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I've witnessed it a hundred times. At the park. At the grocery store. At church. A child peeps out from behind Mommy's leg and I hear, "Come out and say hello!" Mom is embarrassed as the little one slinks further into her shadow. "I'm sorry… she's just shy." Just shy.
Why do we feel the need to apologize for our introverted children? I had a chat with Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, on just this topic, and she says the parent of an introverted child must choose words with care.
"You should never be apologizing for your children," Cain says. "Your children are who they are and they need to know you're proud of them." This can prove difficult, especially for extroverted parents who may have difficulty understanding the needs and behaviors of their quiet children.
"The parent of a shy child has a little more work to do to make sure their child knows that they think they're super cool," adds Cain, who has two kids of her own, boys aged 4 and 6.
A longer runway
One important thing to understand about "shy" children is that they tend to have a longer "runway." It takes more time and effort to launch an introvert into a new activity or social experience. Again, this can be difficult for the parent who looks at other kids and wonders why their child isn't jumping into experiences like the rest. We can be very competitive with our kids and the speed at which they develop, but the parent of a quiet child has to let that competition go.
"It may take some extra steps to prepare them for a new opportunity instead of just throwing them in," Cain says. "Accept and appreciate their need for a longer runway, and stay with them on it." That means you will need to lead them gently into new things. Instead of starting an introverted child in group swimming lessons, you might first have to tour the facility with them. Then participate in private lessons. Then meet up with a couple of kids from the swim class for ice cream. Then enroll him in group lessons. It's OK if your child needs to take life a little slower; stay with them, and they will learn that they have what it takes to overcome things that are scary. Respect their speed and don't push.
But introverted children are so much more than "just shy." They typically tend to be very loyal friends, have vibrant imaginations, rich inner lives and tend to be warm and delightful company to those they let in, even if only one or two friends. Though they may be cautious and very choosy about who they "let in," it doesn't mean that a quiet child isn't aching for love and companionship just like the children who are louder in expressing those needs. Neither does their hesitation mean that they will lack in proficiency. A quiet child may take longer to jump into an activity, but she will excel once she does. So, moms and dads, fear not the shy child. Give her the time and space she needs to take flight when she's ready.
Susan Cain has started an organization called Quiet Revolution, through which she is creating an online guide for parents of introverted children to help them with their parenting role. The guide is not available yet, but if you're interested, go to QuietRev.com and sign up to get more info as it's available.