From Brain, Child
The Magazine for Thinking Mothers
By Margret Aldrich
The bus is four minutes away, and I’m crouched next to my reticent five-year-old, Abe—the King of Quiet and my favorite fledgling introvert. With my arm loose around his waist I talk to him about the sticky 85-degree August morning, the blue jay making a racket in the elm tree above us, and what to expect at his first day of kindergarten. (Oh, that. No big deal.)
Other kids from our block, already sweating from the early heat, mill about the bus stop, chatty and boisterous. But not Abe. He is silent, sandy blond head tilted down to study an anthill and his Keens. He sneaks a peek or two at the bigger kids but doesn’t interact with them or acknowledge parents who giddily ask him “are you excited?”
His expression is unreadable, hiding whatever thoughts about school are motoring around his ever-busy little mind. But as the bus rumbles closer, he raises his luminous light-green eyes and leans his forehead close.
“Rhinoceros kiss,” he says so only I can hear it, giving me a hint of his playful half-smile.
This kiss—a smooch on his proffered forehead, right where he imagines a rhinoceros’s horn would be—is his favorite kind. As good-natured and rambunctious as Abe can be (when in familiar territory), he’s always been hesitant about getting a peck on the cheek or lips. He was hesitant about a lot of things that intruded on his personal space or made him feel like the center of attention. (And don’t even think about forcing him into a conversation with Great Aunt Mattie at a family reunion.)
“He’s shy, huh?” says another mom, fanning herself with a newspaper, and I answer like I always do: “Oh, it just takes him a while to warm up.”
The big, bright school bus pulls to a stop by our corner, and when the door screeches open, it sounds like there’s a rave going on in there. Children are raucously talking and laughing, vibrating in their seats like caffeinated honeybees. Was I really sending my introverted kid into this hive of rough-and-tumble preschoolers, knockabout fifth graders, and everyone in between? Was I really tossing him into an unfamiliar routine and a classroom of strangers? He might be perfectly fine. Or he might spend the entire school day in silence, wooden and closed-off; a door with no key.
I smile and give Abe a reassuring squeeze. No Big Deal, I try to exude—for both of us. Snatching him up and abandoning the school bus for my good-old Jetta station wagon was sounding like a better and better idea.
“Have fun at kindergarten!” the more-experienced bus-stop mom shouts to him as he lines up behind the other kids. He glances at her but doesn’t respond; waves, stoically, to his dad and me; then gets to the business of climbing onboard, strapped to a dinosaur backpack as big as he is.
Innies and Outies
We’ve all heard the term, but what, exactly, is an introvert?
When in new situations, introverted kids hang back, unwilling to jump right in with the rest of the group, and they can seem timid or unfriendly to people who meet them for the first time. But introverts aren’t antisocial or lacking self-confidence. They simply need enough calm and quiet to balance out the hustling, bustling activity of their everyday lives.
In her book The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, Marti Olsen Laney describes the difference between what she calls “innies” and “outies” this way: “I think of introverts as energy conservers, like rechargeable batteries that need ‘down time’ to restore their reserves,” she says. “Extroverts are energy spenders. Their motto is ‘Go, go, go.’”
Introversion—a word first popularized by psychologist Carl Jung (himself an introvert)—typically appears at a young age. A six-year-old named Lily, for example, might be talkative at home but clams up, tight as a lunchbox thermos, when the grocery store cashier asks her a question. Miles, a preschooler, might cling to his mother’s leg for the first hour of a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, until he feels comfortable joining the fun.
Fourth-grader Julia may seem like an observer in social and academic circles, even though at home she’s engaged in everything from baking muffins to breaking ground for a backyard archeological dig. And Josh, a seventh-grader, may mention only one or two close friends, even though he’s well-liked by his classmates.
All of these traits are in contrast to extroverts. They are charged up and chatty, expressive with their words, facial expressions, and body language. They join in activities readily and consider everyone a friend. They thrive on action and activity, and if they don’t have enough, you’ll soon hear the phrase they always carry in their back pocket: “Mom, I’m bored.”
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies the ambivert. This individual enjoys the best of both temperaments: comfortable with rowdy occasions but equally able to treasure a peaceful day at home.
Neither the introverted or extroverted personality is better than the other—they’re simply different, points out Dawn Friedman, a family therapist based in Worthington, Ohio.
