A good read on introversion

I’ve been reading Marti Olsen Laney’s Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, after coming across mention of it in this article from a few years ago.

In general it’s my opinion that diagnoses and other labels are best used with extreme care, caution, and awareness of their limitations and potential for undermining our best intentions.  I recommend this book with that caveat.  The book reminds us that humans are wired differently, and that different wiring and chemistry asks for different response and support.  I think it’s an especially good read for extraverted parents of introverted children and vice versa.  It’s not only about the introverts; there’s much to glean about the needs of extraverted children as well. (The book is named for the introverts only because most of the demands and expectations of culture as we know it tend to call for extraversion and thus can leave the introvert looking somehow deficient or lacking.)

Which reminds me.  One of the most unfortunate misconceptions perpetuated with regard to shy or introverted or anxious (or some of each) children and other people is that the antidote is immersion in crowds – more and larger groups of people.  But it doesn’t tend to work.  Subjecting an introvert to more situations in which she doesn’t get what she needs won’t make her an extravert.  It will likely make her anxious, or more anxious.  This is not to say that it’s not helpful for someone who prefers quieter social interactions, or those involving fewer people at a time, to be in other situations as well, to practice being in them.  It’s that throwing them into such situations and insisting on more of what doesn’t work is not the way to facilitate the navigation of a largely extraverted culture.  It tends to have the opposite of the intended effect.  To truly support an introvert is to help her build her own strategies for   regulating and managing her own interactions and exposure.

But I digress. This book is a good resource for understanding and supporting kids for who they actually already are, for being the adult one actually already is, and for figuring out the sometimes tricky business of coexistence.

PS: In case you’re not generally a comment reader, see below for mention of Susan Cain’s forthcoming Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

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Where the kids are

At some point when I was in college I decided to take all the classes I’d need to earn a teaching certificate, so I could work in a school.  I realized the other day that I didn’t make the decision because I wanted to be a teacher.  I made it because I wanted to work with kids, and school is where (most of) the kids were.

I realized this in the midst of a familiar conversation about the social life of a child considering abstaining from school.  When a young person who hasn’t been attending school expresses frustration (or is perceived to be frustrated) about his or her social life, the default recommended antidote is school. When a young person who has been in school and considers leaving, the absence of school’s built-in social component tends to top the concern list.

I’d like to think that the reason that school is our first thought, when it comes to questions of social development, is the same one that had me choose teaching.  School is just where most of the kids are.  I’d really really really like to think that that’s it: if everyone’s in school then in order to have friends you have to go there.  Of course it’s not the only access to a social life, but maybe it just seems that way, just as it seemed logical that I should teach if I wanted to work with young people.

If it’s not that, then maybe it’s because we remember our own school social lives so fondly that we forget to check to be sure that kind of social scene still exists, and if it does, whether or not that scene would actually fill the needs of the actual children in question.  But I haven’t come across very many people who have good memories of their school social lives.  Quite the contrary, in fact, so I’m afraid we can’t blame that interpretation either, at least not on any large scale.

Unfortunately, I think the reality is that we don’t stop to think about what social life is.  We don’t think about what kind of experience we want for kids.  We don’t think about what it means to be social.  We don’t think about what it takes to have a healthy fulfilling social life.  If we did, it’s hard to imagine that our first thought would be to send young people into an environment in which talking is mostly prohibited, bullying is commonplace, and competition is paramount.

There’s a real irony to this school-as-social-panacea.  In every other realm, we micromanage learning.  We tool and retool the way we make children learn to read and write and acquire every other academic skill we’re committed to.  We’re constantly changing our minds about what exactly we need to teach (within the bounds of traditional subject categories).  We start early and we pour everything we can get our hands on into the teaching.  In many cases it undermines the process, but we keep doing it.  We expect to be very involved in the process and we go to great lengths to stay involved and continue to reform the process.  When it comes to social experience and skills, our only recourse is proximity and exposure.  As long as they’re around other people their age, our actions and choices suggest, they’ll Get Socialized.  We try to intervene when there’s bullying, and we send the ones who aren’t making friends to social skills groups, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  We don’t insist that kids are around other socially healthy beings, necessarily.  Not socially healthy role models.  Just other people of the same age.

The reality is that we have no idea how to facilitate true friend-making, how to teach kids to make the social choices that satisfy their social needs (particularly if their needs happen to be different from ours).  We resign ourselves to helping them survive a socially hostile and unsupported environment. We complain about it, and wish the schools would do better, but fair blame is pretty difficult to locate.  How many adults do you know who have full, satisfying social lives?  Our expectations for social experience are set pretty low, and kids are paying a pretty high price for it.

A first move to consider, when it seems like something’s missing from a child’s social experience (or any other, for the matter), is the discernment of what actually is missing.  Is the child yearning for more people?  Or does she just want different people?  Or maybe even fewer people?  Is it the quantity of interaction that’s off, or the quality?

If we get a sense for the nature of the problem before acting to solve it, the actions we take are much more likely to be effective.  There are, indeed, many many many young people in school.  That doesn’t mean it’s a good place to learn how to be with people.

The friends basket

What if the process of social development weren’t so focused on kids making friends and instead on kids finding people? There are all kinds of relationships and experiences that develop social skills, so why put all the eggs in the friends basket, particularly given how narrowly the word gets defined?  What if it were just as important to find mentors, coaches, people to look up to, people to be looked up to by, treasured relatives or neighbors or acquaintances that have a specific way in which they relate to you uniquely?

These might be people who aren’t necessarily your friends, but call you to grow and change as a social being, in different ways.  And there’d be less pressure to Have Lots of Friends.  It wouldn’t mean you didn’t have to find friends, there’d just be less pressure to.  There’d be less emphasis on this one kind of relationship you had to have.  You’d just be out there in the world interacting with people, finding the ones who offered something and to whom you had something to offer.  They might not be the same age, might not be anyone you want to spend a lot of time on the phone with, might not share any interests, might live far away, so you might say you didn’t have a lot of friends, but there you’d be, developing as a social being in spite of it.

From scratch

What if we were to forget everything we know (and by that I mean everything we think we know) about socializing, about what it takes to make and have friends and a social life?  What if we set it all aside and built our ideas about it (and thus our actions on its behalf) from scratch?

What would we do?  How would we decide what kids need?  How would we decide what we need, for that matter?