When was the last time you read an article extolling the writer’s love for fuzzy socks and a good book over a loud party? About two-and-a-half minutes ago, right? They’re everywhere. Susan Cain’s Quiet seems to have kicked off the season of the introvert. It feels like it’s suddenly quite hip to sit for a while in a toilet cubicle because no one can see you in there.
These are my people. They are also, I think, the people of my eldest boy.
He might not always be this way. That’s fine too. I try to be cautious about applying labels with glue that won’t rub off. But for now I’m working with the hypothesis that an introvert is raising a probable introvert, and it can be tricky for both of us. It’s not easy being a parent of small, sticky children when alone time is important to you. My toilet cubicle moments now come with an audience. At the end of the day, when I’m tired and frazzled, I almost always have someone literally clinging to my coattails.
Have you noticed, though, that being a small child and an introvert is equally difficult? We encourage and reward people-person behaviour almost from birth:
‘Oh, he’s such a smiler! Always chatting away to complete strangers.’
‘Say hello to [this relation you’ve never met], darling. Now give her a hug. Now give her a kiss.’
‘Why don’t you go and play with the other children? Go on, ask them if you can play.’
If you have a child who refuses to play the game, who doesn’t want to talk about himself unless he knows you very well, who finds large groups overwhelming, whoever might be in them: we read that as being shy, or difficult, or not having good manners.
I interpreted it that way too. Me! When actually, if someone made me do the things I make H do in the name of good child-behaviour, I’d be stressed and furious. The day I realised this (*ping* <–that was my lightbulb moment) I knew I had to get over the why-isn’t-he-performing-for-strangers thing and start parenting with an introvert’s head on.
A DISCLAIMER: I am very obviously not an authority in parenting (a whole four years in, steady on). But I am a flipping expert at being an introvert. My badge is in the shape of an unoccupied toilet cubicle and I wear it proudly. And I know it’s easy to make an introverted child feel out of place and wrong, when all they are is wired differently, because I’ve accidentally done it myself.
So from that perspective, here are five messages I think a tiny introvert needs to hear loud and clear.
You will need alone time, so ask for it
Introverts recharge in their own company. How often are small children left alone, particularly when they have a sibling? Little introverts find this confusing, I think: sometimes they need to be clingy and sometimes they want to be by themselves. They anticipate a birthday party gleefully for weeks and then, half an hour in, they’re completely overwhelmed by their friends. I’ve tried to let H know that it’s alright to need alone time. When he asks for it, I make sure we accommodate him.
You can show all of your emotions to me
I can’t think of a better way to push an introvert further in than to let them know, subconsciously or overtly, that you don’t want to see their anger, frustration, jealousy or sadness. They may want to process these feelings independently, especially as they get older, but they do need to know that they always have a safe place with you. The rule in our house is that all your feelings are ok…but it’s not ok to express them with disrespect or fists.
Take your time
Here’s the thing: being an introverted child doesn’t get you a free pass out of good manners, just like being an introverted adult isn’t an excuse for being rude. But it takes them more time to adjust to social situations, so be their ally and give them the time. Let them sit with you for a while before answering questions. Let them know that they can smile instead of saying anything, if that’s easier. Don’t apologise for their quietness in front of them and other adults, in that smiling, passive-aggressive way that communicates to them that they’ve done something wrong.
Be kind, be kind, be kind
They might never be the life and soul of the party. They need to know – because they won’t hear it from many places – that this is alright. There’s more than one way to make your presence felt. There at the edge of the group they will find others. They can be kind, and notice people that don’t usually get noticed. They can make all the difference. What a valuable thing that is.
You are enough: to me, to you and to everyone
Like it or not, schools, work environments and social situations reward people who think on their feet and speak up loudly. Your tiny introvert will get the message from a thousand places: you are too quiet, too slow, too awkward, too boring. Make sure they never, ever get that from you.
There’s nothing wrong with them. To you, they are perfect. Inside a toilet cubicle or out, they are enough. They are enough. Whisper it in their ear. Shout it to the tree-tops if you have to. They are enough.