Inside voices



When my daughter Juliana was in kindergarten, her class gave a musical performance for Curriculum Day. I use the term "performance" loosely. Actually, "musical" is a stretch, too.

Basically, all they had to do was flap their elbows like wings and mouth the words while the teacher played a perky song about baby chicks. It was designed to let every child succeed and every parent puff up with pride.

They herded the kids to the front of the room and arranged them in two fidgety rows. The music started, and they began to hop up and down and flap their imaginary wings. Some of them sang, and the rest giggled – except for Juliana. She stood at the edge of the group, staring at the floor. No flapping. No singing. Not even a smile.

Afterwards, we asked her why she didn't sing or dance. "I didn't want to," she said.

A parent's mind always reaches for the worst-case scenario. We extrapolated forward through a lifetime of similar incidents, each one worse than the last. Finally, we envisioned a lonely, stunted life that could have been prevented if we had only coaxed a wing-flap or two at the crucial moment. "She was polite and quiet," the neighbors would someday say. "She kept to herself – until the day she snapped."

Of course, we always knew she was shy. She was the kid you never had to warn not to talk to strangers. She wouldn't have talked to a stranger if they showed up with a van full of candy and a baby unicorn in back. But something about seeing her there, so out of step with her peers, worried us like never before.

In truth, we should have known better. Her mother and I had both been shy as kids, and we seemed to have turned out fine. But maybe that was the problem. It was all too easy to project our own painful memories onto our child.

Still, if I'm a four on the introvert-extrovert scale (where one is Emily Dickinson and 10 is Lady Gaga), then my daughter is probably a two. Even a small mismatch seems large when you're trying to figure out your child. So over the years, I've tried to get a handle on this whole introvert thing. Here's what I've learned.

First of all, though they often overlap, introversion and shyness are not the same thing. Shyness is an acquired social unease – but introversion is hardwired from birth. Even as infants, introverts are more sensitive to stimulation than their extroverted peers. As they grow up, they learn to seek out lower stimulus environments where their senses won't get overwhelmed.

Both introverts and extroverts have their strengths. People at every point on the scale have done amazing things and led extraordinary lives. But our culture has a clear preference for one personality type over the other. We live in the age of the Extrovert Ideal.

It wasn't always this way. Back when people were mostly farmers, success came slowly, one harvest at a time. We named our kids Prudence, Patience and Earnest. But with the industrial revolution, fortunes were made and lost on the ability to close a deal. Suddenly, the salesman was king, and extroverts claimed the crown.

Nowadays, people routinely equate extroversion with competence, intelligence and success. And even though research shows that extroversion, by itself, brings none of those things, the myth lives on. No wonder our chosen leaders so often disappoint us. If Abraham Lincoln ran for office today, how long would he last? One night on Letterman and he'd be toast.

So what's a parent to do? How do you guide your child through a world that doesn't value them for who they are? When everyone around you is pushing their kids to be team captain, leading lady, student body president and prima ballerina, what do you tell your quiet, sensitive, introverted child?

You tell them the truth.

Tell them that introverts make deep thinkers, great leaders and loyal friends. Tell them that without introverts there would be no Issac Newtons or Albert Einsteins. No Meryl Streeps or Rosa Parks. No Mahatma Gandhis or Frederic Chopins. Tell them they are exactly, and wonderfully, the people they were meant to be.

I still worry about Juliana once in a while. Sometimes I push her to take more chances, or to try something new. But I make sure she knows I don't want her to change – just to grow.

Some flowers don't bloom in the spring. But with the long, warm days of summer, they blossom more beautifully than you ever imagined. Parenting is a little like gardening that way. You sweat, and you dream, and you labor with love. Then you wait.

Somehow, it all works out in the end.