The first time I thought about my son’s personality in terms of extroversion/introversion was last summer after East Nashville’s Tomato Arts Fest. I’d love to say it happily dawned upon me that Noah might be introverted while I calmly observed his behavior with a loving smile on my face, but I’d be lying. When his crying, complaining, clinging to me, scowling at friendly hellos from friends, and blatant refusal to participate in a myriad of kid-related activities finally got the better of me, I had a straight-up hissy fit. “THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!” I yelled at him, my hands in the air. “Look at all the fun-having with all the people having fun! WHY CAN’T YOU JUST HAVE FUN!?”
The answer came to me slowly over the next few days, and I am still inwardly processing, as I likely always will be. My son was not having fun that day at the Tomato Arts Fest, just like he doesn’t have fun at big parties, doesn’t have fun in new situations, doesn’t have fun meeting new people, doesn’t have fun at the center of attention. These situations cause my son debilitating anxiety and general misery because he is an introvert.
During my temper tantrum the day of the Tomato Fest (hey, Moms, we have them too, right?), my husband quietly told me, “You know, I used to be just like Noah. I still am in a lot of ways. I’ve just learned to control it.” It didn’t help me to hear these words. “Where am I in him then?” I whined. “Where is the ME part of our son? The part that loves people and outings and crowds?” And that was when I, Noah’s mother, realized that I do not understand my own son because I am the world’s most extreme extrovert. As always, I relied on my impeccable research skills to type “introverted child” into Google, and I was surprised and comforted by how many other parents seemed to be in my exact place with their own little introverts. I learned some interesting things:
- Introversion is not the same thing as shyness. In fact, introverts can be outgoing! Get an introvert talking about a subject that interests him, and you’ll have a hard time getting him to stop. When Noah buries his head in my legs as other people try to engage him in conversation, he may be acting out of shyness, or he may just be trying to block out the world and retreat into his own mind.
- Introverted children are often misinterpreted as unintelligent because they don’t speak up as much as extroverted children do. They can often be seen as inattentive because they are processing information at their own pace. Noah sits on new information, turning it over in his mind, until he understands it completely, bringing it up to us days or even weeks later. It can be frustrating since it seems like he isn’t paying attention, but then he blows our minds by how much he retains. Once, during a group piano lesson, he was asked to leave the room because he was not singing along. The truth is, he just wasn’t immediately regurgitating the information he was getting, and although he was listening and observing, the teacher assumed he was not participating.
- Introverts can enjoy people; they just need time to recharge alone. An extrovert, like myself, gets energy from being around people, but an introvert loses energy when interacting with people. (You can see how this would present a problem for our family.) Noah loves his friends, asks for playdates, greatly enjoys seeing his pals, but when he’s done…he is DONE. It took me a long while to recognize the signs that he was getting ready to lose it if I didn’t take him home—like, NOW—but once I did, our lives became a lot easier. After we come home from an afternoon play session, for instance, he is calmer than ever, sitting quietly and looking at a book or playing with Legos by himself until dinnertime.
- Introverts are more comfortable around a few close friends than in a crowd. Noah often clings to me for half an hour or more at a large gathering, particularly if we’re in a new setting.
- Introverts have a personal space bubble. Please do not try to pop their bubble. Bad things will happen to you. Once, someone who knew him quite well tried to give Noah a hug without asking. He pulled out his finger guns, shot her with them, and then shot up the whole bakery for good measure. It was just not pretty.
All this new information, while comforting to have, didn’t give me much of an idea of how to cope. Maybe Noah doesn’t feel like interacting because he’s shy, or maybe he’s just overwhelmed. However, to the average person, that still reads as rudeness. Maybe he’s extremely intelligent, but what difference does it make if teachers and friends thinks he’s slow because he doesn’t talk to them? Maybe he has to be alone sometimes, but I want to be around friends all the time! As an extrovert, I thrive at a party. My biggest concern is not getting to talk to every single person there. I am the exact opposite of my son, I realized. I needed a strategy.
- I promised myself I would never answer for Noah. If someone asks him a question, and he turns away instead of answering, I’ll never tell the asker that he is feeling shy or apologize for him. I have to let him be who he is without being concerned that he is reflecting poorly on me. I do, however, continue to talk to him in private about social interactions with people. He may not feel like chatting, and that’s fine, I remind him, but he needs to say hello, goodbye, and thank you. Please would also be nice. Nine times out of ten, he won’t. He might mumble, “bye,” as we are leaving somewhere, but he still won’t say hi. When asked if he’d like a snack, he looks at me instead of the asker and gives an almost imperceptible nod. I remind him to say thank you, and he says, “mmmm mmmmm.” Luckily, most of our friends are understanding and love him anyway, and for this I am very grateful. I’m hopeful that as more people accept him for the quiet guy he is, he will come out of his shell a bit more.
- There are times I have had to decline invitations to see friends because I can tell that if I accept, Noah’s misery will rub off on us all. However, this isn’t the norm. We go to a lot of parties and social gatherings because I think it’s healthy—and mostly because I love my friends. If we’re going somewhere where there will be a lot of people, I try to be early. If he’s one of the first people there, and others come after he’s already warmed to his environment, he does a lot better than if we try to push him into an already established crowd. And I do have to be careful not to over-schedule us (which is my tendency) so that I can give Noah lots of time at home to be by himself in unstructured play.
- I never EVER demand that Noah give someone a hug or kiss. He is quite affectionate with his dad, his sister, the dog, and me, but other than that, he doesn’t seem to want hugs or kisses, and that’s his choice. If someone asks for a hug, and I can see that he is uncomfortable, I suggest a high five. If he still won’t do it, we politely say goodbye, and I do my best not to worry about it seeming rude.
- No matter how frustrated he makes me, I try very hard not to yell at him. I sometimes succeed. This doesn’t really have anything to do with him being an introvert and me being an extrovert; it just has to do with me trying to be a better mother. Seriously, there’s never a reason to yell at my child. I’m an adult, and I’m Noah’s mom, and I’m not allowed to have temper tantrums just because I don’t understand him. I have to try to figure him out. I have to meet him where he is.
I don’t know if it’s my strategy or just that he’s getting older and growing out of some of his more difficult phases, but our family is so much happier now than it was back in August—and not just because we’re no longer suffering in 95 degrees at a street festival devoted to a fruit. Noah seems to be doing so much better. He hasn’t pulled out his finger guns and shot up a whole restaurant in a really long time.
My strategies are ever-evolving, and certainly are by no means foolproof. Last week, Noah had his first ever karate lesson. It will be his last for a while. It was, to me, a complete disaster. He forced me to stay in the room with him the entire time, refused to stand with the other children, and instead practiced the moves while standing with me by the door—ignoring the friendly “hellos” of fellow children and (most embarrassingly of all) the entire one-sided conversation the Sensei tried to have with him. I was upset by his rudeness and lectured him all the way home (he just loves this and it totally works), but I finally gave up, frustrated again.
I have to alter my expectations for both of my kids every day—expectations I often don’t even realize I have until something happens to make me aware of them. Noah will likely never be the gregarious child who runs right up and introduces himself to a teacher or precociously answers adults’ questions. While I will continue to remind him to be kind, be polite, look people in the eye, say hello, have good manners, etc., all I can really do is lead by example, accept him where he is, love him unconditionally. He is who he is. He is an introvert.