While the other children in 3-year-old Jonah's class roar like dinosaurs or play together at the sand table, he prefers to sit quietly by himself, flipping through a book or building a house out of Magna-Tiles. "Jonah's an old soul and a deep thinker, and there are times when he doesn't give a hoot about talking to other people," says his mother, Mara Lansky, of Silver Spring, Maryland. "I don't want to change him," she adds, "but I do want to help him make friends."
Jonah, like many other children you see sitting alone at school or hanging back at birthday parties, is probably an introvert -- someone who prefers to stay on the edges rather than join in the fray. "It might look like a quiet kid is not doing much, but a lot is going on inside his brain," says psychologist Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., author of Introvert Power. Although there are plenty of reasons to celebrate a child who can keep himself occupied, you can nudge your shrinking violet to be more of a people-person while still respecting his boundaries.
We're all born with a built-in temperament, and much of it is due to genetics. While extroverts are drawn to action and noise, introverts pull back from it, preferring to observe and quietly reflect on what's going on around them. Just because a child isn't comfortable being the center of attention doesn't mean she isn't happy, says Dr. Helgoe. "Instead of a loud, boisterous happy, it can be a calm, pleasant, smiling-on-the-inside happy." However, there are some subtle but notable differences between being introverted and being shy. "A shy kid might look longingly at other kids playing in the schoolyard, afraid and unsure about how to approach them, but an introvert is perfectly content on her own," says Dr. Helgoe.
In most cases, being shy or introverted is just one of the many colors of your child's personality, and not something to fret about -- unless it's interfering with her daily life. "If it appears that your child is having difficulty functioning -- she has tummy aches every morning before school, or asks the teacher to call you during the day to pick her up -- that's a red flag," says Dr. Helgoe. Other signs she may need help: She has an irrational fear that people are going to tease her, or an inability to speak in front of teachers or new people. "Talk to the preschool teacher, or ask to sit in on class one day so you can get a better picture of what's really going on," Dr. Helgoe suggests. If your child is still experiencing distress, working with a qualified therapist can help to ease her anxiety.
Though a quiet child may be perfectly content playing solo, he still needs to develop the skills for getting along with others and making sure he doesn't get lost in the crowd. A recent study at the University of Miami found that extremely shy or introverted children are at greater academic risk when starting kindergarten because they tend to get overlooked by teachers.
Practicing and role-playing at home can help, says Richard Brozovich, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Clarkston, Michigan, and coauthor of Say Goodbye to Being Shy. "Ask an older sibling or a cousin or friend to come over and play pretend in order to give your child experience interacting comfortably with other kids," he suggests. "You want to demonstrate non-shy behaviors in a low-stress environment so you child gets the hang of it and feels at ease." If you're heading to a Fourth of July party, for example, practice ahead of time what to do when other kids ask him to join in a game of tag. "Later, when he speaks up or plays with the other child, give him lots of praise and big smiles," Dr. Brozovich says.
Since being social doesn't come naturally to all kids, it can help to suggest some appropriate response. "Marley prefers to play by herself at the playground," says Alyceson Reyman, of New York City, of her 4-year-old. "So when another kid is approaching, I remind her to say, 'Hello, my name is Marley. What's yours?'"
While some kids love to run around in a pack, shy and introverted kids often do best cultivating one or two close friends. Dr. Brozovich suggests asking the teacher to point out another low-key kid to set up a playdate with so you can arrange some trips to the pool or park together over the summer. "Start with just one other child, and don't plan anything elaborate or long," he says. Marley surprised her mom recently by playing roll-the-ball with another child at a playdate for ten minutes instead of hanging onto her mom's leg or going off by herself. "She is slowly emerging from her shell," Reyman says. When your shy kid is playing alone at school, the teacher can also help in a nonintrusive way, by introducing one other child into the activity, says Dr. Helgoe. Just because she doesn't want to take part in a boisterous group game, your child may still be happy to have a playmate join in her tea party with the teddy bears.
As your child grows and gains more experience in group situations -- from opportunities to join in at recess, to required group work in the classroom, to the bevy of birthday-party invites that will come at this age -- he will probably continue to build his burgeoning social skills. Meanwhile, don't forget that a naturally quiet, thoughtful child may be ahead of his same-age peers in other ways. "We talk a lot about helping kids develop social skills, but we don't talk a lot about solitude skills," says Dr. Helgoe. "The ability to reflect is associated with critical thinking and reasoning ability. And the capacity to be alone is one of the highest levels of development. It's important to know how to self-soothe and be confident of other people's love even when they're not there in front of you."
After all, if your child can be happy sitting on her own with a book or playing with a toy while you get a few quiet minutes to do some chores or (gasp!) read your own book, consider yourself one very lucky parent.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Parents magazine.