Thursday, September 13, 2007

Embracing Our Quirks

There was a very interesting article in this week’s Newsweek, You and Your Quirky Kid by Lorraine Ali. The article talked about kids who were slightly out of step with the norm, and the pressures they and their parents can find themselves under to try to bring them within “normal” ranges. It touched something inside me, probably because as an introvert, I’m used to being looked at as if slightly odd when I opt out of loud social events that 75% of the population seems to love.

Frankly, I’m a little disturbed by this push for normalcy. The most troubling issue is who gets to decide what normal is, anyway? We’ve already discussed at length here on this blog that what’s normal for an introvert is markedly different than what’s normal for an extravert. According to many un-informed extraverts, all introverts are abnormal or socially backwards. Not!

As I read the article, I shuddered to think of all the creativity in science, mathematics, art, writing, music, that would have been missed if all great, unique minds had been pressured into normalcy.

The author talks about a boy who has bonded with a tricycle rather than the other kids, or the child who’d rather spend recess talking to the hamster rather than playing dress up with the others, or, my personal favorite, the kid who preferred the plumbing pipes and pushbroom to his peers. I’m willing to bet you dollars to donuts that each of those kids is an introvert, which we all know is not abnormal behavior, but rather very normal behavior indeed, if one is an introvert. In fact, their choices didn’t seem irrational at all to me, but perfectly understandable.

The truth is, we really are all odd in our own special way, and part of our social success is dependent upon us stumbling upon others who are odd in similar or complementary ways to our own.

I was also really struck by a quote of one of the experts interviewed for the article. Mary-Dean Barrringer of the All Kinds of Minds Institute had this to say about assigning labels. "We're absolutely appalled by this diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome," says Barringer. (Asperger's is a high-functioning form of autism, marked by obsessive interests and impaired social interaction.) "These are very highly specialized minds, and to put a syndrome on it and treat it as an aberration does damage to kids and families. There are still challenges there on how to manage it, but why not call it a highly specialized mind phenomenon rather than a disorder? That label alone shapes public perception about uniqueness and quirkiness."

As an introvert, that statement really reverberated with me. It spoke to all the mislabelling of my “quiet” behavior over the years. I think we introverts need to look at new labels for ourselves. I'm thinking perhaps we exhibit The Quiet Phenomenon, rather than shyness. What do you think?


Cindy said...

I quite like the Quiet Phenom--being with quiet people, for me, is so calming. I don't know if all introverts are anxious, but I have a ton of social type anxiety, and just to be with someone quiet calms me down.

Karen L. Simpson said...


I was so lucky to have a father who honored, loved and encouraged his introverted, pretty quirky, African American daughter. He would constantly tell my mother there was nothing wrong with me except that I was highly creative and that he wasn't going to let anyone kill the creativity that was inside me.In a prodominately white world where being introverted, quirky and African American is not welcomed and can get you in a whole lot of trouble with both black folks and white folks, my father was my champion.

Thank you so much for this blog it so needed.

Saints and Spinners said...

I think that what is important about diagnoses is not trying to fit kids into one norm, but identifying help where help is needed. My daughter has some developmental delays, and may yet be diagnosed somewhere on the austistic spectrum (note: she is very outgoing and social, but also spends time alone with her dollies), and the early intervention program she was in really helped her with speech and motor challenges. What I'm hoping for in the next years is not that she learns to be like everyone else but so that she can cope effectively with other people when they don't "get" her. I'd like her to learn to blend in, too, but on her own terms.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I think there is a spectrum of the amount of alone time vs. time with others that people need. Intervention isn't needed unless your position on the spectrum interferes with your health and happiness--which can also occur with people who find it impossible to be alone for a minute.

There's also a difference in quality of time around others. If I spend an afternoon in deep conversation with one person, I find that more rewarding than a big party where I only get to exchange a few words with dozens of people. Sometimes "introvert" is used to describe a person who likes to form fewer and deeper friendships rather than being adept at the big-crowd thing.

Finally, I don't think of shy or introverted as negative terms. To me they're descriptive, not judgmental.

Anonymous said...

