Every nerve in my body wanted to intervene, to tell her not to bother the older girls and call her back to my side. I have been a socially awkward introvert since time immemorial. Years of being picked last and left off invitation lists have given me an instinctive fear of any sort of social vulnerability. As I watched my openhearted daughter ask to be included, no part of my gut could believe the moment would end well.
As we waited for the girls’ answer, I developed a new and intense parenting worry: What if my history of interpersonal ineptitude means I can’t teach her the rules of the social road? What if she ends up like me? So I started to research. I read books, talked to other socially shaky parents, and canvassed social media in search of statistics and stories that could help me figure out what is coming and how to grapple with it.
The first thing to note is that there are lots of ways to be outside the social mainstream:
⋅ Awkwardness, which can include a tendency to miss social cues and to focus on details over the bigger picture, as social scientist Ty Tashiro explains in his book “Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome.”
⋅ Introversion, which generally involves a distaste for small talk and the need for plenty of time alone.
⋅ Shyness or social anxiety, which can make folks avoid socializing altogether out of an intense fear of being judged.
What all of these personality traits have in common is a certain tension with a society that generally values the outspoken, the confident and the gregarious. For parents whose styles fall outside that supposed ideal, the prospect of teaching a tiny person how to thrive within it can be daunting.
I, for one, imagine with trepidation a day when my daughter asks me why a classmate ignored her at lunch or how to make friends at camp, and I have no useful answers. I am not alone in this fear. There are more than 63 million parents of children younger than 18 in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even if only a small percentage consider themselves awkward, introverted, socially anxious, shy or some combination of those, I am in vast company.
Colin O’Brien, a project manager from Pittsburgh, worries about his 7-year-old son, whom he describes as somewhat awkward and shy, much like O’Brien himself was as a child. He wants to make sure his son doesn’t have to face the same feelings of isolation and self-consciousness he experienced. “I want him to connect with another human being and feel like someone outside of his family likes him and cares about him and thinks he’s important,” O’Brien told me.
Thankfully, my digging suggests there is reason for even the most socially out-of-step to feel optimistic for their children. Like so much involving personality, awkwardness, introversion and anxiety are all determined by a complex blend of nature and nurture. Studies cited by Tashiro, for example, conclude that awkwardness in girls is just 39 percent heritable (for boys the number is 52 percent). Introversion is considered about 40 to 50 percent genetic. So my daughter is not necessarily destined to inherit my social difficulties.
Then what about the nurture part? Turns out even the socially unsteady probably have more to offer our kids than we might fear. Many awkward people move through life feeling like everyone else was given an instruction manual outlining social rules, Tashiro writes. But over the decades, we have still figured out how to meet basic social expectations most of the time, even if the process was a little more challenging and circuitous.
“You have a manual, and my guess is that that manual’s pretty good,” Tashiro assured me during a phone conversation. “Awkward parents can take heart in knowing they’ve actually figured out a lot of things.”
Tashiro also pointed to research that suggests that being kind, fair and loyal has a powerful effect on a person’s likability and social satisfaction. And, conveniently, these values are ones that can be instilled even by parents who get nervous at the idea of attending a cocktail party.
“Those are the three qualities that are going to lead them to happy, healthy, gratifying relationships that will sum up to a great social life,” Tashiro told me. “It’s really the character that matters.”
The more people I talked to, the more I became convinced that the fact we’re having these conversations at all is a good sign for our kids. So many self-described awkward or introverted parents have told me they grew up feeling deeply flawed because there was so little general understanding of their personality traits.
Over the past decade or so, however, cultural attitudes have been shifting. Dozens of articles have explored and exploded negative stereotypes about introverts. In 2012, Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” became a bestseller. Tashiro’s book approaches social awkwardness with the same lens of understanding and acceptance:
"For many parents, these changes have provided a powerful and positive way to discuss social personalities with their kids. Until well into her 20s, Nicole Perry Brown, a medical copy editor from the Memphis area, felt like her introversion was a flaw that needed to be fixed. Now, however, she understands more about the concept and strives to teach her 6-year-old son to think of his temperament as different, not wrong.
“This is just who he is and it is every bit as valid as his sister wanting to befriend everyone in the grocery store,” Perry Brown said.
Almost everyone I talked to, in fact, placed that same emphasis on empathy and authenticity, on helping your child embrace who they are. The ongoing challenge for me will be working to keep my anxieties in check as my daughter embarks on becoming that person she is going to be, socially and otherwise.
But I’m on my way. That day on the playground, as we waited for the older girls’ verdict, I stood tense and quiet, letting the moment unfold without interference. And I was rewarded for my discipline. The girls said yes, and my daughter spent a joyous half-hour with her new friends, running and giggling, hiding and seeking.
Sarah Shemkus is a writer and mother based in Gloucester, Mass. Find her on Twitter @Shemkus.