What's Tony Thinking

The Care and Feeding of Introverts


A three-year-old of my acquaintance had a birthday recently. 

She was terribly excited about her upcoming party. She helped Mom make up the guest list. She assisted in the preparation of birthday cupcakes and party decorations. 

She especially looked forward to all her guests coming with brightly wrapped packages — “birthday presents!” — she said, eyes alight with joy.

As with many of these things, the anticipation is half the fun.

When the day came and the party was in full swing, the soon-to-be three-year-old told her parents she wanted to watch a movie. 

At that critical moment her parents might have been upset with their birthday girl. They might have asked her how she could possibly want to watch a movie when all her guests were there and playing outside. “You should join them.” “You should be with your guests.” They might have said.

But they didn’t. 

They understood that their daughter needed a little “time-out,” not because she had misbehaved. But because that’s the way she is wired. 

So the birthday girl curled up on the couch in the living room with her grandfather and watched “Cinderella” for a time. Outside her guests cavorted in the bouncy house. 

After a time, the celebrant was ready to turn off the movie and rejoin the fray, I mean, party. 

Watching all this, I was awestruck and grateful that her Mom didn’t make a big deal out of her daughter’s need for a break. She didn’t say anything that would have suggested her daughter should be ashamed of herself for her choice or for needing time alone. 

Whether this little girl, who is a bit shy, will grow up to be something of an introvert remains to be seen. But I was impressed, moved really, by how it was handled. No big deal. No pressure. No guilt-tripping. No shame. 

This post is titled, “The Care and Feeding of Introverts,” but it could apply to anyone who is different in some way. 

And this post also is about shame. It can be devastating to a child to be shamed by a parent or another powerful adult. How grateful I was that this story unfolded differently.

I think it is Brene Brown who distinguishes “shame” from “guilt” in the following way: “Guilt is feeling bad about something you have done; shame is feeling bad about who you are.” 

There is a time and a place for guilt. We all screw up. We need to own it, repair it as best we can and try to do better next time. But to take the next step and shame a child, while a very tempting power move for a parent, is harmful. And wrong. 

Some of us, myself included, are on the introvert side of the equation. We need time alone. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. We’re just different.

And of course there are lots of other ways that people, and children, are different. Some very active. Others less so. Some love sports. Some could care less. Some thrive in the out-of-doors; others are home bodies. Some are chatterboxes, some quieter. 

Different is not wrong, not bad. 

There’s a time and place for recognizing that we’ve done something wrong (guilt). But there’s no time or place for telling a child, or really anyone, that who are in their being or essence is bad or wrong or a mistake (shame). 

So, here’s to all the wise parents who know the difference, and to the particular parents who took their birthday girl’s need for a time out in stride. 

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