This article oringinally appeared on LinkupParents.com and is based on the chapter on children in Elizabeth’s book, “The Happy Introvert.” Please also see Elizabeth’s book, “The Enneagram of Parenting.” Both contain the original cartoons Elizabeth is known for.
I’ve been writing about personality for about 14 years. Over that time, more and more evidence has turned up that we’re born hardwired with certain personality traits. Often, inborn factors interact with environmental influences – and in widely varying degrees. A highly sensitive and fearful child will fear being in large stores much more, for example, if she gets lost in one than if she never has a bad experience in one. Highly intuitive kids tend to live in their imaginations and in the future more than highly sensate children, who tend to live in the here and now. How they are raised probably won’t change that. Shy children are fearful of other people, so how they are treated makes a tremendous difference to their happiness. Harsh criticism, rejection, or being measured against fearless peers will set them back. Some children, however, are so tough and competitive that they welcome tests of their strength. In other words, children come in many varieties and it’s up to us adults to observe them well and treat them according to their style and what makes them thrive. When parents are aware of basic personality differences and the differences between their own and their kids’ personalities, children feel secure and accepted and families run more harmoniously.
A gregarious, take-charge, child needs to be treated differently from a sensitive, individualistic child: on the subway, a mother and her two well-behaved sons, around four and five years old were sitting across from me. The younger, more serious and self-contained brother had found a feather and was examining it from every angle. He exchanged it for his plastic superhero doll and slowly moved its arms into different positions. In the twenty minutes that I was watching him, he never moved his eyes away from what he was doing. His involvement in his own world is typical of an introvert. The older, apparently extraverted brother flirted with everyone around him. Always active and busy, he looked at me at least twenty times to see how I was reacting to him. Fortunately, the boys’ mother seemed comfortable with both styles of behavior.
Introverted children usually feel good about the part of their lives where they are self-sufficient and able to explore, probe, and experience the joy of putting things together. If they sense the main adults in their lives want them to be different from the way they are, however, they are apt to feel inferior or depressed. I wasn’t directly criticized for not being more sociable, but I could tell how much other children and adults around me valued being outgoing. I’d be happy alone, but I didn’t know how to make a place for myself when I attempted to enter in at school recesses, so I’d eventually climb down to the meadow at the edge of the school-grounds to play contentedly by myself. I would feel uneasy returning to class when the bell rang, wondering what, if anything, my classmates thought of me for not joining in to play with them. Eventually, feeling different from my peers led me to write “The Happy Introvert – A Wild and Crazy Guide for Celebrating Your True Self.” Now, introverts who have read my book tell me, they can say things like, “I’d like to be with you, but I’m an introvert and I can’t handle too much noise or too many people for a long amount of time. Here’s a different plan for us to consider….” My book has given them permission to stand up for themselves as INTROVERTS. We adults who can, must also stand up for introverted children!
Getting along well in large groups requires the ability to adjust to quick changes and handle busy and noisy environments. Introverted children have busy inner lives. Their nervous systems require gentle and quiet surroundings. That’s why they call introverts “diminishers.” Since extraverted children have differently constructed brains, they often enjoy – even need – the stimulation large groups provide.
Children need to be shown they are loved at the deepest level. When they don’t behave in a way that matches the image their parents have in their minds, that of student leader or world shaker, perhaps, their parents are likely to treat them like outsiders and show disdain. Parents and teachers must watch out for this. Some children can even experience neutrality as rejection.
I wished that all of a sudden I would no longer be quiet, shy, and frightened but would feel relaxed around people. To remember what seemed like a constant family refrain of “why are you so quiet, what are you always so afraid of?” is really distressing. I always thought that being an extravert was the ideal and that being “quiet, shy, reserved, private, and fearful” was bad because those were my family’s values. Finding out that these behaviors and feelings were normal was an enormous surprise to me.
– Joan Rosenberg Ryan, an introvert.
Extraverted children encounter fewer stumbling blocks than introverts when it comes to venturing out and interacting with people. They find out the answers to: “how do I fit in?” and “how can I impact that?” by taking action and learning from the feedback. Solitude is a different route to self-discovery, but one that extraverts tend to find boring.
