Have I ever mentioned I’m a very sociable introvert? Well I am. And so, of course I should have tonnes of empathy for others with similar social tendencies. Except that my vanity and striving to appear ‘nice’ to people makes it trickier than you might think. My children err on the side of introverted, you see, and it makes for a lot of awkwardness. And I hate feeing awkward.
When happy, open-hearted children approach them in the playground, mine take it as a personal affront bordering on assault. They find it offensive when others ask them to play. Strangers in supermarkets will demand casual conversation from them, continually asking them if they’re shy – ‘are you shy – are you, are you?’ (to me); ‘Are they shy?’
The loveliest of people approach us in various public places exclaiming that their children are SO social and love other children and are delighted that my children have now arrived in said place because now they can all play together. Except that mine won’t want to play. And this can understandably be quite bewildering – and appear insulting – to people who do not understand introversion.
Often a child’s choice to opt out of activities or interactions is seen as a personal affront to the child whose party it is or who is squating on the other side of the see-saw partner-less. Their choice to not comply with the wishes of another child – and therefore the consequential purposely not-making-others-happy – can be awkward to sit with, but sit with it we must. Afterall, it is not fair to place the happiness of another person in their little hands – is it not one of life’s most important lessons that we can only make ourselves happy? Children deserve to make their own choices when it comes to how they do (or do not) socialise. And the child left feeling snubbed? Well, it’s an invaluable life lesson for them – I mean it may be the first, but it won’t be the last time someone won’t want to play with them, will it?
I would always argue that my children are not anti-social, they are merely selectively-social and interact with whom they want when they want. But this approach to being social, let me tell you, is not popular. And this is due to the fact that many people believe that putting children together will teach them to be, well, extroverted. ‘Oh it’s great they’re going to playschool – they’ll learn to socialise!’ But extroversion should not be seen as something to be learned or acquired. It is not ‘better’. Rather, introversion needs to be prized and given some space and a little more respect and understanding.
As their parent, my chief challenge is reminding myself that being introverted is actually fine – over their lifetime they will, just like everyone else, have the opportunity and desire to make great friendships and have good relationships. In fact, being an introvert has many positive attributes in terms of their decision making skills, being prudent, knowing their own mind, being independent etc. As a child I loved being at home and never wanted a birthday party or to mix much with my peers until I got a little older. The way in which I wanted to connect with other people was a slow evolution. Personally, I have never really known what it’s like to feel truly lonely, you just don’t as an introvert – you always have yourself.
And yet my compulsion as a parent is to apologise for how I assume they appear to others in case we seem rude or unfriendly which, I hasten to add, we are not.
I loved the way lockdown shone a little spotlight on the introvert in many of us. It was suddenly quite en-vogue to declare your love for being at home with nowhere to go and nobody to meet up with. ‘Boundaries’ became the talk of many pop-psychology articles and perhaps this new awakening will shine a light on the preference of introverts worldwide to sometimes politely decline human interaction. Now that we’ve labeled it, boundaries should be available to everyone – children included – and on their own terms. It really is OK to say no to interactions and requests to mingle and play without others needing an explanation why – and I’ll just have to park my compulsion for politeness.
Recently, my second born (who is admirably decisive when it comes to saying ‘no thank you’ to party invitations or activities involving other children in general) was playing with a gorgeous, kind and bubbly little girl whose mother I was chatting to. I knew that she was enjoying herself and afterwards I asked her if she had fun. ‘Oh Yes!’, she beamed, ‘And the little girl asked me if I wanted to be her friend’.
‘And what did you say?’ I asked her, curious.
‘I said ‘Maybe’’, and she skips off, happy out.
Sums it up really.