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.
The term introvert was coined in the 1920s by psychologist Carl Jung to describe a person who becomes emotionally and physically worn out from being around people a long time, and new research in neurophysiology suggests that this temperament is associated with the way that introverts' nervous systems are wired. PET scans of outgoing children's brains show the "fight or flight" side of their nervous systems to be highly active. Introverts have more activity in the part of their nervous system that regulates rest and digestion.
Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., a neuroscience researcher and psychoanalyst practicing in Calabasas, CA, was the first to piece together this biological basis for introversion. "An introvert won't feel replenished until he goes home and has some time to himself," says Dr. Laney, who explains that the dopamine our bodies produce in situations like a party tends to give extroverted kids a pleasant boost, while it can overload an introverted child's circuits. According to Dr. Laney, as many as 30% of all children are introverted. "These children do not have poor social skills," she says. "They have an inborn need for quiet time to process what they take in by observing."
It's not unusual for educators to underestimate smart young introverts like Mary Dieter's son. "We've found that introverted children are less likely to be admitted to a prestigious private school because they clam up in an interview," says Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., director of the Gifted Development Center in Denver. "Nursery school teachers, administrators, and admissions directors see introverts as less intelligent, which they are not. They just need time to warm up."
As in Jack's case, some classroom teachers also misread a child's introversion as inattention. Making matters worse, says Dr. Silverman, introverted children tend not to learn new ideas through active trial and error, the way many other kids do. Instead, being inner-directed, they're inclined to rehearse new skills in their own heads, for an audience of one. Teachers who are trained to track progress in reading through a stumbling production of phonetic syllables may think the child is not keeping up with his peers in school.
Contrary to common wisdom, most introverts are not shy, which psychologists often define as being more anxious than usual in social situations. If introverted children sometimes appear withdrawn, it's only because they're more captivated by their private thoughts and feelings than they are by social interaction, says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., research professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. "The beam of their attention is inwardly focused."
So while an introvert might hide behind Mom in a new situation, she's not typically doing it because she's socially fearful. Rather, it's a way to protect herself from feeling physically overwhelmed. In fact, when you hit upon a topic that interests an introverted child, you might not get a word in edgewise. "One 6-year-old girl I work with is extremely reserved," says Dr. Laney. "But when we talk about dinosaurs, she runs circles around the adults. She knows every era and every type."
Still, our culture prefers extroverts. "Our country is built on oratory and speaking up. We think quick-speaking, snappy-thinking people are better able to get along with others," Dr. Laney says. Case in point: Research by University of Minnesota psychologist Deniz S. Ones, Ph.D., and her colleagues shows that since the TV age began, Americans have elected more extroverted presidents than introverted ones. Introverts, on the other hand, are at a disadvantage. Investigators of the Columbia space shuttle disaster cited as a factor the communication failure of what they called NASA's culture of introversion. "A lot of scientists lower down in the chain said they had tried to speak out but weren't listened to," says Dr. Laney. "This happens a lot because introverts say things in a less dramatic way that often doesn't get their manager's attention."
All this bad press makes parents like me panic. Dr. Laney has seen concern turn to frustration when an introverted child doesn't act according to an extroverted parent's expectations. "One mother I worked with took her sons to a birthday party. When her introverted child wouldn't go through the door, she got mad," Dr. Laney says. "I've had to work with her to understand that his reaction is about over-arousal: He will likely be a child who never runs into a crowded new situation."
Even parents whose disappointments are more subtle may unknowingly be hurting their introverted child, says Dr. Doherty. "When we coach our children to be other than who they are, we communicate a lack of acceptance."
Parents often push their introverts to be more outgoing by playing a team sport like basketball -- a tactic that can backfire because the chaos of kids shouting and running in different directions is too much to take. As a result, "even children who are well coordinated can end up thinking of themselves as bad athletes," says Dr. Rubin. An introverted child might more naturally excel at an individual sport like swimming or karate.
Dr. Laney says her clients repeatedly show concern about their introverted children's marathon attention spans. "A lot of parents don't like it if their child reads a lot," she says, noting that their failure to understand this side of their kids' nature is especially heartbreaking since excellent concentration is one of the benefits of an introverted temperament -- a real plus for everything from rocket science to musical composition.
Introverted kids are often well liked and popular, but they'll frequently pick a few close buddies instead of befriending the entire class. As parents, we need to honor this preference, Dr. Rubin says: "It's silly if parents play a counting game. What they should focus on is whether their child has one or two positive friendships. That's the foundation for intimacy."