It is only when children have experienced a contented, relaxed sense of being alone with, and then without, the mother, that they are able to discover what they really need or want, irrespective of what others may expect or try to foist upon them. The capacity to be alone thus becomes linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings, and impulses. – Anthony Storr from “Solitude, a Return to the Self.” Ballantine. NY 1988.
Extraverted children tend to be busy, optimistic, confident, seek attention, and organize games and other activities. The more aggressive among them can feel they’re too much – too bouncy and wild, however. If their high level of energy is not met, they feel neglected.
Robert’s extremely introverted mother was uncomfortable having an extraverted child. She didn’t appreciate his exuberance – in fact, it frightened her. As a result, he kept his true personality muffled, sat on his anger, and developed a terrible rash. If Robert’s mother had been educated in personality type, she probably would have handled their differences in a more constructive way.
I first saw the fraternal twins across the street when they were two or three weeks old and noticed that Ania appeared introverted (within herself), while Kim seemed extraverted (more attentive to what was going on around her). Now they are 18. Ania still tends toward introversion and Kim still tends toward extraversion, supporting the argument in favor of nature over nurture. Their father wholeheartedly believes in the revelation that his daughters were born who they are, and considers it one of the gifts of having twins.
Tips on parenting both types
As a musician, I’m always
asking people to come into my world.
With (my) kids you can’t do that.
You have to go into their world.
– Bruce Springsteen.
In order for parents and teachers to observe children accurately, I recommend they learn about the other six personality preferences measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator besides introversion and extraversion: sensing, intuition, feeling, thinking, perceiving, and judging. I also suggest they study the nine Enneagram personality types to help understand different kinds of children, their learning styles, and the dynamics between their personality styles and their children’s.
The nine Enneagram types are the Perfectionist, the Helper, the Achiever, the Romantic, the Observer, the Questioner, the Adventurer, the Asserter, and the Peacemaker. Most Observers and Romantics are introverted; most Adventurers and Achievers are extraverted.
Quentin was a fearful Questioner in the Enneagram system, whose parents were at war about how to raise him. Unfortunately, his mother, an unhealthy version of a Helper, had a deep yearning for human connection, and learned she could use his fear to insure his dependency on her. This only instilled more doubt and anxiety in him. His father, also a Questioner type, wanted to help Quentin feel safe by encouraging him to have more confidence and trust. By studying the Enneagram, Quentin’s mother became aware of her own need to be needed and saw what this was doing to her son. She saw how important it was to empower their son rather than overprotect him, so she joined her husband in helping Quentin overcome his fears.
While raising children, it helps if you set an example by being involved in your own challenging interests. Tell your children which activities you might want to take up in the future, show them where you work, and let them see that your own friendships are important to you.
Tips on parenting introverted children
• Encourage independence to give your child a firm base to jump off from, the safety to be seen, and the grounding to interact spontaneously.
• Keep in mind that introverted children often study or practice better when no one is watching them:
I’ve always learned best when alone. My dad tried to teach me to ride a bike when I was five or six. He kept trying and trying until he finally gave up. Then he saw me go into the garage for a while and next thing he knew I was riding my bike out of the garage. I just can’t concentrate on what I’m doing as well when I’m concentrating on someone else.
– Nigel Thompson, an introvert.
Thelonius Monk, the great introverted be-bop pianist, once took offense that Count Basie had been watching him play – and threatened to retaliate by watching Basie back.
Introverted Patrick became an excellent artist, but he didn’t learn from classes – he learned from library books.
• Expose your child to other children who might become appropriate friends. Since introverts often march to their own drummer, it may take extra effort to find peers with similar interests and ways of looking at life.
Tips on teaching introverts and extraverts
At school, extraverts tend to come up with answers to teachers’ questions quickly and find it difficult to wait for their turn to speak. They often do well academically up to age twelve or fifteen, when social motivation is of prime importance. Introverts tend to excel in later grades, due to perseverance, self-discipline, and their ability to study independently.
• Offer children a balanced mixture of introverted and extraverted activities, providing for periods of privacy as well as togetherness. Playing a band or orchestral instrument, for example, can be done either alone or in groups.