Friedman knows of what she speaks. Her household includes a smart, funny 16-year-old introvert named Noah, who displayed a few innie quirks from the get-go: “He liked preschool,” says Friedman, “but after the meager two and a half hours, he was done. He wouldn’t talk on the way home, and he’d be a little fragile for the rest of the day.”
As he got older, Noah—a handsome boy with tousled dark hair—intuitively developed ways to nurture his inner introvert. “His best friend was a fantastic kid who never ever wanted to be alone—totally high-energy extroverted,” Friedman says. “We’d be in the middle of a playdate and Noah would suddenly stand up and say, ‘I need to be alone now’ and would go to his room and shut the door. His friend would stay and chat with me until Noah came out ten minutes later, ready to play again.”
“What I like about Noah’s introversion,” she continues, “is the strength of his friendships and his ability to not fall into things that don’t interest him. He’s not one to succumb to peer pressure. Introverts tend to be thoughtful and intuitive, too, and he’s always been a particularly thoughtful, genuinely nice person.”
But as a parent and therapist, Friedman recognizes that introversion comes with real challenges. “The world is built for extroverts. Very often introverts are taught to fight their introversion—to suck it up and go glad hand people, try to be popular, have lots of friends—and that’s not the introverted way,” she says. “So when I get a child in my office who is clearly struggling in part because of her introversion, a big part of our work together is psychoeducation about introversion. Most of them are so relieved to find out that they’re perfectly wonderful, healthy people who just don’t happen to fit the currently popular mode.”
Like the mom at our bus stop, most people think of introverts as shy, but experts say introversion and shyness are not the same thing.
“Introverts don’t necessarily have a fear of social interaction, nor are they necessarily uncomfortable with social interaction—they just enjoy having time to themselves,” says Greg Markway, PhD, psychologist and coauthor of Nurturing the Shy Child. “Too much external stimulation or social activity wears them out.”
In contrast, shyness involves a degree of behavioral inhibition. That is, shy people might avoid going to a party because they’re afraid of what others think of them, while introverts might stay home because they prefer solitary pursuits. Shyness, accompanied by self-doubt and the anxiety of being judged, can be achingly painful, while introversion isn’t. And shyness isn’t hardwired—introversion is.
The shyness stigma is hard for introverted kids to shake off, though, especially when every adult they meet calls them shy. “It’s important not to pin a general label on kids,” says Markway. If you do, they might start to believe it, losing confidence and settling into the expectation that they don’t need to speak up. Introverted children can be shy, certainly, but the two traits don’t always go hand in hand.
The Nature of Introversion
My husband and I often wonder: Did Abe inherit our quiet-loving characters, like other kids inherit their dad’s nose or mom’s red hair? I call myself World’s Most Social Introvert, enthusiastically lunching with friends or swapping stories with colleagues at an industry happy hour, but quick to feel wrung-out if I overbook my calendar. My husband is an introvert in his own right, too—what they used to affectionately dub the “strong, silent type.”
While “nurture” certainly plays a role in shaping our children’s personalities, and experts generally agree that cautious parents are more likely to raise cautious kids, there is strong evidence that 40 to 50 percent of an introverted temperament can be chalked up to biology and a genetic, high-reactive personality.
A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of California at San Diego, and Yale Universityin 2008 focused on one particular gene—RGS2—which may be indicative of introversion. “We found that variations in this gene were associated with shy, inhibited behavior in children, introverted personality in adults, and the reactivity of brain regions involved in processing fear and anxiety,” explained lead author Jordan Smoller, M.D., Sc.D., director of the psychiatric and neurodevelopmental genetics unit at MGH’s Center for Human Genetic Research, in a press release.
Additional research into the biological nature of introversion has turned up lots of fascinating fodder over the decades. Scientific reports have shown that introverts appear to have greater blood flow in the parts of the brain that deal with planning and problem solving, for example, and they display more activity in their cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, which regulates attention, thought, memory, and consciousness.
In the mid-1960s, scientists at Cambridge University discovered that introverts are physically more sensitive to things like food, noise, or social contact and have a more active reticular activating system, the area of your brain that responds to external stimuli. They famously illustrated this with the simple but striking “Lemon Juice Test”: When introverts received a sour squeeze of lemon juice on their tongues, they salivated much more than extroverts.
