Parent Pathways

The true power of introverts

May 21, 2013 

I encourage my kid to be extroverted all the time: Raise your hand, volunteer for that, don’t you want to get up on stage? Get involved! Speak up!

But wait. Is louder better?

I had the most interesting interview recently with Susan Cain, author of The New York Times bestseller “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”

In her book, Cain writes, “Introversion is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

But society’s introverts have so much to offer: quiet speculation, deep thought. Maybe I’m stereotyping, but the truth is, we need introverts.

Cain says if you’re not an introvert, chances are you’re married to one or raising one. One-third to one-half of us are introverts.

Yet we live in a culture that reveres extroverts. My extrovert kid-coaching made me wonder if I was doing my son a disservice.

Yes, Cain said.

“One of the things we know from psychology is that self-esteem comes from competence as opposed to the other way around,” she said. “If you help your child find an area they’re competent in and that they enjoy, that’s where their self-esteem comes from.

“If you’re raising the natural cheerleader or football player, the path is more clearly marked,” Cain continued. “But if you’re not raising that child, it may take a little longer to find the right path, but it’s important to find that path. Parents get caught up in labels as much as kids do.”

Most folks have a little bit of both introvert and extrovert in them. Often, we adapt to fit certain situations. If it’s not obvious which side you favor, Cain said to think about how you respond to stimulation.

“Introverts feel at their most alive when they’re in environments that are quieter and there’s less stuff coming at them – fewer social obligations, less noise, less everything,” she said. “Extroverts crave more stimulation to feel at their most alive.”

As a society, we haven’t always celebrated extroverts. Prior to 1900, extrovert tendencies like vivacity, chattiness and other qualities were considered uncouth, vulgar and of low class. People were assessed by their character and reserve.

But the industrial age changed that. People moved away from small towns into cities where they were anonymous. Factories needed salesmen to peddle the products being made, and the focus landed on being charismatic, jovial, loud and gregarious.

These days, aren’t there times when our kids need a little nudge to join in because we just know they’ll enjoy themselves once they get going? Yes, according to Cain, but try giving them a little time to assess the situation first. Often, they’ll act on it themselves if you give them a chance.

So, nurture or nudge? The gauge should be whether your child is happy. If he has one or two buddies and is happy, good for him. If he acts lonely and isolated, it might not be a bad idea to help him connect with others in ways he’ll genuinely enjoy.

“We should be encouraging kids to find activities they’re really passionate about,” Cain said. “It doesn’t mean being president of the class or star of the soccer team; it can be quieter, something that paradoxically leads to friendships because they start making friends with kids who are interested in the same things.”

Who is this person we’re raising? What does he like to do?

Now those are good questions.

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