“Why are you being so quiet?”
People have been asking author Susan Cain that question her whole life, and she is never quite sure how to answer it because it implies that being quiet is a bad thing—and Cain believes that being an introvert can hold great power. As a follow-up to her bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Cain has dedicated her newly released book, Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, as a guide for kids and teens. We spoke to Cain to find out why introverted kids are awesome and what parents can do to support them.
Why are you so focused on the strengths of introverts?
We live in a culture that both explicitly and implicitly tells all of its citizens that they should be extroverted. Children pick up this idea from a very early age and start to question their own preferences on how they spend their time. They have all kinds of strengths as introverts that they’re not even aware of because they’re expending a lot of energy trying to be more extroverted and not a lot of energy drawing on the strengths that have come to them naturally. This seems like a big problem to me. Many people who have contributed to our culture—from Albert Einstein and Dr. Seuss to Rosa Parks and J.K. Rowling—were quite introverted, solitary and careful. They contributed because of their quiet temperament, not in spite of it.
Is there a difference between kids who are shy and those who are introverted?
Shyness is more about the fear of social judgment and feeling socially embarrassed, while introversion is more about preferring quiet, minimally stimulating environments. They’re very different, really. In my book, I deal with both of them because I think they’re a related constellation of traits that have similar outcomes for children in the bold, extroverted cultures we live in. But on the inside, they feel very different to a child and require different coping strategies.
You feel that class participation at school can be a huge component in grading, which affects introverts. How can parents talk to their child’s teacher about this?
Share what your child is like at home, which might be very different from what the teacher sees at school, and brainstorm how the teacher could make the classroom experience as effective as possible for the child. For example, let the teacher know about particular topics that are of interest to your child—for a lot of quiet kids, they are more comfortable talking about subjects they’re passionate about than they are about just any old thing. Suggest that your child might have ways of participating other than raising her hand, such as talking quietly one-on-one with a peer, reading or going online. The key is to open the dialogue with the teacher in the spirit of partnership, not adversarially.
How should parents of introverts respond if other adults ask “Why doesn’t your child talk?” or say things like “Is she mute?”
Parents should lightly reframe these hurtful comments and say things like “Yep, Sophie really likes to take her time figuring out a situation until she knows what’s what.” Try to reframe it as a celebration of your child’s powers of observation, judiciousness and ability to take her time and look before she leaps—all those traits that tend to go along with the negative ones and are usually singled out.
Children pick up that shyness is supposedly a negative trait very early on in life—ask most kids and they’ll tell you that shyness is bad. As a parent, it’s very important to sit down with your child and tell them that there’s nothing wrong with it. If you, as a parent, have felt shy, you can talk to your kids about it using phrases like:
- “I used to feel shy all the time, and sometimes I still do. Here’s how I handle it.”
- “It’s not a big deal; it’s just part of being human.”
- “I know how uncomfortable it can feel, but I want you to know that you can push through it and you won’t always feel as shy as you do today.”
The parent needs to normalize shyness and make it acceptable for the child to feel that way.
What are your top tips for parents of quiet kids?
Children who carry around shame about their feelings [of introversion] are the ones who will have more trouble opening up. The more you normalize and validate your children’s feelings, the more empowered they will feel—that’s number one.
Number two is to understand that shy or quiet children tend to have longer runways than other children do before they take off and fly. If there’s an activity you suspect they’d really enjoy but they’re reluctant to do it, the answer is to not let them stay home—and yet you can’t also expect them to take up the activity at the same pace as another child would. Take learning to swim, for example. Every child should learn to swim, but let quiet children go at their own pace. Maybe take them to the pool at a time when no one else is there so that it’s very quiet and they feel like they’re not being observed. You might want to work with your children on their own or, if you can afford it, give them private lessons. Eventually, these children will learn to swim just like everybody else and no one will be able to tell the difference between the child who took a little longer and the one who plunged right in. But children need to feel like their parents are with them on that long runway and that it’s okay with them to be there.
A third tip is to get to places early. If you’re going to soccer tryouts, a birthday party or the first day of school, you want your children to get there early, while things are still quiet and they have a sense of owning the space. Avoid getting there late, when everything is already noisy and chaotic and friendship groups have already formed. For these kids, it’s so much easier to be early.