May 18. 2022
A couple of years ago, I let my elementary-age daughter read through her progress report. It was full of positive feedback, so I thought she’d find it encouraging.
But her face fell when she read that she needed to work on “class participation.”
“I don’t understand. I always participate,” she said. “I listen and I do every single activity and assignment.”
She was genuinely confused.
“Oh,” I said lightly. “Class participation is just code for ‘talk more in class.’”
“Yeah, I don’t love doing that,” she said. “But if everyone talked, it’d be so noisy. And it’s already too noisy.”
My two children have fundamentally different temperaments: one tends toward introversion and the other toward extroversion. One treasures her quiet time after school: reading, writing, art, and snuggling with the dog. The other is energized by activity, noise, and large-group social interaction. Thankfully, temperament and character are not synonyms. Introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts can all become kind, hard-working, compassionate, and brave people.
As caregivers, sometimes we struggle to parent children who are temperamentally different from us. I see this more with extroverted parents and teachers who think that part of our job is to change our introverts—to stretch them into “confident, outgoing kids.”
But research suggests that one’s basic temperament—particularly our response to stimuli—is rooted in biology. Extroverts tend to be more comfortable with crowds, noise, and unexpected events. High-sensory environments tend to charge (or at least don’t quickly drain) their batteries.
Introverts are usually more comfortable in calmer environments. This doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy a big birthday party or a trip to the zoo—they may just become overstimulated more quickly, need to take breaks, and want downtime afterward to charge their batteries.
No temperament is better than another. But here’s where kids need our help: there are a thousand subtle ways society communicates to introverts that they are somehow lacking. From who gets picked for leadership roles to who gets positive reinforcement from teachers and even strangers.
I mean, think about how we talk about extroverts: He’s so outgoing! She’s fearless! He loves to ham it up! She’s never met a stranger!
Rarely do you hear with the same enthusiasm: She’s quiet! He’s great at looking before leaping! She’s a wonderful observer! He’s a thoughtful listener!
Aren’t those also strengths worth celebrating?
Instead of trying to change a child, try changing the environment in ways that will help them thrive. If you have an introverted child, get curious about dynamics that increase their comfort and confidence. In classrooms, especially, these might include:
- Communicating with people one-on-one or in small groups
- Thinking before sharing aloud
- Observing before jumping into something new
- Recharging in a quiet, calm environment
Introverted kids may take more time to warm up to a new activity, and that’s okay. They may want to observe a game before joining in or hear how other kids respond before raising their hands. While we want to encourage kids in healthy ways, pressuring them to jump in before they are ready can backfire.
As psychologist Katie Hurley wrote on Twitter: “Stop telling introverted kids to be more social. They are social. They just socialize in a different way. Quiet communication is still communication.”
It can also be empowering to talk to kids about temperament. Self-knowledge is power. I’ve given workshops on this for middle schoolers—to help them understand themselves and their classmates better. Extroverted kids need to recognize that quiet does not equal unfriendly. Teachers can structure group work and class discussions in a way that doesn’t always allow the more talkative children to dominate.
Remember, every temperament brings with it strengths and possibilities. As Susan Cain wrote, introverted children are “born with a careful, sensitive temperament that predisposes them to look before they leap. And this can pay off handsomely as they grow, in the form of strong academics, enhanced creativity and even a unique brand of leadership and empathy. . . . [T]hese kids are not antisocial. They’re simply sensitive to their environments.” Or as Fred Rogers put it, “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”