My first material lesson as a mom slapped me upside the head shortly after my home pregnancy test radiated positive and I called my OB/GYN’s office. “I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant,” I told them. “I’ve taken five tests and they’re all positive.” Great, they told me. “We’ll see you in three weeks!”
I was newly pregnant and totally clueless about what I should and shouldn’t be doing, and I had to wait three weeks for an expert to hold my hand? Mom lesson number one: YOU are the responsible one now, lady.
The ten years since that enlightening phone call have been full of gradual parenting lessons, slowly forming who I am as a mother. However, I can pick out a few other pivotal moments that struck like a bolt of lightning and helped define how I parent. One such moment occurred a couple of years back when my son was in the early years of elementary school.
At the end of a successful year with an awesome teacher, a year during which I watched my boy grow in ways that stoked my pride and eased my nerves, we read his report card together. It was full of positive academic marks and comments about his empathy and compassion. And then–like a ton of bricks–THE comment.
“His shyness continues to hold him back.”
It was incongruous. It didn’t jibe with what I witnessed over the past nine months or the words in black and white right there in front of me on his report card. It wasn’t necessarily the word shyness that felt amiss. Over the years my boy has been described by those outside his inner sanctum as quiet, reserved, introverted. Shy. I’ve used those words myself, always at a loss for a succinct phrase that accurately sums up that aspect of his personality.
But what exactly was he being held back from? True, he may not have raised in his hand in class. But he enlivened one-on-one discussions. No, he didn’t choose group games at recess. But he was analyzing a cool bug or playing dragons with one or two friends. Yes, he did dread his class performance. But you know what? He did it. He got up there and joined his class in singing. He stepped out of his comfort zone, as he did every day during the school year. It was a big deal.
His careful temperament is as much a part of him as his blue eyes and his blond hair.
Those don’t hold him back. They just are. Even though I went through childhood tagged as shy and I take pride in being an introvert (and I’m not the only one!), it wasn’t until I read that comment that I truly processed this: his disposition does not hold him back. It propels him forward in a different way than other kids, and the more I support that momentum the more he will grow into his full potential.
It’s not easy. We do live in a culture that caters to extroversion, and he has to learn to function within that space, just as I have. As author Susan Cain says in her Manifesto for Introverts, “Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert.” It’s hard to know when to push and when to let him lead. Previously, though, I focused on bringing him out of his shell. Now I try to polish that shell so it shines and glows. I choose to focus on another point in Cain’s Manifesto: “Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.”
For resources on introverted kids for parents and educators, I recommend Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, which includes tips for educators and a teacher’s guide.