Katie Holley, a mom and marketing guru from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, has seen firsthand the depth of sensitivity introverts can have. In most ways, her blond-haired, blue-eyed son, Max, is an average second-grader who plays baseball, enjoys rock-climbing, and collects Pokemon cards. He loves school and works hard to get good grades. But he can be intensely sensitive, both emotionally and physically.
“In preschool he would hide under the chairs until circle time,” Holley says. “Now, as a second-grader, he’ll wait to be asked to join a game on the playground rather than just jump in. If he doesn’t get asked to play, he tells me nobody likes him.”
For Max, physical sensitivities manifested as stomachaches, but going gluten-free has helped. “He is also sensitive to how clothes fit and feel,” says Holley. “He likes things to be soft.”
Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has hypothesized that certain physical traits correspond to introversion. Blue eyes, allergies, and fair skin—like Max’s—as well as thin, narrow faces in men, are all signs of high-reactivity, he speculates.
In one of Kagan’s studies—this one focused on personality—he discovered that when babies were given new, unfamiliar toys, they responded quite differently. Some infants showed signs of distress, while others reacted with interest, immediately reaching out for the new toy. Kagan called these temperaments “inhibited” or “uninhibited.”
While onlookers might gravitate toward the freewheeling, uninhibited child who happily grabs the new teddy bear or truck, both responses are valuable. “It’s important to keep in mind that neither response is superior to the other,” Markway reminds us. “Think of it this way—the world needs some people to be more cautious, and others to be risk-takers.”
Quiet Kids in a Loud World
Our cautious, thoughtful introverts indeed help make the world go ’round—and in wonderful ways. They can be respected leaders, like Barack Obama; forward-thinking innovators, like Bill Gates; sports virtuosos, like Joe DiMaggio; or administers of peace, like Mahatma Gandhi. They can follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Steven Spielberg, Charles Darwin, Fredric Chopin, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffet, or J. K. Rowling.
Introverts, who make up at least a third of our population, have a storehouse of positive qualities: They are smart and creative; independent, trustworthy, and responsible; empathetic and conscientious. And, slowly but steadily, introverts’ quiet strength is being recognized as a trait to be respected—and celebrated.
In 2012, Susan Cain’s book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, became a bestseller and her TED talk on the same subject went viral, getting more than 8 million views on YouTube, and counting.
“There’s so much that’s special about introverted kids,” Cain told me in a phone interview. “They have quick and ready access to the riches in their heads. They’re imaginative. They’re great at inventing games with their friends. And they are fiercely loyal friends, much more interested in forming close friendships than being part of the bigger, more gregarious group.”
Intriguingly, Cain points out, “Introverts are often passionate about one, two, or three specific things.” I can see this in my kindergartener, who is obsessed with rocks, ocean life, and Minecraft. Alison Krupnick, of Seattle, Washington, recognizes this focus in her bright, artsy daughter Melanie—an athletic 14-year-old with an equal appreciation for bawdy teenage antics and sophisticated, subtle humor.
“One of her hallmark personality traits is that when she’s interested in something, she throws herself into it,” Krupnick says of Melanie. “For years she was obsessed with Lord of the Rings. She went through a strong Harry Potter phase. And she’s currently a huge fan of Dr. Who.”
This kind of intensely-focused interest can, in fact, serve introverts well later in life, Cain says: “As adults, they become leaders in fields that they are truly passionate about, unlike extroverts, who can pursue leadership roles just for the sake of being leaders.”
And as Cain notes in her book, passion can have extraordinary results. “Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions—from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer—came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there,” she writes. Without that innovative, self-searching passion of introverts, we would have never seen the theory of gravity, The Cat in the Hat or Google.
Despite all the hidden gifts that our introverts hold, it can be difficult for them to be heard in a society that prizes bold expression over thoughtful contemplation and Honey Boo Boo over Harriet the Spy.
“Since our culture values the outgoing, parenting and advocating for the introverted child can be challenging,” says Markway. “For example, the quiet child can be misunderstood. Because of a more reserved nature, the quiet child may be viewed as not putting forth complete effort in school or participating enough in class discussions. I have heard of other kids seeing the quiet child as stuck up or aloof for not talking more.”
