The Contradiction of Acceptance and Encouraging Growth

Hello Priscilla,

My son is 4.5 y.o. gentle, observant, introverted boy who loves to do things by himself. He can spend hours by himself perfecting his project, or perfecting his cutting skills with scissors, or writing skills, you name it. As a parent, I have come to accept his demeanor with love and encouragement—I no longer push him to “Go play with friends” and I patiently take his cue if he needs to go home because “Friends make me tired.” He is not shy by any means—when an adult gain his trust, he would talk to no end about things that interest him. My acceptance is thanks to Susan Cain’s book Quiet and her podcasts (which I recently discovered).

Recently, his school teachers brought up to us that he has shown no inclination to join group activities either in class or during recess (duh!), and has since developed low-level anxiety even at the mention that a friend is going to join his solitary play.

I consider the school to be quite supportive—in fact, this school is “known” for parents with introverted children, for whatever reason, as they value individual work (as evident from my son’s work, which he pursues for months). It is a private school with high student:teacher ratio, supportive parents and administrators, and it’s mid-sized (the whole school is not too large, population-wise). Yet, I feel all the signs and “red flags” that the teachers mentioned can be explained by his introversion.

The teachers have since recommended that we see a children’s specialist group (therapist or occupational therapist) so my son won’t further develop anxiety while among peers. I wonder where I can find the balance between advocating for my child, versus heeding advice of his teachers (who also have his best interest at heart and a lot more experience than I do, considering my son is an only child). I know there is absolutely nothing wrong with my son—given time, he will bloom to his fullest potential—yet if the anxiety is real in school (which I cannot observe), I don’t want him to suffer through it when there is help available.

Any insight would be appreciated, many thanks in advance for your help.


Accept or Change

Dear Accept or Change,

First, let me say that you are a truly wonderful mother! You are profoundly respectful and appreciative of your son’s uniqueness but not blind to potential areas of challenge or closed off to input from others. What a lucky little boy your son is.

I have a friend and ally in the parenting world named Ellen Galinsky; we met after she reviewed my parenting memoir for the Huffington Post. I shared your letter with Ellen, who is one of the wisest women on the planet about parenting in the younger years, and she was so moved that she wrote you a long (and I think extremely helpful) letter! Here’s Ellen, speaking directly to you:

Accept or Change, you are a remarkable mother. You are able to understand your son for “the gentle, observant, introverted boy” he is. That is no small feat because you are able to put aside any expectations you might have had for the child you wished for. This is a learning process that ALL parents go through: reconciling the child we imagine with the child we have.

Secondly, you can understand your son’s teachers perspective, recognizing that they have your son’s “best interests at heart” and have more experience with children than you do. It would be so easy to criticize or blame them for not appreciating your son but you are able to step beyond that.

And then you take your own perspective into account. You see the red flags in the suggestion that your son see a child specialist, but you can move beyond an emotional reaction and seek to find the right balance between advocating for your son and heeding the advice of his teachers.

Think about the skill that all of this takes! In order to take these multiple perspectives, you have to inhibit your own thoughts and feelings to step into your son’s shoes and the teachers’ shoes and think and feel as they do. Then you have to be flexible and combine this deep understanding of others with your own response. I call this Perspective Taking, and it is truly an essential Life Skill.

In addressing this issue, I suggest that you promote another essential Life Skill to your son—Taking on Challenges.

To begin—before seeing a child specialist—I would suggest you talk with your son’s teachers and together select one thing that you want your son to become more comfortable in doing at school, ideally an activity he really likes. I would then ask the teachers to hold off on any other pressures. Your son should be permitted to handle the other group activities as he usually does and he should be able to play alone at recess. In fact, the teachers should tell the other children that some children like to play in groups and some like to play alone and that is okay. Your son’s classmates will be better off if they learn now to “respect” the way your son and each child in the group like to play.

Once you have selected the one group activity to work on, you can tell your son that you know that he is beginning to worry about school and you and the teachers have a plan to help him feel more comfortable. You are going to help him join one group activity—only one—in the way he would like to join it. Ask for all of his ideas on how he would like to approach this. Perhaps it is sitting on the edge of the group at first. Perhaps it is holding a comfort toy with him. Perhaps it is not speaking at first but sharing his ideas with a teacher later. Write down all of HIS OWN ideas and have him select one or two to try.

Tell your son that you are helping him learn an important Life Skill, and that trying to do something new is a little hard and you and the teachers are there to support him in learning.

After he has tried his approach a few times, talk with him about how it is working. Check in with the teachers too. If it isn’t working so well, have him think of other ways he could learn to join the activity you selected, or perhaps a different activity. Keep trying until he comes up with a plan that works for him.

Little by little you will be helping him find his own “gentle, observant, introverted” way of being himself and yet participating in school. More than that, you will be promoting a Life Skill that will stand him in good stead for the rest of his life!

Accept or Change, it’s Priscilla again. I heartily concur with everything Ellen recommends, and I want to affirm again how very fortunate your little boy is to have such a thoughtful, open-minded, patient, and devoted mother. I have absolutely no doubt that your dear little boy’s ability to work happily and for long hours alone (a great gift!), his gentleness, meticulousness, and deep passion for things that interest him will serve him well in whatever he chooses to do with his life, and that under your loving guidance, he will bloom and flourish.

Ellen Galinsky is the Chief Science Officer at the Bezos Family Foundation and the author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. Her website has lots of suggestions for promoting these skills, including Prescriptions for Learning, where you can ask questions as a parent and see experts’ responses.

Do you have a question for parenting and education expert Priscilla Gilman? Email her at [email protected].