In defense of shy kids

May 31, 2012 at 10:20 AM ET

Kelly Kearsley /
Kelly Kearsley and daughter Reese.

When my 2-year-old daughter meets someone new, she tends to duck her head and look the other way. She anchors herself to my leg when we’re in new places. And she quietly left her own birthday party before it was done, curling up on the couch with her doll after a couple hours of intense socializing. My hunch is that she's a natural introvert. And other people – mostly adults – don't like it.

"Your daughter doesn't like me," a lady at Costco informed me after unsuccessfully trying to get her to say hello. People call her grumpy. And a nanny I met at the park suggested that more time at daycare might "fix" her personality.

Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking," knows this story well. Her best-selling book and TED talk have generated a flurry of attention around introverts, and she contends that they are undervalued in a culture that idolizes extroverts.

“Many introverts grow up feeling like there’s something wrong with them,” Cain says. “But they have a lot to contribute. They’re often conscientious and thoughtful. They’re careful risk takers and persistent problem solvers … We need all these traits.”

My daughter is a total ham – once you get to know her. But even at her young age, people often expect her to be outgoing right off the bat, and misinterpret her reserved nature. Group activities dominate kids’ lives from school and sports to play dates and birthday parties. And the message introverted kids often receive is to not just participate, but to also be more gregarious, more talkative, and by all means, have fun.

But parents of introverts take heart. Cain, who has two sons, offered some guidance on how to help your quiet child navigate this noisy world.

Celebrate their strengths
Introverted kids can be kind, thoughtful, sensitive and highly perceptive. Cain notes that these quiet kids aren’t typically antisocial; they often form strong friendships. “You need to not just accept them, but delight in who they are,” she says.

Cultivate their interests
Introverted children often develop social circles around their hobbies. Allow them to focus on their interests -- they may find friends and opportunities. “Many children prefer to explore one or two activities in depth,” she says. “And they usually come to leadership roles through their love of their activity, rather than through seeking out leadership roles.”

Introduce new things slowly
The sink or swim method doesn’t work for introverted kids, Cain says. Help them enjoy new experiences by introducing them in bits. If your daughter is headed to a new school, visit a few times before the first day. Meet some people beforehand so she’ll see a few familiar faces.

And don’t apologize
Cain notes that people often call out a quiet kid’s shyness. Resist the urge to say sorry on their behalf. “You don’t want to apologize for who your child is,” she says. Reframe that shy label into something more positive such as noting that your kid is a keen observer or that she likes to feel out new situations.

Nearly half of Americans are introverts and their ranks have included some spectacular achievers, from Rosa Parks to Warren Buffett. Ignoring the value of society’s quiet counterparts “leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy and ultimately happiness,” Cain says.

I admit that as someone who believes that a big party is the best way to celebrate everything from a new job to nice weather, I've struggled a bit with my daughter's more reserved nature.

But the next time someone calls my daughter shy or portends that more time at daycare might fix her quiet personality, I won’t be pushing her to pipe up. Instead I’ll proudly say, “That’s my girl.”

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