At best, an introverted child is a bit misunderstood. At worst, his or her future can be affected by the perception of others: “I remember reading about a teacher who gave a quiet high-school student a poor recommendation for college,” Markway continues. “The teacher felt the girl would never make it as a doctor because she was so quiet. This view didn’t appear to match the reality of the girl’s abilities—she had a strong academic record, participated in numerous activities, including being an officer in student government, and was popular enough to be prom queen.”
For parents of introverts, this is our biggest fear: That we know how special our children are, but others don’t. “Parents want their children to be recognized, not for the parents’ sake, but so that the world will see who their children are,” Cain says.
The Extroverted Classroom
Amy and Keith Goetzman of Minneapolis, Minnesota—parents to innies Everett, nine, and Wyatt, seven—saw their boys flex their introverted muscles in both social and school settings from an early age.
“As Everett and Wyatt turned into toddlers and then preschoolers I became aware that like me they didn’t like big crowds, loud crowds, or people with aggressively outgoing personalities who got in their faces,” says Keith. “Sometimes an extrovert adult we met would try to ‘entertain’ them by being loud and goofy, offering a high five, or something like that—and they would greet these adults with a stone face, completely unimpressed. Sometimes the adult would be clearly put off, like, ‘What’s wrong with your kid, mister?’”
Wyatt chose not to speak a single word his first year of preschool; and every few weeks, Everett simply packs up and leaves his third-grade classroom to escape the masses. “He had a preschool experience that foretold this,” Amy says. “One day in the spring, we walked into the classroom, he stopped and watched the swarm of loud kids freaking out, then lifted his hand to wave, said, ‘Bye bye,’ and walked back out.”
Because schools are designed, in large part, for extroverted, team-based learning, finding environments that fit an introverted kid’s style isn’t always easy. After a few disappointments, the Goetzman family ended up happy at a Reggio Emilio–based preschool and a Montessori elementary school, which they feel allow more freedom for individualized and independent learning.
“At one conference, I asked the teacher if we should be concerned that Everett seemed to play alone a lot,” Amy remembers. “The teacher paused for a moment, then said, ‘It’s fine. Our society needs scientists and mathematicians and writers and philosophers too.’ They just got it. I nearly cried in gratitude.”
Today, more schools understand the need to nurture all kinds of kids—both introverts and extroverts—and are experimenting with innovative tools to do so. Many campuses, for example, respect that some students need downtime to bring balance to their busy days, and they alternate interactive sessions with quiet periods. This kind of scheduling is supported by a 2002 study out of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, which showed that introverted adults were more likely to get tired at work and greatly benefitted from taking breaks.
Other organizations have a warmer, fuzzier technique (literally): Groups like Paws for Reading, Puppy Dog Tales, and Tail Waggin’ Tutors bring trained therapy dogs into classrooms to sit with students, one-on-one, and help them practice their reading-aloud skills.
For many introverted kids, reading a story to a gentle, friendly dog takes away any apprehension, says Joyce Bristow, volunteer for Paws for Reading, a California-based program that uses dogs from pit bulls to Chihuahuas, mainly in Pre-K through third grade classes. “The dog doesn’t care if the reader gets a word wrong—it’s nonjudgmental. The program does amazing things for kids’ confidence.”
Tail Waggin’ Tutors, a national program, has seen similarly positive results. “We’ve had many success stories over the years,” says second-grade teacher Jennifer Paley of Van Corlaer Elementary School in Schenectady, New York. Paley notes one girl who was especially affected: “She had never spoken in school—to friends or teachers. On her first day with a dachshund named Ruby, she read beautifully and fluently. For her, Ruby was able to break through, allowing her voice to be heard. That’s the power of this program.”
In a different approach, technology is also helping introverts flourish. Social media can be a powerful platform where introverts shine, and a recent study from Australian academics Michael Cowling of Central Queensland University and Jeremy Novak of the South Cross Business School shows that Twitter can encourage hesitant students to participate in class. When lecturing teachers used Twitter as a ticker bar at the bottom of their PowerPoint presentation, for example, reticent students were more likely to ask questions.
Though Cowling and Novak don’t foresee tweets replacing hand-raising, it’s interesting to imagine what the future middle school, high school, or college classroom might look like.
