Before I could grab him. That’s how many of my stories begin. On this particular afternoon, my son had broken away from me in the grocery store and rushed into the produce section. He smiled and cozied up to a middle-aged woman eyeing the root vegetables. “Here you go,” he said as his little hand reached up and passed her a bundle of carrots. “These are yummy.”
One might pass this off as the shenanigans of a precocious 3-year-old, but I have long suspected something else. At 6 months old, he spent the entirety of his first flight charming the attendants and surrounding travelers. At 8 months old, he was dubbed “Ralph Lauren baby” at day care, thanks to his penchant for posing for adults who gave him attention. And at 3 years old, he has no trouble approaching a child twice his age at the park, holding a conversation with his pediatrician or suggesting dietary staples to a woman in the produce section.
My son is, I fear, an extrovert.
My trepidation isn’t because of my kid’s personality traits: I’m routinely teary-eyed (in a good way) at his natural confidence and ability to connect with people. The fear comes instead from the fact that I can’t relate. Sure, my job as a writer involves talking to people and making business connections, but striking up a conversation with a stranger or walking into a new situation without hesitation? Not part of my skill set. As an introverted mom raising a very outgoing boy, I wonder how I can encourage and help him to become the best version of himself. What does my little extrovert need from me? I spoke with Judy Willis, a California-based neurologist-turned-educator, to better understand my son and learn how to support him. Here are her suggestions.
Understand their motivations. It’s easy to label an extroverted child without understanding the full picture (e.g., “he’s hyper” or “she’s a handful”), but for one who embodies that particular brand of wild — eager to interact but not physically aggressive or destructive — his motivations are not oppositional. According to Willis, it all comes down to brain chemistry. “Dopamine is a brain chemical that when it’s released, the owner experiences satisfaction, pleasure, motivation and drive to keep going,” she says. In all children, this catalyst of happiness can make exploring their world and socializing with others literally irresistible. And while Willis emphasizes that the scientific studies are still in the early stages, there’s evidence suggesting that “the dopamine response in extroverts seems to be more robust.” Those robust responses often come out in ways that are mistaken for attention disorders or “bad” behavior.
It’s not punishment an extrovert needs, Willis tells me, it’s accommodation. After leaving her medical practice and becoming a teacher, she used her knowledge to help her extroverted students channel their energy, something she says parents can also do to make for a more functional and peaceful home. “If [an extroverted] kid is running around and doing things that seem oppositional, it’s actually their brain doing what it was programmed to do,” she says. Encouraging focus usually means allowing outgoing kids more physical freedom to choose where they do their homework, for example, or how they communicate ideas. “Once a child is de-stressed because they aren’t confined, they can build skills and passions and the rewards that come with development, whether it’s building their talents or playing with others.”
Define the rules (and choices). Accommodation sounds like a slippery slope. What happens when my son gets wise to my research, liberates the indoor cat and tells me the dopamine made him do it? Willis points out that extroversion doesn’t necessarily imply confidence, and enforcing the rules is especially crucial for kids who perhaps don’t have a firm grasp on their physical and emotional limits. “Later in life, there’s a strong association between enforced rules and lower anxiety levels, higher confidence, and better sleeping and eating habits.”
Extroverts thrive on participation, and as Willis mentioned, finding the balance for them is usually as simple as providing more choices. Allowing them ownership of certain daily tasks can temper the fight against the feeling of being caged in that extroverts avoid. The reason? Making a choice produces dopamine in itself, the same pleasure chemical that bold offspring might use to otherwise behave outside of the rules. That allows them to get their fix while respecting the boundaries set by Mom and Dad. “Anything can be a choice,” Willis says, whether it’s deciding what book to read before bedtime to smooth the path to sleep, participating in meal planning and cooking to encourage dinnertime excitement or putting a personal spin on completing their chores. “Rules are great for social kids, but rules should also include their curiosity,” she says.
Be yourself. I watch my son on any given day and think, “I’ve never been that awake in my life.” He exudes energy, and keeping up with him while working full time is, well, exhausting. Even so, I worry that I should be doing more to accommodate his personality. He sees his friends during the week at school, but should we join a weekend playgroup? He’s learning Spanish and playing soccer, but maybe we’ll sign up for rock climbing. Or sign language classes. Or basket-weaving. Or camping. Ugh, I hate camping, but he’ll have fun. And so on …
Willis reassures me that there are plenty of introverted parents asking themselves the same questions, and we aren’t required to change the fabric of our beings to raise well-adjusted kids. In fact, hanging around lower-wattage adults is healthy for them. “There’s no need to worry about repressing their extroversion,” she says. “It’s actually the opposite. Parents should worry that the only time their extroverted child is going to be happy is in playgroups. Eventually, if kids only get their dopamine rush from interacting with others, that’s very limiting for them.”
So, what are the other things that boost dopamine? They include reading books, listening to music, learning new skills such as playing an instrument, creating art — and, mercifully, solo projects. “For the kid who is already programmed by their dopamine rewards to be extroverted, it’s really nice for them to see other ways to get that same feeling,” Willis says. “You won’t break them; you’ll just give them more choice in their lives by being yourself.”
And in that reassurance, we can all rest easy.
Sarah Szczypinski is a journalist living in Seattle. Find her on Twitter @SarahSz23.