• For those who have trouble entering class discussions, it helps for the teacher to say, “Is there anything anyone wants to add before we say goodbye?” Quiet students can let out what they may have been sitting on and the others can get a chance to hear what they have been thinking.
• Be concerned if a child is exceptionally shy or can’t be without companions for a minute.
• For certain sensate types, school is especially difficult. Practical, hands-on teaching helps.
My own company is fine, but I also like doing activities with friends. I feel really frustrated, though, if someone else is controlling my space or pace. I don’t do well with school. If I really want to learn something, I’m all ears. But if I don’t, there’s no way I can pay attention.
When people around me are stressed out, I want to go be by myself. Challenges interest me – seeing how things work, trying to fix things that are broken, and bringing humor to a situation. I also like remembering things about people that I can surprise them with later, like the model of car they drive.
– Augie Wagele, a sensate type and a Seven-Adventurer in the
• Give children enough time to experiment and be creative.
* Bjork, the famous Icelandic singer and song-writer, complained that in music school her teachers only wanted to “fill the students up from the outside” instead of encouraging them to express what’s inside.
* A child who is allowed to follow her bliss will explore what she is interested in, and learn to handle more and more complexity.
Tips on teaching introverted children
For the child knew –
although she couldn’t have said it in
these words – that the real
correspondence is in Silence, beyond and
deep within, and that the surface fluttering and
ego-antics blurred this true language.
of “Sunyata” by Camhi and Isenberg. North Atlantic Press, Berkeley CA 1990.
• Introverts often can’t relax unless they are alone with the teacher or in a very small class. If large classes are unavoidable, try to meet their needs by creating enclosed spaces within the classroom or making use of the school library.
• When children have recreational time, allow those who want to go to the library or another room where they can comfortably read or play board games, otherwise the introverts may find themselves on the playground with nothing to do.
• Introverted children are often slower because they have more going on internally.
• Avoid measuring children by their speed.
I remember the time, in elementary school,
when my mother and teacher met on Parent’s Day.
The teacher told mom that I was slower than the
other students, but my answers were usually right.
– Harry Gans, an introvert.
• Be aware that introverted children sometimes misbehave in order to be put in isolation.
• In our extraverted world, children are exposed to many examples of achievers and heroes. Celebrate introversion, as well, by teaching children about the virtues of working on something in depth, finding out how things work, silence, and listening.
Quiz about children
(Answer T for true, F for false)
Under the age of ten, introverts always feel comfortable in social situations.
Shyness often includes a painful feeling that the whole room is staring at you, even if it’s not.
Western societies never press introverted children to go in a direction they don’t want to go in.
Many introverts tend to be thin-skinned.
Introversion/depression/phobias are related and extraversion/mania/hysteria are related.
Children thrive when they feel perceived.
Introverted children often do well when gently invited to join in. If they refuse, it’s best not to pressure them, but to leave the door open in case they change their minds.
While introversion/extraversion is the most important personality difference in general, other differences are sometimes more important regarding certain relationships. Learn all you can about personality types. There are dozens of books on the 9 Enneagram types and the 16 Myers-Briggs types that can help you be a better parent or educator. These systems are also both used widely in business settings and personal growth.
Much of this article was based on the chapter on children in “The Happy Introvert,” which is recommended for adults to read for themselves and for parents and teachers of introverted children or teen-agers. “The Enneagram of Parenting” and “The Enneagram Made Easy” are recommended for parents, teachers, and young adults. “The Happy Introvert” is also recommended for improving relationships, along with “Are You My Type, Am I Yours?” “The Happy Introvert” also has chapters on neurology, Jung, creativity, work and the MBTI, and a section on the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.” “Finding the Birthday Cake”, an Enneagram and self-esteem book for young children, is due out in June of 2007.
Elizabeth Ravitz Wagele and her husband, Gus, live in Berkeley CA where they raised two sons and two daughters. Her books are illustrated with her drawings and cartoons. She demonstrates the points in “The Beethoven Enneagram,” a CD, by playing from the Beethoven sonatas. Besides writing, drawing, and music, she enjoys gardening and her family, including 6 grandchildren.