Despite movement toward more embracive education, some teachers are adamant that all students learn to speak in class, loud and proud, whether they’re shy, an introvert, or an extrovert. And for some good reasons. Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, and author of a forthcoming book based on her Atlantic article “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” grades her students on both written work and verbal participation—a skill she believes is vital to their future success.
“Part of my job is to teach my students how to persuade, how to argue for their own opinions and points of view,” she says. “We live in a demanding world, a world in which kids—and adults—have to speak up from time to time. I want my students to feel comfortable speaking up and demanding the rights and respect they deserve.”
A Quiet Lesson
Even though we live in a loud world, there are simple strategies to help our young introverts feel more at ease while remaining true to their quiet sensibilities.
Susan Cain rebuts Lahey’s more stringent approach, advocating that introverts can have successful schooldays without being pushed too far out of their comfort zones. She suggests that teachers wait five or ten seconds after asking a question before calling on students, giving all the kids a chance to think about how they might answer. Teachers can also create supportive, small groups for students who are wary of talking in front of a larger audience.
We, as parents, don’t need to change our kids’ personalities (and we wouldn’t want to). We can, however, give them a few pointers to help better negotiate an extroverted society. Remind young intoverts to smile and look others in the eye, Cain offers. Mention that when joining a large group of kids, it’s helpful to find the friendliest-looking child and approach him or her first. Praise them for trying new things. And model outgoing behavior, perhaps by striking up a conversation with another parent at the playground or by inviting friends over on a regular basis.
At home, parents can help innies thrive by establishing household routines that make it a secure, warmly predictable place to be. Establish relaxed, unrushed mealtimes, since introverts can be slow eaters, and keep healthy snacks around if you have a “grazer.”
Remember, also, that although introverted kids like to swordfight with their siblings and play games with their parents, they also benefit from a quiet place of their own where they can refuel, whether it’s a bedroom, a clubhouse, or a quiet corner of the family room. (Think of it as a charging station. We replace a million batteries in our kids’ remote control cars and electronic gadgets—why not in them, too?)
Above all, parents can support introverted kids by appreciating their unique contributions and respecting what interests them—and what doesn’t. “Reassure your child that they can be excited about different things, and that’s OK,” Cain says.
But, as empathetic as you might be, don’t assume that your son or daughter can’t join with his more extroverted friends in basketball games, school plays, and choir concerts. “There might be introverts who are reluctant to participate, but then they enjoy it. Deciding whether to push them or not is really more of an art than a science,” says Cain. Be ready to help them slowly ease into a role that may feel uncomfortable at first.
“If you decide to push,” Cain says, “just make sure your kids have a longer runway before they take off and fly.”
When Abe finished that first day of kindergarten a year ago, I sat with him on our couch, shared a bowl of pistachios and pretzels, and gently nudged him to tell me how it went, so curious—and a touch apprehensive—to hear what he thought of his new world.
With some prompting, he told me the details of his day: what animals lived in the science room (a lizard, rat, and chinchilla!), what he ate out of his lunchbox (none of the carrots!), and the size of the toilet in his class’s bathroom (tiny!). He cheerily showed me his new folder, which would hold his homework, and a story that he had started writing about a kangaroo who decides to go on an adventure. I gave him a proud hug, and he leaned in for a rhinoceros kiss.
“And how was the bus ride this morning?” I asked, “It looked like fun. Did you feel happy, excited, scared…?”
“Oh, no, Mama,” he assured me. “I wasn’t scared once. Not the whole day.”
This matter-of-fact pronouncement surprised me, and made me realize that I had a long way to go to understand introverted children, including my own. I was still learning that they could be self-confident, if quiet. That they aren’t necessarily terrified of a classroom of kids, overwhelmed by schoolwork, or defeated by a busy afternoon (though they will appreciate some peace when they get home). I was still figuring out how important it is for introverts to rest and rejuvenate, and how many problems this can solve or avoid.
It takes time to learn all of an introvert’s secret gifts—there are lots of them to discover. Luckily, we have our kids to teach us.
Margret Aldrich is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis in a household that is three-quarters introverted. Her four-year-old son, Asher, is an unapologetic extrovert and the unofficial spokesperson for the family. She’d like to thank the parents who shared stories about their rock-star introverts and Jane Campbell, the kind and insightful kindergarten teacher who helped make Abe’s first year of school a happy success.