It was a typical birthday party Saturday. I pulled up to the curb eager to hear about all the fun my 4-year-old son, Peter, had just had with his new classmates from preschool. Then I unlatched the gate and my heart sank. While 12 cupcake-buzzed kids jumped around in one of those inflatable bouncy castles, Peter hunted for treasures in a quiet corner of the yard with the birthday boy's mother. The fact that he appeared to be extremely happy didn't matter to me. In that moment, I wanted my son to be part of the swaying American chorus of people who need people. Lots of people. I panicked that if I didn't teach him how to run with the pack soon, he'd start on a loner trajectory that would leave him sad and friendless for life.
My response? Schedule a slew of playdates. But after a week of three in a row, Peter was a tantrum-throwing wreck. My coaching had clearly backfired. Still, when my husband, Walter, pointed out that Peter loved goofing off with his cousins and seemed content with his B-list social status, I persisted in arguing that it was our job as parents to help our son learn how to be more outgoing.
At the next school conference, I reached out to Peter's teacher. "Is he doing okay with the other children?" I asked, bracing myself for a heartbreaking response. "He's doing beautifully," she answered. Sure, he spent more time absorbed in solo projects than some classmates. And there was no question that he felt more comfortable in smaller groups. But he was not a loner. In fact, she reported, when he was given enough time to warm up, he was downright chatty. Hearing Peter's teacher speak so calmly made me finally understand: My son's only problem was that his extroverted mother had no clue how to raise a child with an introverted temperament.
I guess it's some comfort to know I'm not alone. Today's parents want their children to collect friends like so many Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. "The American way is to have more friends than anyone else," says Kenneth H. Rubin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland in College Park. With daycare, lessons, and organized activities now increasingly common during childhood, "more children are spending time in the world of their peers than they did in the past," Dr. Rubin says. "Because of that, there's a strong belief among well-educated parents that friendships and popularity are paramount."
William Doherty, Ph.D., a family therapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, agrees that the pressures parents place on their children to be sociable have reached a fever pitch. "The adult world has become so competitive and market-driven that we no longer buffer our children from those pressures," he says. "Today, middle class parents feel they have to be the conductors of their children's social lives. How likable and popular your child is becomes a reflection on your idea of your own success." Parents, especially extroverts like me, often push their introverted children to be outgoing, even though the latest thinking from experts who study introversion indicates that pressure is the exact opposite of what they need.
Schools are often no better, as Mary Dieter of Yardley, PA, learned when her introverted son, Jack Pennington, started kindergarten. "We always thought that Jack was a bright child," she says. "But he looks inward before he lets his thoughts out, and his teacher was frustrated. She thought he was daydreaming when he was just thinking things through carefully." Dieter visited to observe Jack's class and was horrified to see his teacher slam a pencil down on his desk when he didn't answer a question quickly enough. After gritting her teeth through that rough first year and advocating for a more understanding teacher afterward, Dieter is relieved to report that Jack, now 8, is thriving in third grade.
Because introverts are so widely misunderstood, knowing how to raise one can be a challenge. Experts say parents and other grown-ups in these children's lives need to stop pushing them to be something they aren't and instead help them make the most of their strengths, even as our increasingly extroverted culture pushes them to conform to its way of doing things.