My first child was NOT a social baby. I remember bravely taking her to the new mums group run by my local Maternal & Child Health Nurse in a beautiful little weatherboard cottage in a small town in country Victoria. I was exhausted and lonely and desperate to make some friends in the area. We were a small group but all the other babies seemed to be either contentedly sleeping or smiling and gurgling at anyone who looked their way. My child, on the other hand, was generally somewhere between grizzling and out-and-out squawking, particularly if someone dared to touch or even look at her! So I’d stand up and do the ‘mumma jiggle’ which seemed to help a little but before long I’d have to head outside and walk her up and down the tree-lined street. The moment we were away from the group she would relax and calm, often giving me the cutest little smiles… so I’d head back inside ready to have that conversation that would be the start of a desperately needed friendship. But as soon as we were with people, the grizzling would begin again. Sigh…
I persisted in attending (totally for my sake) and these women, dotted in various country towns in the region, became my lifeline and we continued to meet every week as our babies grew into toddlers and then preschoolers. My first-born did get more comfortable with the group - kids and parents alike - but she remained the ‘quiet one’. Often she would be sitting on my lap or holding onto my leg, even when all the other kids would come in the door and immediately run off to play.
I learned pretty quickly that the more I ‘encouraged’ her to run off and play, or talk to another adult, the more she’d resist and retreat into her shell.
Of course, even though it seemed like it to me at the time, my first-born was not the only quiet child in the world. There are many, many babies, toddlers and kids who prefer gentle interactions and the safety and security of their mumma’s presence. Indeed, there are many, many adults who are drawn to small, intimate gatherings over big, loud parties or a solo run in nature rather than a fun run event with tens of thousands of people.
There are parts of our personality that we are born with and that will always be part of our identity. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn to adapt and manage situations. It wouldn’t be appropriate for an adult to walk into a meeting and hide behind a chair for the first 10 minutes. And most grown ups can’t take their mum to order for them each time they go to a cafe.
But there is PLENTY of time for little people to learn these skills. And what I’ve learned through my own parenting, lots of reading and watching all the little people I am privileged enough to see each week in music classes, is that kids will blossom in their own time IF they are allowed to do it on their own schedule and in their own way.
So what can you do to support your quiet child? To make them feel loved and valued for who they are? But to also gently guide them into developing the skills they will need to live in our loud world?
Here are a few things I think are worth considering:
Don’t apologise for their personality. Saying, “Sorry - he’s really shy” will just teach your child that there is something wrong with him or her. Instead, be on their team - take the lead when you sense they need more time to become independent (this might take 10 minutes or ten months - try to be patient!)
Don’t try to force them to do anything they are uncomfortable with e.g. “Give Uncle Ben a kiss goodbye.” Firstly, it’s very rarely successful and they’ll often end up withdrawing even further. And secondly, it teaches them to doubt their intuition and allow other people to make decisions about their own body and life. PS In the lead up to Christmas, you might want to think really hard about who that photo with Santa is for and what message you’re giving your quiet child if you force them to sit on a strange old man’s lap and accept a lolly from him. Eek!
Give your little person the opportunity to say or do something on their own but don’t let it become uncomfortable. If someone asks them a question, leave a space for them… but then jump in and answer so that the silence doesn’t become awkward.
Preparation can help a lot! If your child needs to make a decision and communicate it in a social situation, try chatting about their decision on your way so that they can just focus on announcing their decision e.g. on your walk to your regular cafe, tell them that you’re planning to have a cup of tea and a muffin and ask them what they think they might like today (and that way, you are prepared to speak their choice for them if they need your help without a whispered conversation that can feel pressured and hard to decipher).
And finally, try not to make a big deal when they DO manage something new on their own. When they eventually leave your leg and join a little friend in the sandpit at playgroup or answer a question during story time at the library or place their own order at a cafe, you might be tempted to give them a standing ovation, a ticker tape parade or say ‘Wow - that was so brave’. But really, a warm smile with a twinkle in your eye is all that is needed to convey to your little one that you understand, accept and love their quietness.
We live in a world that overwhelmingly values and rewards the ‘loud’. But don’t forget there are lots of great things about being quiet:
A quiet person will often think carefully before they act and avoid the pitfalls of rushing in.
They observe, listen and learn all sorts of things other children might miss.
Quiet kids enjoy simple, intimate activities and events. Often hanging out in your own backyard is preferred to sinking a ton of money on tickets for some big event!
Being ‘quiet’ is protective. Your child is unlikely to run off in a big crowd. And they certainly won’t go off with someone they don’t feel comfortable with.
And what’s happened to my first-born? Is she still hiding behind my leg? No way… she’s grown into a confident and brave young woman who grabs life with two hands. But she blossomed in her own time and on her own terms.
If you have a ‘quiet’ child or YOU are a ‘quiet’ person, you might like to read more in Susan Cain’s book, ‘Quiet’. It will help you understand the introverts in your life and help you celebrate their beautiful qualities. I highly recommend it!