Stepping off the enrichment treadmill is another kindness that parents can pay their introverted children, according to Diane Smallwood, Psy.D., a former school psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "It's inconsistent with the introverted temperament to go from activity to activity with no time to process or even understand if they enjoyed it," she says.
Introverts also need to have their privacy respected, even more than other kids do. "Extroverted parents think everyone needs to do everything together," Dr. Laney says. "But for an introvert, it can be a relief to have some time alone." Because introverted children with extroverted siblings can feel lost in all the talking, she counsels parents to plan one-on-one time to give their more reserved child some tranquility.
At school, it helps to start each year with an upbeat note to your child's new teacher. "You can say, 'Helen needs more time than average to get acclimated to a new setting' or 'She might not be the first child to warm up to the group,' " suggests Dr. Smallwood. Teachers generally welcome insights into their students' psyches, she says, and are less likely to put a child on the spot if they know she feels uncomfortable in the limelight.
Perhaps the most important step parents can take is to teach their introverted children to understand -- and celebrate -- their own temperament. "Parents can help connect the dots," Dr. Laney says. My husband and I casually introduced the concept of different temperaments to our son by telling him that some people get tired when they're around other people for a long time. When Walter said, "I'm like that. Do you think you are too?," Peter immediately said yes.
Experts say impromptu heart-to-hearts like this are also wonderful opportunities to tell your child about the many benefits of being an introvert. "Introverts are great problem-solvers," says Dr. Laney. "They're good at comparing and contrasting, visually creative, and passionate lifelong learners."
They're also delightful friends. When I stopped pushing playdates on Peter, he surprised me by asking for them on his own -- not every day or even every week, but enough so that even I could see that he's a fun kid to be around. He's now almost 6 and spends hours with his buddies playing pirates and building forts out of blankets. Peter's behavior isn't different from what it was when I started my tortured campaign to make him popular. What's changed is that I now understand I had nothing to worry about in the first place.
How they're different, and when to seek help
Introversion is a "very deep character trait," according to Harvard University psychology professor Jerome Kagan, Ph.D. -- and a valuable one. Scholars and writers, for example, are often inward thinkers. It's a temperament that tends to stay with a child for life. Shyness is a behavior: an exaggerated anxiety in social situations that can diminish as children grow -- and usually does. A study in which Dr. Kagan followed 250 children from infancy showed that two-thirds of kids who were shy as 3-year-olds came out of their shells by age 11, even if they didn't become social butterflies. One benefit of shyness, he says, is that shy children get into less trouble as teenagers.
Social Anxiety is extreme shyness characterized by a disabling avoidance of social activity. It can lead to poor self-confidence and even depression, says Mark Krushelnycky, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University Child Study Center in New York City.
Options for Shy Kids Since so many outgrow their timidity, Dr. Krushelnycky says it can make sense to wait and see before intervening in garden-variety shyness. On the other hand, behavioral and cognitive therapy and medications like Prozac have been shown to help kids with social anxiety. If you're worried, see a children's psychotherapist.
Who's Too Shy? While most shyness is healthy and normal, these are signs that a child may need help: He's older than 7 and still won't engage with people outside your family; he shows extreme reactions like tantrums or withdrawal to novel situations like travel and new foods; he doesn't engage with other kids, even when you play social director.
Tips to increase your child's comfort zone
Casual encounters that other kids take in stride can sometimes overwhelm introverts and shy children. Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., the director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, and Kenneth H. Rubin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland, say these strategies can help your child feel more at ease.
In the Community: Let him see how you handle casual interactions like errands. When you compliment a bank teller, you're showing your child how to make chit-chat. When you give him money to hand to the grocery cashier, he interacts with someone new while being supported by you.
At the Playground: If your child wants to play with the other kids but isn't sure how to enter the action, encourage her to take her time easing in. Say, "Take your ball and watch those children play. Once you've gotten used to them, you can ask if they'd like to play catch."
On Playdates: Instead of dropping off an introverted child at an unfamiliar home, invite a classmate to your house. After they've played together at your place a few times, change the location to the park and then to the other child's house. Introverts can also gain confidence by playing with younger kids, since it gives them the opportunity to be the leader.
At Birthday Parties: Help your child settle in to these often daunting whirlwinds of activity by hanging around and gradually disengaging yourself instead of leaving at the first sign that he's going to be okay. When planning his birthday party, keep the guest list short.