too smart, that’s not something that kids respect you for. They’re more likely to try and beat you down for it. It was my best attribute, and I definitely enjoyed using it, but it was something you also had to try and keep in check.”
So how did he get from there to here? The key for David was playing the drums. “At one point,” David says, “I totally overcame all my childhood stuff. And I know exactly how: I started playing the drums. Drums are my muse. They’re my Yoda. When I was in middle school, the high school jazz band came and performed for us, and I thought that the coolest one by a long shot was the kid playing the drum set. To me, drummers were kind of like athletes, but musical athletes, and I loved music.”
At first, for David, drumming was mostly about social validation; he stopped getting kicked out of parties by jocks twice his size. But soon it became something much deeper: “I suddenly realized this was a form of creative expression, and it totally blew my mind. I was fifteen. That’s when I became committed to sticking with it. My entire life changed because of my drums, and it hasn’t stopped, to this day.”
David still remembers acutely what it was like to be his nine-year-old self. “I feel like I’m in touch with that person today,” he says. “Whenever I’m doing something that I think is cool, like if I’m in New York City in a room full of people, interviewing Alicia Keys or something, I send a message back to that person and let him know that everything turned out OK. I feel like when I was nine, I was receiving that signal from the future, which is one of the things that gave me the strength to hang in there. I was able to create this loop between who I am now and who I was then.”
The other thing that gave David strength was his parents. They focused less on developing his confidence than on making sure that he found ways to be productive. It didn’t matter what he was interested in, so long as he pursued it and enjoyed himself. His father was an avid football fan, David recalls, but “the last person to say, ‘How come you’re not out on the football field?’ ” For a while David took up piano, then cello. When he announced that he wanted to switch to drumming, his parents were surprised, but never wavered. They embraced his new passion. It was their way of embracing their son.
If David Weiss’s tale of transformation resonates for you, there’s a good reason. It’s a perfect example of what the psychologist Dan McAdams calls a redemptive life story—and a sign of mental health and well-being.
At the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University, McAdams studies the stories that people tell about themselves. We all write our life stories as if we were novelists, McAdams believes, with beginnings, conflicts, turning points, and endings. And the way we characterize our past setbacks profoundly influences how satisfied we are with our current lives. Unhappy people tend to see setbacks as contaminants that ruined an otherwise good thing (“I was never the same again after my wife left me”), while generative adults see them as blessings in disguise (“The divorce was the most painful thing that ever happened to me, but I’m so much happier with my new wife”). Those who live the most fully realized lives—giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves—tend to find meaning in their obstacles. In a sense, McAdams has breathed new life into one of the great insights of Western mythology: that where we stumble is where our treasure lies.
For many introverts like David, adolescence is the great stumbling place, the dark and tangled thicket of low self-esteem and social unease. In middle and high school, the main currency is vivacity and gregariousness; attributes like depth and sensitivity don’t count for much. But many introverts succeed in composing life stories much like David’s: our Charlie Brown moments are the price we have to pay to bang our drums happily through the decades.
* Some who read this book before publication commented that the quote from Isabel couldn’t possibly be accurate—“no second grader talks that way!” But this is what she said.