Little Lessons about Introversion

18 08 2010

Today the light bulb went off and I taught myself a little lesson about seeing the world through my kid’s eyes. I think we, as parents, really do take for granted our towering wisdom over 7 year olds, forgetting that although their experiences may seem quite simple in comparison to our own, they’re deceptively complex in reality. Meeting new people, being the new kid, learning to socialize with others is a daunting task for a kid (or a grown-up) and unless we’re reminded, we tend to overlook the challenges and gloss over them with our bland advice.

Today, my kid did better at it than I did. Now, if you saw me in public around a group of people, it’d probably be hard to peg me as an introvert. This has more to do with the fact that I’m a pretty good actor than a natural feeling of comfort. I’ve taught myself the Art of Surviving the Schmoozefest by training myself to follow a few simple rules:

  • Don’t stare at the floor.
  • Don’t cross your arms.
  • Look people in the eye.
  • Have a firm handshake.
  • Don’t show fear. Be a bit of a Klingon. Or a German. Either way, you’re good.
  • Speak clearly and very slightly louder and slower than normal.
  • Smile and nod.
  • Listen and react to what other people say.
  • Ask questions about them.
  • Don’t talk about yourself too much.

Well, today, my daughter had her orientation at her new school. She’s in a class where all of the kids and all of the parents know each other and, in fact, it was immediately very cliquish and pretty scary. For me, that is. My daughter mostly seemed pretty calm about the whole affair and was more interested in her new school supplies and the layout of the room (and especially the frogs in the aquarium) than the other kids. Slowly, people would come up to introduce themselves to both of us and offer to show my kid around to the other girls.

Now, aside from the tacit lesson that there’s a parentally-approved girls’ clique and a boys’ clique, this was actually quite welcome because there’s no way, just no way at all, that my kid would introduce herself. She very rarely does that. Whens she does, it doesn’t always work out well, because at this age not every kid is very aware of her own body language or the volume of her voice. My daughter tends to speak too quietly. She never offers her hand. If she’s understood at all, she’s prone to making fairly off-the-wall comments very early on in the conversation. The kind of comments that take a serious commitment to bridging the semantic gap or the conversation is probably doomed. Often, girls her age don’t know how to react to someone speaking to them unless it’s framed via an introduction so they react with little more than a blank stare. What I’m saying is that the pitfalls are myriad. In other words, kids this age normally need a little help getting started, but once they get moving, they generally do okay and so introductions are nice.

Once introduced, the kids seemed to make out fine together, albeit still somewhat reserved. I found myself, however, having tremendous difficulties the entire time. I’d watch my daughter and could easily critique the mistakes in her body language, but I tended to lose sight of my own mistakes. It was really eye-opening, then, when half-way through the orientation I realized how she must be feeling right now.  If an “old pro” like me was having a hard time remembering all of my little rules, it was really incredible that she had managed to remember most of them herself. Whereas I was going to give her more tips after the meeting, I just decided to congratulate her instead. She smiled. She knew she did pretty great even though she was really nervous.

See, I don’t have to go back and deal with these parents anytime soon. The awkward things I said-because I lack an internal editor in these situations-won’t affect me at all because I’m not going to be hanging out with these people day in and out regardless. Nonetheless, I was incredibly intimidated by the whole thing. Every insecurity I had bubbled up and it was a constant struggle to keep those under wraps. My daughter, on the other hand, for whom the stakes were real and where these first impressions matter, did a superior job. No, it wasn’t perfect, but had I not recognized my own discomfort as being only a fraction of what she must be going through, I would never have realized how well she really was doing.

This was an important lesson to have and one I will have to keep in mind in the days ahead as she continues to adjust to the new school year. It’s helpful to realize our own limitations as parents and recognize that we have sometimes disguised our weaknesses as strengths. We’re not always as wise as we think we are and that “wisdom” can sometimes be a barrier to understanding and to communicating. But mostly, we really need to try to see the world through their eyes.  Not just think we understand, but really see.