Group projects. Group think. Team sports. Socialization.
We live in a day and age when working with others has never been more valued. We send kids to school at younger and younger ages so they can properly socialize. We encourage involvement in activities, lots of activities, for the same reason.
As parents, we assume this is best. Everyone loves the extrovert, the guy who knows everybody’s name. Who doesn’t love a team player? Who doesn’t love the person who works well with others? Who can argue the value of collaboration?
Susan Cain can, and she does so quite convincingly in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” (Broadway Books, $16). A book like “Quiet” comes as a balm for the run-of-the-mill introvert like myself, but it also serves up some thought-provoking insights into parenting, schooling and how we set our kids up for hyper socialization.
Think, for instance, of the modern-day classroom. When I was a kid, everyone sat at their individual desk and did their individual work. All that has changed. We’ve chucked out the desks in favor of tables where a cluster of kids can sit together, sharing workspace and often work supplies. Most projects are done in teams. Kids are encouraged to work in teams to solve problems and discover creative solutions.
While this type of learning can provide valuable lessons, we assume this is the optimal way for kids to learn. However, as Cain points out in her book, “collaboration often kills creativity.” In a group, the outspoken, opinionated-type usually take control, leaving behind the measured, thoughtful contribution of the introvert. Working with others can spark good ideas, but study after study shows that real creativity happens in solitude. Cain references everything from the creation of the first Apple computer to Newton’s law of motion, all of which happened in solitude. The best musicians in the world don’t practice more than the average player. They simply spend more hours practicing alone. The same goes for athletes, even those who play team sports.
This can be uncomfortable news. We’ve been schooled into thinking that a group is always better. Who wants to work alone? Who wants to be alone? No one likes to see a child wandering the playground by himself. Or spending too much time in her room, playing with dolls. This is the era of people, people everywhere. I carry my friends in my back pocket, ready to contact at a moment’s notice. Solitude is sin.
And yet, for roughly one-third of the population, solitude is just what they need. It’s not something that can be worked out of their system, like poison, or diluted, like orange juice. The solitude is where they gain energy, regroup and produce their best work.
For instance, I’m writing this article in my favorite place, the Quiet Room at the public library. This is my happy place. It is clean, quiet, free from interruption, and absolutely silent. A few hours of writing in the Quiet Room, and I emerge like Superwoman, ready to face my kids (and their homework), the music lessons, my church responsibilities and the din of everyday life.
As parents, we need to be aware of our introverted children because they can’t always articulate these needs for themselves. While we need to teach them social skills and encourage friendships, we also need to understand where they thrive. It may not be in a class of 30 children who are constantly encouraged to work in large groups. It may not be on a basketball or football team.
I’ve had to learn this for myself. My kids are split down the middle — half are extroverts and half are introverts. At the end of the school day, I have a son who wants to tell me everything, each detail of the day, before bursting out the door to play with neighbors. My introverts come home drained of energy. They don’t like to be pestered with questions. They often have their noses in a book. (I’ve had to learn to keep my mouth shut after many pleas of “Mom, can I just read right now?”) They like a chunk of time alone. After all, they’ve been with people for seven hours straight. These same boys of mine sometimes spend recess by themselves as well, swinging or thinking. They need that time to recharge. Then, and only then, are they ready for friends, questions and more social interaction.
Here are things I’ve learned from my limited experience as a parent of introverted children:
Playdates need to be shorter than with my extroverts. My introverts burn out socially much faster.
They open up best at night, when they’re tucked into bed.
When they are ready to talk, I need to be ready to listen, right then.
They value one-on-one time, especially special outings.
They are content with one, maybe two friends.
They can’t do as many social things. One instrument and one sport is pushing it.
I also try to give my kids a lot of downtime. We watch very little TV (another attribute of introverts is their sensitivity to frightening or violent images, and that goes for all ages), and I keep music at a low volume.
Some of these choices are conscious, some I’ve made sub-consciously. I certainly don’t stamp a big “I” on my more introverted children. It’s just one of the many subtle observances a parent makes as she tries to create a meaningful life for her family.
Of course, this doesn’t preclude the need for group activities. Children need social interaction and good friends, and they absolutely need to learn cooperation and teamwork. One thing I love about family life is that it plays out like one massive group project, a group project that spans multiple decades and multiple generations.
And that is where the power of the extrovert comes in. Cain begins her book by talking about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. She highlights the fact that it was the pairing of the introvert with the extrovert that created the sea-change for the Civil Rights Movement. The same happens in our families, in our school space, in our church community and at work. Cain quotes Allen Shaw, who wrote, “A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh.”
We need both the introvert and the extrovert, both sides of the coin. We need to appreciate the strengths of both. Most importantly, as a society obsessed with the charismatic leader, we need to take special care that the introverted among us, those quiet children on the corners, don’t get left behind.