“Why can’t you be more social?” This was my mother’s constant grouse when I was growing up. No wonder when I hear parents complaining about their children not being social enough, I want to ask them to back off immediately. Why do we put so much pressure on children on being outgoing, bold and popular? Why is there a general sense of dissatisfaction with a child who prefers to spend time on her own – reading, dreaming and just being. Just because somewhere the society has convinced us that a child has to be gregarious and socially skilled for her to be smart. But does she?
Imagine you are at a birthday party and kids are having a wonderful time jumping at the bouncy castle, pushing each other and laughing. Now picture that little kid who is happily sitting in a corner making his drawing or rummaging in the mud for insects. The chances are high that he would be ticked off by so many well-wishers passing by for being on his own and not playing with other kids. He might also get a lecture on the way back home on, “Why can’t you be like other children?”
Let’s shift the scene to the school PTM where a child is looking miserably at the floor as the teacher lectures on, “She needs to speak up in class. She is too shy.” The three-letter word, that will haunt her for life as if it is an affliction.
We also tend to confuse shyness with introversion when they are quite different. Shyness is fear of being socially judged, disapproved whereas introversion is preference for quieter pursuits. 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.
It is tough if you are an introvert in this world as you will automatically be seen as being weird; an oddball that needs to be fixed. Actress Emma Watson (aka Hermione Granger) 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.”
In her influential 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. She explained 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. How many of us are overwhelmed by the tyranny of being social and outgoing, attend parties, be part of team buildings when every cell of our being wants to run and hide in a corner with a book? I know many will judge us for being boring, but preference for solitude and quiet is a way of being and not a deficit.
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. They typically struggle for visibility.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 to themselves, 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.
I remember once I was observing a class and 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 some time, I saw him give up and sit back quiet and dejected.
What our quiet children need is a balance of the ABC:
Accept: Introverts end up carrying a huge sense of guilt and anxiety for not being interesting enough. It is tough to go against society’s ideal of what makes a smart child and accept the child as she is. 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 it will encourage essential life skills. This approach is good for extroverts, but what about introverts who learn best in solitude? They could always be given a choice rather than making it mandatory. It could be worthwhile to make some quiet spaces in the classroom for these cerebral thinkers. 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 somebody she is not.
Balance: I have to admit that introverts have a tendency to stick to their cerebral comfort zone and are averse to stretching themselves socially. We need gentle nudges to be a little more adventurous. And reminders that we all need our little village no matter how small. As long as the child is feeling accepted and she has a sense of personal agency and not something that is demanded of her, she can set her own pace and identify where she wants to “stretch”. Just as we need to train extroverts to be a little more reflective, sensitive, learn to spend time on their own and appreciate their inner world.
Celebrate: Can you imagine what our world would have been without amazing people like Satyajit Ray, Munshi Premchand, Proust, JK Rowling and Virginia Woolf? 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. So 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.
As Susan Cain put is so beautifully, “Love is essential: gregariousness is optional.”
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