If you have a child who is an introvert, Susan Cain wants to talk with you—preferably one-on-one and in a quiet, thoughtful manner.
She’s an introvert and also the author of the New York Times bestselling book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” and a wildly popular TED talk.
We spoke on the phone about children who are introverts and parenting strategies to help those children reach their full potential—especially given that schools, sports teams and the social whirl often favor the gregarious and talkative versus the contemplative and quiet. Here is the edited version of that interview.
If you have a child who is an introvert, what’s the best thing you can do for him or her?
The best thing a parent can do is to really love—not just tolerate—but really take delight in the child for who they are. Because what you find is that introverted children often have gifts that extroverted children don’t, and vice versa. So these children often have rich inner lives, they’re very conscientious, they’re very creative, they tend to get passionate about something and those passions can be a delight to behold.
But given that it’s such an extroverted society, if you have an introverted child, she’s going to be out of step with what is expected of her, and that’s the part she can use help with—learning how to navigate that.
So school is one area where an introverted child is probably out of step. What’s your advice there?
It’s understandable from a teacher’s point of view to want kids to be participating in the class, to make the class discussion rich and to know what the kid is thinking, but I think we’ve gone a little haywire with that. Try to work with your child to find ways of participating in a class that are comfortable for him, like preparing before a class what he wants to say, and then pushing him to say those things early in the discussion. A lot of people feel a rising anxiety when they haven’t spoken, and they feel like when they finally do raise their hand, it’s too big a deal. If you can speak up earlier, it removes all of that anxiety.
What happens when an introverted child reaches middle or high school? Social expectations really change in those years.
Hold on tight! Middle and high school for many introverts is really the hardest part of life. It gets better after that! In high school, the main social currency is being gregarious and vivacious. Later on in life, there are a lot more forms of social currency, but it’s much more limited in those years.
So how can parents help?
One thing is to help a child figure out what her passion is. That’s obviously important for any child, but it’s especially important for introverted kids because they often form social groups and derive support from being around kids who are interested in the same things they are. And they often ascend to leadership positions that they wouldn’t do for its own sake, but they do in the service of something they really love.
And what about socially?
It can be tremendously helpful to role play situations that are tricky before they actually have to encounter them. So a kid who has trouble going up to a new bunch of kids, you can say, “What are you going to do when you get there? Who are you going to speak to first?” Look for the kid who seems the most approachable and talk to her one on one and let her be the gateway into the group.
Susan Cain will be in Winnetka, at the invitation of the Family Action Network,* speaking at Regina Dominican’s auditorium on Thursday, January 31, at an earlier-than-announced time of 6:30 p.m.
When do you push a child who is an introvert versus let him stay in his comfort zone?
It’s an art not a science. I would be guided by the principle of push where you think there’s actually a benefit on the other side. If you think it’s something your child would enjoy once he overcame his initial discomfort, then it’s worth pushing through it. But if it’s asking him to participate in something that’s not meaningful to him, then let it go.
Do you have special advice for parents who are extroverts versus parents who are introverts?
Introverted and extroverted parents who have an introverted child each have their own pressures. The extroverted parent might just be bewildered by the child who doesn’t want to do these things. The introverted parent might be reliving some of his or her own pain from high school, and might want to spare the child that pain, but inadvertently cause more by pushing in ways that they’re not comfortable. I think it’s so important to make peace with who you are and your own feelings about (high school) before you even think about the concrete steps to take with your kids.
What other suggestions do you have for parents who are struggling?
The last chapter of the book is on how to cultivate the gifts of introverted children and it’s filled with concrete suggestions. But the most important thing is to not just tolerate the child for who they are, but to truly take delight in them. I believe that whatever we feel inside manifests itself. Regardless of what we tell ourselves to say or do, people have a way of knowing what you’re thinking or feeling, and your children most of all. So if you think your child is really cool, your child knows that you feel that way and vice versa. None of the concrete tips are really as important as that. And if you need to do your own work to get to the point where you can really appreciate your child, then that’s the work you need to do.
And for parents who see their own social worth wrapped up in their children’s popularity?
It’s understandable if you get caught up in that sort of thing (are they invited to parties, are they popular) because your child’s currency is your currency, but you need to step back and look at what you’re doing and try to make peace with your own issues.
Parents who are struggling should give themselves a break because it’s hard to parent an introverted child in this culture because all your friends and all the signs around you are saying your kid should be playing soccer and going to parties and having birthday parties with 50 other kids, and you can feel worried or anxious or impatient so give yourself a break if you’re feeling those things and then work beyond it.
Not sure if you’re an introvert or extrovert? Take Cain’s online quiz to find out.
* Susan Cain’s North Shore appearance is sponsored by Family Action Network, Regina Dominican High School, New Trier High School ECGC Parent Committee, and North Shore Academy.