My mother likes to tell the story that in kindergarten, I was so shy for the first half of the year my teacher could only ask me questions that I could answer with a shake or nod of the head. Now, she says I am her most social child. Well, I don’t know about that, but let’s just say I’ve come a long way.
Do any of the following situations sound familiar to you?
- You have been told over and over again that you need to participate more in class.
- You have been accused of being aloof or of thinking you are better than other people (an accusation that seems completely unfair and unfounded to you because you were either feeling inferior or just lost in your own thoughts).
- You’ve been asked why you were sitting all by yourself.
- You frequently just need quiet at the end of a long day.
If you recognize yourself in any of these statements, then the odds are good that you are shy or an introvert or both.
What’s the difference between shyness and introversion, you might ask? As Susan Cain explains in her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, shyness is a fear of judgment from other people. It is a pause, a self-protective assessment of risk before action.
Introversion, on the other hand, is the enjoyment of quiet atmospheres more often than loud ones. It is a preference for solitude or small groups of people or close friendships over large groups or loud parties.
It is perfectly normal to be a shy extrovert, or a non-shy introvert, but of course, the reason that we confuse the two so often is that many people are both shy and introverted.
In her book, Cain tells us that one-third to one-half of all Americans are introverts.
She points out that often introverts pretend to be extroverts, because our society idealizes extroversion and tends to see introversion as a problem. This preference for extroversion came about with the rise of the salesman, advertising, and movie stars in the early 1920s, which promoted extroversion at the expense of introverts.
She explains that in American culture, we used to place a high value on character, but we now place a higher value on personality, which has not necessarily been a good trend. An introverted personality is not only useful but beneficial in many cases, she argues, noting that introverts have been some of the most productive and influential leaders in history.
What are some key strengths of introverts?
- Introverts are usually more willing to spend time in solitude and quiet, which are essential to the development of deep thought or to the practice necessary to master any skill.
- They also tend to be quite persistent.
- Many introverts have a great capacity for empathy and tend to be good observers and good listeners.
- They are frequently more willing to listen to the good ideas of others, which can make them great leaders. Contrary to our expectations, Cain sites studies that show many top-performing companies have CEOs who are introverts.
Introverts often have strong consciences and are less willing to take out-sized risks, both in their personal lives and at work.
Cain’s book is an inspiration for introverts and a reminder of the strengths we have. But it also has advice for employers, teachers, parents, and spouses on how to understand and tap into the talents of a large segment of the population. As a mother, and an introvert, I found this insight absolutely fascinating.
So what should you do if your child is shy, or introverted, or both?
01. Don’t jump to conclusions.
When our oldest was little, she seemed to have no trouble making friends on the playground, so we never thought she was shy. However, she was probably just too little to have become self-conscious around other kids yet.
We discovered her shyness when she went to preschool at the age of four and was supposed to talk during circle time. Suddenly she was biting her fingernails and looking at the floor and could barely be heard.
Conversely, we assumed our oldest son would be shy, because he had such a calm temperament, but now he talks to everybody. We still think he is introverted, just one of those non-shy ones.
We are told to avoid labelling our children, and this rule is especially true with shyness — you will make the child more self-conscious if you tell a stranger that he is shy. I am trying to find different words. My daughter is certainly old enough now to speak for herself, so I turn to her and say, “Ruth, this woman asked you a question.” I try not to jump in and answer for her. With the little ones, I try to say something like, “He just needs a few minutes to warm up.”
02. Relax. And re-examine your assumptions.
Take a deep breath. You may be worrying that your child will go through the same horrible experiences that you did. Or you may be worrying that your child will be overlooked and left out.
Your children are not you. They have their own strengths and will have their own struggles. Remember that the goal is not for them to become you or the person you always wanted to be or the biggest social butterfly on the block. They will each find their own unique way in the world with their own unique talents. Your job is simply to help them find it.
Avoid thinking of introversion as something that can be or needs to be cured. Each personality type has strengths and weaknesses. Shyness will not stop your children from doing anything they really want to do.
“I think people who are shy remain shy always, but they learn how to overcome it.”
“My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”
Here are some additional well-known introverts that Cain mentions in her books:
- Dr. Seuss
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Lewis Carroll
- Charles Darwin
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Frédéric Chopin
- Albert Einstein
- T.S. Eliot
- Rosa Parks
And many more.
03. Help them meet their needs.
Cain mentions numerous studies that show that introverts are physiologically different than extroverts. They respond more easily to stimuli and are therefore more easily overstimulated. They need quiet sometimes, not because they are anti-social, but because their minds need rest.
Be aware of this need. Your child might need some downtime after school. Wait to ask about his day. Avoid too many back-to-back group activities. Help her schedule in breaks or find them throughout her day.
04. Practice, practice, practice.
Cain talks about how practice can help desensitize you to your fears. If your child has to give a public presentation of some kind and is nervous, help him to prepare by practicing over and over again in a safe environment. Prepare for any new environment.
My daughter and I have been practicing what to say to strangers and acquaintances and practicing body language: looking at someone when they speak to you, smiling, waving, standing tall. Start small and work your way up to bigger things. As I know from personal experience, a traumatic experience when young can take years and years to recover from.
05. Help them find their passions.
Cain points out in her books that the things an introvert really cares about are the things that will draw them out of themselves the most. Few people are willing to stretch themselves out of their comfort zone for things they don’t really care about, even if they think they should be doing them.
Many parents put their introverted children in acting classes. That may work for some, but for others their interests really lie elsewhere. Let your children try many new things and let them spend time on the things they love. Their passions can also help them make friends with people who have similar interests.
If they are struggling socially, their interests can give them something else to focus on until they get out of a school environment and can blossom in environments of their own choosing.
6. Read the books. Watch the talk. Join the revolution.
I highly recommend Cain’s books to anyone who is or loves an introvert. For kids, teens, and parents, Cain’s second book called Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts is particularly interesting. It distills many of the main ideas of her first book and combines them with practical advice and stories from real kids’ lives.
This book has given me guidance on how to help introverted children navigate specific situations like group activities, making small talk, finding and keeping friends, handling social media, and following their dreams. My daughter is reading the book now.
Watch Cain’s TED Talk. Check out her website and read more stories of introverts.
And to my fellow introverts, especially to my fellow shy, high-reactive, highly sensitive, low self-monitoring introverts (if you want to know what those terms mean, you have to read Quiet), don’t let the world tell you that you have to become someone you are not. You are beautiful the way God made you.