Q: My son, a fifth-grader, is a sensitive, thoughtful kid who gets along with just about everyone but has no best friends. We used to do after-school play dates, but we have largely stopped them because when I ask whether he wants to have a friend over, he routinely says no. His preferred after-school activity is to read for a few hours. I am worried that he is missing out on bonding with his peers. I, too, am an introvert, so I also worry that I am adversely influencing him because I am all too happy not to have to actively arrange his social life. Should I step up my efforts and invite friends over? My son usually has a very good time one-on-one with people, although it wears him out. He is involved in some activities, so he interacts with peers elsewhere.
A: I am frequently asked about sensitive and thoughtful children. Parents, it seems, worry that these children are not being “socialized,” and they feel guilty as a result. The parents who seem to have the most guilt are the ones who tend to be sensitive and thoughtful themselves. That’s because introversion has only recently been recognized as an acceptable and even normal temperament (thanks to the work of Susan Cain, among others). Many introverted parents were raised thinking they needed to get out there and make more friends.
It’s rare to find adults in their 30s or 40s who were raised as accepted introverts. Most of them have endless stories of feeling pressured or being bullied into an extroverted lifestyle. And even though they were miserable growing up, they will often raise their own introverted children this way. It doesn’t sit well in their hearts, but introverted parents often give in to the social pressures that dominate our culture and push their children to be the perfect American go-getter.
On the other hand, I hear you. Learning how to get along with and be around others is an important life skill. Even in our increasingly digital and remote world, we want our kids to be able to work in groups and communicate with a variety of people. Watching your child sit quietly at home understandably evokes worry that he will be left behind socially, academically and even romantically. I would agree with the validity of these worries if your child were suffering mightily in school and refusing outside activities. But from your note, it sounds as if your son is engaged in school and otherwise. Although our culture appears to value deep friendships, many people have only one or two good friends throughout their lifetime, with many acquaintances. So when you mention that he “gets along with just about everyone” and that “he is involved in some activities,” I don’t worry.
Your key question is whether you should invite your son’s friends over.
I say no.
If he doesn’t want the friends to come over, you don’t want to arrange it and he is functioning well in his life, there is no need to make both of you miserable. It sends the message that your son isn’t good enough and that we should go against our nature to fit in with what we think the world wants. Although forcing an introvert to become an extrovert is a tale as old as time, it often leads to depression and anxiety.
If you begin to feel as if your son is spending too much time alone, look into programs such as Writopia Lab, where children who love to read and write can spend time together, working on an assortment of projects. These classes are communal and quiet, fulfilling the needs of introverts quite nicely. You could also plan a monthly activity for him, such as inviting one friend over for pizza and a movie on a Friday night. In fact, you could venture out of your own comfort zone and have some friends over, too. Nothing dramatic or fancy, just a simple get-together.
Finally, although this may not be an issue, research has shown that children who spend a tremendous amount of time alone and playing video games can quickly begin to exhibit addictive behaviors. Because games — especially online multiplayer ones — affect the reward centers of the brain and make it feel “connected” to others, many parents have a hard time helping these children interact with the real world. I am not saying that introverted children always become addicted to screens; it is just something to keep in mind as your son gets older and screens become a bigger part of his world.
For more information about introversion and children, read “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids” by Susan Cain. To learn more about screens and children, read “i-Minds” by Mari Swingle. And no matter what, remember that the world needs thoughtful, sensitive children to grow into thoughtful, sensitive adults. As long as you keep exposing your son to the world and having interesting conversations with him, he will grow into the man he is meant to be. Be confident (in an introverted kind of way). Good luck.