Rais­ing an ex­tro­verted child in a world that loves in­tro­verts

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Mark Op­pen­heimer, the host of the “Un­ortho­dox” pod­cast, is writ­ing a book about the Squir­rel Hill neigh­bor­hood in the af­ter­math of Pitts­burgh’s mass shoot­ing.

Last month, my wife told our 5-yearold daugh­ter, Anna, that be­cause we’d be out of town on an up­com­ing week­end, Anna would have to de­cline an in­vi­ta­tion she’d got­ten. It was a birth­day party for a boy I’ll call Ben. “Oh, can’t we please stay home?” Anna im­plored. “I re­ally want to go to Ben’s party.”

“But Anna,” my wife said, “you don’t like Ben.”

Anna looked at her, per­plexed. “That’s true,” she said. “But I like par­ties!”

Such are the tra­vails of rais­ing an ex­tro­vert. For Anna, there is no such thing as a bad party. No night can drag on too long; no guest can over­stay her wel­come. Peo­ple, she be­lieves, are born to be together. For her, if soli­tude is not quite a vice, it is at best an in­ex­pli­ca­ble lapse in taste.

How ex­treme is Anna’s ex­tro­ver­sion? One day, she wouldn’t leave kin­der­garten un­til she had said good­bye to, and hugged, ev­ery child in the room. Be­cause most kids her age don’t take tele­phone calls, she likes to call my best friend since child­hood, now a man of 45, on the phone. She can never con­nect enough.

In the 15 years since Jonathan Rauch wrote his in­flu­en­tial es­say “Car­ing for Your In­tro­vert,” pro-in­tro­vert dogma has been preached in scores of ar­ti­cles, tele­vi­sion news seg­ments and books, in­clud­ing “The In­tro­verted Leader,” “The In­tro­vert Ad­van­tage” and Su­san Cain’s 2012 mega-seller, “Quiet: The Power of In­tro­verts in a World That Can’t Stop Talk­ing.” We have all been in­structed that in­tro­verts are special, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated and, to quote Rauch, “wildly” mis­un­der­stood.

I don’t dis­sent, en­tirely. I love in­tro­verts. My wife is one. Our house is the seat of a mixed mar­riage. Very much Anna’s fa­ther, I like it when re­li­gious mis­sion­ar­ies or po­lit­i­cal can­vassers ring my door­bell. I may not join their church or fund their cause, but I will al­ways give them a half-hour of front-stoop con­ver­sa­tion. Then there’s my wife, who de­clines to an­swer the phone, not out of fear that it might be a robo­call but be­cause it might be a per­son.

To her credit, my wife, whose per­fect New Year’s Eve can be summed up as hot choco­late, a novel and lights out at 10, has taught me to bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate Anna’s older sis­ter, our 8-year-old, who sur­vives any large so­cial gath­er­ing by find­ing a quiet cor­ner in which to reread Al­cott or Rowl­ing, or by mak­ing one friend to pull aside for pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion. Once upon a time, I might have in­sisted that Klara join the party. I now know bet­ter, and I mar­vel at how well she copes with a world that al­ways seems too loud and too close.

Nev­er­the­less, there is def­i­nitely some­thing self-serv­ing, bril­liantly so, in the mil­i­tant in­tro­verts’ ar­gu­ment that they are su­pe­rior — calmer, more pa­tient, more com­pas­sion­ate — yet al­ways vul­ner­a­ble. They are both special and es­pe­cially op­pressed. They have unique wis­dom but also need unique care.

Se­ri­ously? Is it the in­tro­verts whom par­ents have to worry about? They seem de­signed to dodge dan­ger, what with all that keep­ing their heads down, do­ing their work, avoid­ing poi­sonous high school gos­sip. Last time I checked, li­brary cards and iso­lated cor­ners of pub­lic parks were still free. Dear in­tro­verted friends: I’m sorry that your sopho­more English teacher marked you down for not rais­ing your hand, but surely a life free of bar fights and flash mobs is some com­pen­sa­tion. #Self­care is the mantra of our age. You’ll be fine.

By con­trast, con­sider the plight of the ex­tro­vert snowed in dur­ing school va­ca­tion, with no friends to or­ga­nize and boss around. Christ­mas week is tough for Anna; with­out four sib­lings, she’d be lost. And what will happen when the day comes and I have to tell her that, given our lim­ited bud­get and large fam­ily, she might want to con­sider a small, in­ti­mate wed­ding?

The world can be un­kind to chil­dren who en­joy con­nect­ing. We’re all on guard, and for chil­dren to refuse to be­lieve in “stranger dan­ger” is par­tic­u­larly sus­pect. An­ti­so­cial is the new so­cial. One time, three sum­mers ago, Anna and I en­tered a mostly empty play­ground on a sum­mer morn­ing. Be­fore running to the swings, she no­ticed an old woman sit­ting on a bench, alone, blink­ing slowly into the sun­light. Anna walked over. “I’m Anna,” she said. “What’s your name?” The woman re­fused to an­swer, in­stead beck­on­ing to me. “Good morn­ing,” I said.

“You bet­ter tell your lit­tle girl not to talk to peo­ple,” she said sourly, then made a show of turn­ing away.

That woman meant well, I think. We live in sus­pi­cious times, and she feared what might happen to a child — a girl — who re­fused to obey the new con­ven­tions of dis­tance, cau­tion, un­friend­li­ness.

Me, I worry that af­ter an­other en­counter like that one, Anna will simply give up on talk­ing to old peo­ple in parks. Which would be a shame. Right now, she’s at an age when it’s rel­a­tively easy to be ex­u­ber­ant, but as chil­dren — es­pe­cially girls — get older, there is pres­sure to be more re­served, more “poised.” True, as in­tro­verts age, they are pres­sured to speak up, which can be hard for them; but as ex­tro­verts grow up, they are some­times ex­pected to mod­u­late, to pipe down, to shrink them­selves. As the newly elected Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez learned, a young con­gress­woman can be mocked for hav­ing once danced on video in col­lege. How un­la­dy­like.

I hope Anna never stops talk­ing to strangers or danc­ing. I prob­a­bly don’t have to worry. I re­mem­ber an­other time, a sum­mer later, when we ar­rived at the per­fect spot on a crowded New Jer­sey beach. I pitched our um­brella, opened up the fold­ing chairs and asked Anna if she wanted to go in for a swim.

“Not yet,” she said. “First I have to go meet peo­ple.” She walked to the um­brella next to ours, got in the face of a beer-bel­lied man in sun­glasses read­ing a Michael Con­nelly thriller and said, “Hi, I’m Anna!”

Jour­nal­ist Mark Op­pen­heimer on rear­ing a daugh­ter who wants to chat all night and be­friend ev­ery stranger


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