Instead of wishing your introverted child was more extroverted, try recognizing their quiet happiness when you see it, like the way they get lost in a book.
It’s 1994. I’m five years old, walking hand-in-hand with my father down the hallway of his new apartment building. My parents have recently divorced, and I’m adjusting to the strange new rhythm of my life — dinner with my father on Wednesday evenings and a visit to his place every other weekend.
I’m in my own world, studying the geometric patterns on the carpet. Then, with a sharpness in his voice, my father asks, “Why don’t you ever smile?”
I remember feeling incredulous. Back then, I was thoughtful, sensitive, a little bit morose, and an introvert, the same adjectives I’d use to describe me now. I remember thinking, We’re just walking down the hallway. What am I supposed to be smiling about? I hadn’t yet learned that it was my responsibility to perform “okayness” — the state of being “okay” — so the adults around me could feel okay, too.
Things have changed since the nineties. As the world becomes more aware of introversion and neurodiversity more generally — the idea that human beings come in a wide range of neurobiological flavors, and have diverse internal experiences that reflect that fact — people have begun to speak up for introverted children. Parents need to know that their quiet, sensitive children don’t need to be “fixed,” and that extroversion is not a requirement for health, goodness, or normalcy.
But I think it’s important that we dig a little deeper into the impulse so many adults seem to worry about regarding introverted children, and, consequently, how they pressure them to change. What is it about quiet children that makes their parents and teachers so uncomfortable? What is it that makes them so afraid?
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The Pressure to Perform ‘Okay’
When my own daughter was the same age I was on that day in the hallway, we were going through our own disaster, but this one was global. Her school had just closed down on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, and my marriage was hanging on by spider’s silk. The three of us were living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment. Plus, the walking trails in the woods near our home — the one place I felt safe, my very own introvert sanctuary — had been shut down, too.
Inside the apartment, I felt immense pressure to perform okayness for our daughter: to bake cookies, make watercolor paintings, homeschool. But, every few hours, when the anxiety bubbled up to a level I could no longer withstand, I went out to the fire escape and wept.
Across the street was a high-rise building with dozens of locked-down people sitting out on their respective balconies, smoking and coughing. Hiding from my daughter, I cried in front of all those people. I wondered what they thought of me, this strange, weeping woman in mismatched pajamas.
Nothing was okay. Yet I desperately needed my daughter to be okay.
I knew early on that my daughter was like me. Her preschool report card read: “She plays alone, but she is a happy person.”
I’d never shamed her, or worried, about her introverted tendencies. But amid the disaster of the pandemic, I found myself scanning her face for sadness. I could withstand the lockdown, the isolation, the uncertainty, and my own grief. But my daughter’s suffering? I would do anything to protect her from that.
Compassion for Worried Parents
Did I need my daughter to be “okay” in the same way my father needed me to be okay? I hope to God I didn’t pressure her to perform happiness — I hope I succeeded in keeping my own suffering confined to the fire escape so that I could be the mother she needed during a strange and scary time. I hope she was able to be herself, whatever that meant, and know that I accepted and supported her experience.
But, looking back, I feel compassion for my father. He was trying to survive his own kind of disaster, and my face — neutral, unsmiling — perhaps reminded him, on some level, that he couldn’t protect me the way he wanted to.
So this begs the question: Why are adults so triggered by quiet children — and, specifically, those who are introverts? I think it’s because, in our culture, extroversion — chatting, cracking jokes, joining the sack race — innately means happiness. It means that everything is all right.
That interaction with my father was one of the first signs that something about me was “wrong” — or at least different. I made people uncomfortable with my unsmiling face and seriousness. But now, as a thoughtful, introverted, sort of morose adult woman, I can see that discomfort had absolutely nothing to do with the goodness, rightness, or “wrongness” of me.
Rather, it had everything to do with my father’s own fear, an existential fear that I believe lives deep down inside every parent. In my own personal mythology, my father’s frustration at my unsmiling face was a way to sidestep a deeper terror — the terror that he had created me, and given me a life, and that I was unhappy. Think Dr. Frankenstein fleeing from his own creation. Think of the grief that comes from believing that you can do better — that you can give your child the perfect life you never had — and then seeing evidence that no, in fact, you cannot.
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Acceptance of Our Introverted Children — And of Ourselves
When we expect our introverted children to perform happiness (or extroversion) for our sake, the natural order of things gets turned upside down. Instead, we need to observe them carefully to make sure they are thriving, and to expand our understanding of childhood happiness to include introverted expressions, like getting lost in a book or creative project. In other words, we need to recognize quiet happiness when we see it.
If our children aren’t okay, if they’re grieving or suffering, we need to help them. But we also need to look inside ourselves — to recognize, feel, and process our own fear and grief — so that we don’t project it onto the people we love.
We might consider that just as our children don’t need to be “fixed,” we don’t need to be fixed, either. We need compassion and support to do the hard work of shepherding our introverted kids into adulthood against the backdrop of a complicated, disaster-filled world. We need to take our illusions, especially the ones in which we are perfect and capable of protecting our children from every hardship, and throw them into the compost heap. And we need to take our visions of our children as mirrors of us — rather than their own people on their own journeys — and compost those, too.
I hope that what grows out of this fertile soil is a way of being in the world that is honest, real, and respectful of human differences. A way of being that doesn’t require the people around us to force a smile in order for us to feel okay.
Do you have an introverted kiddo in your life? Pick up a copy of my picture book, Why Are You So Quiet? (Annick Press, 2020). from your favorite bookseller.
You might like:
- I’m an Introvert, and This Is Just My Face
- What Are Introverts Like as Children? Here Are 7 Common Characteristics
- 15 Things You Should Never Do to Your Introverted Child
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