Apparently my 5-year-old daughter is shy. I say ‘apparently’ because it took years of people letting me know that she was for me to finally see it. Around family and friends she is anything but shy. Loud, hilarious, bright, vivacious and social — all are words I would use to describe her. So when a neighbor says, “We heard her talking up a storm over there the other day and couldn’t believe it! She’s never said a word to us in all the years we’ve lived across from you!” I’m taken aback. Her? I’d think. But she doesn’t shut up!
I’ve always written off my daughter’s unwillingness to talk to very many adults, especially the male kind, as age appropriate for a tiny little thing. But as she’s gotten a bit older, I now see that she is shy in many situations and unless someone has small kids themselves, they often take this the wrong way (seems parents’ memories are short in this arena). To them, she seems like a tough nut to crack, or worse: one who doesn’t like them very much. As if their self-worth should have anything to do with whether or not a kindergartener wants to chat them up.
What you don’t hear many new acquaintances say about shy kids is that they’re “so adorable,” or “just a hoot!” And to a parent, this silence can be a bit deafening. Take Diana Duke, a Poway mom of two and lifelong shy person herself. Diana’s son, like her, has a cautious nature about approaching social situations and often takes a while to “warm up.” As a toddler when his shyness was at its peak, it felt like she was torturing her poor child simply by taking him to a playgroup at the park.
“People wanted to know what was wrong with him,” she says. “My only answer? A perplexed 'nothing.' After all, he had plenty of friends. He played at the park like everyone else. True, he took more time to warm to outings. But since when was shyness wrong?”
Now that my child is 5 and still hasn’t outgrown her hesitance with adults, Diana’s experience really resonates with me. Let’s face it: Our culture favors extroversion. Even though studies show that at least 25 percent of people fall on the introverted side of the personality spectrum, Americans seem to insist that everything from our presidents to our potato chips come with a pop and a sizzle.
But according to a new article on the cover of Time magazine titled The Power of Shyness, we may be doing our kids a real disservice by trying to push them to be more of an extrovert when they are not. Current research shows that introverts have a lot of traits that make them born success-stories.
For one thing, introverts — those who find social situations more taxing than extroverts — who often derive energy from being out with people, like to spend a good deal of time alone. Many see this as one of the only ways to perfect a transcendent skill, be it in a sport, vocation, or in the arts.
According to the article in Time, Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson believes that “deliberate practice — training conducted in solitude, with no partner or teammate…allows for a level of intense and personal focus that’s hard to sustain in a group setting.” Consider well-known introvert and Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates, whose affinity for sitting alone writing code for days on end surely contributed to where he is today.
Other common introvert traits of Gates’ that helped make him such a success are an ability to listen, say to his employees, and deftness with managing risk. Because extroverts are more likely to get excited about a reward, they're often considered less able to properly assess risk. As the Time piece points out, “It’s no coincidence that Warren Buffet, the worlds greatest investor, is widely considered to be an [introvert].
The Power of Shyness has only reaffirmed what Diana and I have already suspected, just because our culture prizes one end of the spectrum, doesn’t mean there's intrinsic value there. In fact, it can be pretty detrimental to try to force a child to behave in ways too contrary to their inborn tendencies because introverts are naturally so sensitive to their environment and already quite aware that they are out of step with external expectations.
Too, let’s not forget that a future in investment banking or leadership is not the only benefit to having an introverted child. As Diana says of her shy guy, “Parents often complement his behavior, his quiet voice, his orderly conduct, all the while complaining about their own kids’ roughhousing and rudeness.” It’s true that the introverted child can be far easier on the ears and nerves than the extrovert.
Still, Diana also admits that it isn’t always the best thing for your kid to be nervous about outings or meeting new strangers. So perhaps a happy medium of parental influence is called for. The Power of Shyness quotes Jay Belsky, a psychologist at UC Davis as saying that “you don’t want to break the [introverted] kid by overwhelming their capacities…The key is sensitive encouragement.”
This, I believe, is what I’m already practicing. When my daughter seems particularly put on the spot when asked to thank or say goodbye to an adult she doesn’t know well, I’ll simply do it for her: "She says goodbye." In this way both she, (and the possibly judgmental adult), see me setting up a standard for how to handle yourself in the world today without the pressure to be perfect at it right now.
But sometimes I’ll throw in, “She’s feeling a bit shy today,” with a smile and a protective hand on her shoulder, because I also want to make clear that shyness is a perfectly OK trait to have, not some abnormal weakness. Now, I’ll have to stifle an added comment about how it actually means she’ll probably be the next Warren Buffet or Bill Gates...but you know I’ll be thinking it, yes, you can be sure of that.