When I was in second grade, my teacher told the principal I needed speech and a special reading class. Thank the Lord; the speech and reading teachers were intelligent enough to test before placing me in the programs. The problem that year was not my ability to read but my second grade teacher’s method of instruction – everything was oral. I was so mortified each time I had to read aloud that I tripped and stumbled. I remember gasping for breath as my turn got closer and closer, counting how many rows I had to go . . . And of course, under these conditions there was no way to comprehend. I went to five different elementary schools which didn’t help the situation. I think this is why I love teaching so much – I strive to individualize the needs of each student in my room. I'm not one to slap a label on a student just because they might be different than the majority. And I never humiliate my little introverted students. I encourage them to break out of their shell, but never humiliate them the way so many teachers did to me.

We introverts may be quiet, but man, we sure have a lot to say. (And when we do, look out!)

Kimberly Lynn

R.L. LaFevers said...

Lafreya, it sounds like your father was an AMAZING man! How lucky for you! Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We salute what a champion parent he was to you!

Akelda, I too agree that diagnoses that offer some helpful tools can be invaluable. One of my sons ended up working with a speech therapist, and it was hugely beneficial. I'm really glad your daughter has found a program that had so much to offer her. And I totally get that there are some behaviors that can greatly benefit from intervention.

Liquidambar - you make some excellent points. And I agree that shy or quiet aren't negative in and of themselves. Unfortunately, many times they are used in a judgmental manner.

Oh wow, Kimberly Lynn! What an amazing story of a poor introvert struggling to learn in such an extroverted environment!! Ouch! Individual learning styles are so key! For one of my sons, phonics was the key that opened the world of reading for him. He leapt forward four reading levels with phonics. My other son was a sight reader and phonics ended up being a bit of a set back for him. Forced him to "look under the hood" a bit and he faltered.

Your students are very lucky to have you working with their individual strengths!

Thank you all for your replies! It's very rewarding to have a "discussion" about these things.

Charlotte said...

I am so glad my 4 year old goes to a school where the teachers calmly let him sit or lie down all by himself in the corner of the playground without batting an eyelash about it! He's learning to do what he needs to do, and learning that it's just fine.

Casey G. said...

Thank you for this post. Trying to make everyone fall into a norm is awful. I'm so glad to see others are celebrating being quiet and/or quirky.

Terry P. said...

Hi Robin and Mary,

I was recently cleaning out a drawer and found a thank-you card from a parent of one of my former students. She thanked me for recognizing her son's uniqueness, nurturing him in the process of self-discover, and not forcing him into being someone he wasn't. I hadn't thought about it till now, but I'd bet that it's because I'm an introvert that I was able to recognize this in young children. I wonder what the percentage of teachers are I's vs. E's?

Mary Hershey said...

Yeah, I think we need to find some new language around this, too. Quiet Phenomenen is good! Or, Intermittently Silent Syndrome-- or Defenders of Quiet.

I'll keep chewing on this one!

Bkbuds said...

I didn't fit the norm and suffered not only torment in school but at home, where my highly extroverted, successful career Mom had not one ounce of sympathy, and was pretty loud about it.

Nor did my father -- himself bookish and introspective -- protect me from the jeers of four extroverted brothers, both older and younger. There was literally no place to hide.

It took until I was 34 and met my husband to coax me out of my jittery, self-loathing shell, but even he admits -- 10 years on -- he still stumbles over land mines in my scarred psyche.

We both had the good sense to put our introverted, quirky and highly imaginative son in a private school this year filled with kids like himself. Thank heavens!

Anonymous said...

Anne, I'm sorry about your suffering. Home should always be a child's refuge not another source of dismay. Glad your son has you looking out for him!

Kimberly Lynn

Sarah Stevenson said...

Intermittently Silent Syndrome...I like that. What a great discussion! I'd be curious, too, what proportion of teachers are introverts vs. extroverts. My mother is a teacher and VERY extroverted, but my husband, who is an art professor, is more on the introverted side (though he has a good "game face"), and so are most of his art-professor colleagues. I wonder if certain areas of teaching attract certain personality types...