I was thrilled to read Susan Cain‘s Quiet recently. As a dyed-in-the wool introvert, I sighed with relief to know after all of these years that I’m less abnormal than I think. I get sweaty if I’m invited to a cocktail party, and I hate class reunions. I love fires and reading, and if I were forced to spend eight hours every day alone in my study reading or writing, I would get excited.
The problem for me and my introverted friends is that we live with the nagging in our gut that we need to be fixed. Something is wrong with us and it always has been. Which introvert among us doesn’t still feel the awkwardness and embarrassment of not speaking up in class? We were the wall flowers—the last to get picked at a high school dance (not that we really cared because we didn’t want to dance anyway but thought we were supposed to want to).
As kids, we introverts were seen as a bit “off.” Someone needed to pull us out of our shell because being so quiet wasn’t right. We were seen as anti-social, insecure, and uncomfortable in our own skin. The truth is, none of these is true; and although as a “mature” pediatrician, I should have known that, I didn’t. No one had ever pointed it out to me.
I have always felt a kinship with the quiet kids I see in my office. If a patient sits calmly beside his mother reading a book, I see him as relaxed and comfortable—not shy. And when a frustrated mother asks me how to help her daughter be more sociable, I have always wondered why she feels so compelled to help her daughter make more friends. If she told me that the same daughter had two or three good friends, I wondered why she wanted her to have more. Three is wonderful.
AMERICA IS A NOISY PLACE. WE ALL DO TOO MUCH TALKING AND TOO LITTLE LISTENING.
If we happen on children who like to take things in, listen to conversations, or read books rather than go to a friend’s house and watch movies, we should applaud them, not make them feel as if something is wrong with them. Too often, we communicate to quiet children that they need to be “fixed” so that they can function better in a loud world. After all, we tell them, the real winners in life are those who can swing a deal, work a crowd, and collect a good following of folks behind them. The truth is, gregarious people are held in higher esteem in the American workforce because they are the ones who are seen as leaders. Nerds don’t lead, we presume.
As a child advocate, I think that embracing quietness in children is long overdue. Every child isn’t meant to be captain of the soccer team or get the prettiest girl to go to prom. Heck, not every kid needs to go to prom.
We need young children who love to scour grass for bugs, leave the room when conversations get too loud or boring, and read all afternoon. These are the thinkers among us who will see what the rest of the world doesn’t see. They are the kids who will grow up to be good friends because they listen well and need to speak very little. They will create dramatic lighting for Broadway shows, discover cures for HIV and design bridges to span greater breadths than the San Francisco Bay. We need quiet children to grow up to be quiet adults.
So if your child is quiet, needs fewer friends than his siblings, or doesn’t want to play football because he’d rather be reading, love him for it. Tell him that he doesn’t need to be “fixed”; that in fact, he’s perfect just the way he is. Perhaps he knows how to thrive in a noisy world a little bit better than the rest of his friends.