In those rare quiet moments, once the sun has set and the brats have been dutifully (often through bullying) tucked into bed; and as exhaustion slowly starts making its way through every bone in the body, a thought crosses my mind: why are talkative, noisy and friendly children somehow considered better than the shy, quiet and more reserved ones? And should I, as a parent, feel a little like a failure if my child doesn't grab every opportunity to rush headlong into a new adventure? The answer, I've learnt the hard way, is no, it's not. Here's how I came to the realisation.
Barely 3 years apart, both my kiddos have names beginning with the letter 'V' and the same set of parents-but that's where the similarities end. While the older one, a boisterous boy who is all of 6, is loud, chatters non-stop and is born to perform for the audience, (he breaks into an act the moment he sees more than 2 people around him), my younger one is quietly perched on the other end of the personality spectrum. She tends to hover around silently, tries to imitate her brother, but prefers to fade into the background while her brother basks in the limelight-whether it is a simple dinner or an elaborate Lego war. You see, we have been blessed with cherubs that represent both personality types, an extrovert to the hilt, and an introvert to the T! And in this situation of contrasting traits, my better half and I are constantly shuttling from simmering one down to trying to boost another one up. It's exhausting, believe me!
The worst part (and infuriating for me personally) is the fact that just because my younger one has a sibling who is forever reaching out to new people, most people expect her to follow suit.
What they don't get is that she is a brilliant, funny and sharp girl, with a mind of her own, and is most comfortable around her inner circle of people. When left to her own devices, she comes up with ideas that routinely amaze and baffle us. 'Did they really originate in the head of a 3-year-old?' the husband and I often ask each other. And yet, put her in a crowd and she turns into a shrinking violet. And then my evening is spent concocting explanations that I don't really feel the need to give, but succumb to due to social pressure.
"She's just not in a great mood."
"She's had an extremely tiring day."
"She doesn't do well without her afternoon nap."
All this, when I know that there's no real problem; just that large crowds and over-friendly new people (who insist on hugging a child without their consent) perturb her. I wish I could get on the highest rooftop in town and scream for everyone in the vicinity to hear. Little V is an introvert- not rude, not ill-mannered, not a child with special needs-she just needs time to get to know people before she decides whether she likes them.
In the beginning, I must confess, I failed to understand this distinction, and tried to apply the rules from the old parenting playbook that worked for Big V. They misfired, big time. I had to deal with endless tantrums triggered due to stress, and tears and screams at even the smallest requests. Basically, a whole lot of anxiety that was hard to comprehend. Even the school environment didn't help, as schools usually seek their victory in turning kids into the extrovert prototype. But that could never work with Little V. She didn't respond, and instead took her time in class, which became a cause of concern for her teacher, further adding to my already miserable and stressed mind (don't even ask about the amount of calories I wolfed down during this phase!)
At one point, I even considered the notion that something was truly off about my child's behaviour, without giving much thought to how I was the one who was reading the signs all wrong! She just had one small request, "Slow down, Mommy, I need more time!"
Over time I did learn, after what felt like numerous stumbles and falls, that an introvert child is not a more difficult child, she is simply a different child from an extrovert one. As soon as I learnt to make this distinction, I saw something miraculous happen. I saw my little butterfly flutter, instead of meekly hiding in a corner. I saw her recite stories to me, sing songs with me, even try dancing at a friend's birthday party! All I had to do was give her time, to let her find her comfort zone at her own pace.
I have to say, Google baba was of immense help while I was trying to make this transition. Here are some nuggets of knowledge I acquired that describe my introvert child perfectly.
- The term 'introvert', coined way back in 1920, is used to describe a person who becomes emotionally and physically worn out from being around people a long time. That's just the way their brain is wired. Go figure!
- Introverts replenish themselves by being in a familiar environment and spending time by themselves.
- An introverted child tends to learn through the process of observation rather than through dialogue.
- They can also be social and chatty, albeit with a small group of friends as opposed to a large group of people.
- Introverts do not learn through trial and error, instead they rely on practicing their new-found skills in isolation or in their own minds before they attempt to try out those skills. This is why Little V took her time to start talking in the presence of people even though she would chat with me all the time.
- An introverted child might hide behind you while meeting a new person (typical Little V behaviour), not because she is shy, but because she wants to protect herself from feeling physically overwhelmed (Read: hugging a child without their consent-not cool!)
An introverted child can flourish socially just as well as an extroverted child-and Little V is proof of that. In the last few months (since we changed tack), she has gone on independent play dates to friends' homes without the comfort of her big brother being around. She has started greeting our apartment liftman, interacting with children in her classroom, responding to her class teacher (although still not as frequently as the other kids do), but it's a significant step for her. And her teacher tells me that on occasion, Little V has even managed to joke around with her!
What's more important is that I see is a happier child these days, who feels comfortable in her own skin because she has found acceptance for who she is-a thinking, intelligent, funny and a wee bit bratty, introvert-and frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way!