The most fun my son has ever had at a birthday party was while he was holding my wife’s hand. Felix was 5 years old at the time, and the birthday girl was having her party at a gym space for kids. We arrived late, walking into what struck me as a bubblegum version of hell. Every inch of the large room lay covered in plush rainbow-colored foam, while songs from Frozen blared over a loudspeaker and a gaggle of little kids hooted and hollered and shimmied in a far corner. Aside from the birthday girl and her older sister, my son didn’t know any of the other guests, and my wife and I only knew the girls’ parents. For a moment, we all remained by the door, overwhelmed.
After we said our hellos to the hosts, Felix stood on the periphery, watching. Two young women were leading the kids in a slow walk across a balance beam. Everyone tip-toed step by step with their hands out wide for support, smiles on their faces. When one fell off, the whole line would erupt in giggles.
My wife got down on her knee. “You ready to play?” she asked.
“With you, mom,” Felix said. “You come too.”
We had been nervous about bringing Felix to the party. Since becoming mobile, my son has struggled to fit within social groups, especially when there’s no structured activity to guide him. When his peers ran around willy-nilly with balloons or balls, my son would inevitably take it too far. He’d bump into tots so hard, he’d knock them to the ground. Instead of play-hitting, he’d really smack someone in the face. Or he’d disrupt some game in progress, prompting cries of, “He’s messing everything up!” or “He doesn’t play nice!”
I’d eventually lose my patience and pull him aside, my inner disciplinarian aroused. “Why aren’t you using your words? Why aren’t you playing nicely with the other kids?”
He’d shrug, most likely unsure of how to put words to what he was experiencing in his head. This was far from the verbal, funny, kind, and focused little guy we knew at home. The same behavior emerged at school during lunchtime recess or during choice time, when his kindergarten class had less monitoring and more independence. It concerned my wife and me and made us feel embarrassed around other parents, whose kids seemed to know how to play energetically and independently without losing control. We felt there must be something wrong with our boy and, by extension, us. We had failed to instill discipline or maybe compassion for others. We had messed up somehow.
Because we didn’t fully understand Felix’s behavior at gatherings, we turned down invitations for parties, get togethers, and group playdates for a long while. This time, though, we had decided to say yes because we felt comfortable with the hosts. They were our neighbors, and they knew and loved our son and understood his challenges. But standing there in that garish kids’ gym—surrounded by a buzzing cloud of parents, who watched unconcerned as their children played while my son stood on the sidelines, asking if mommy could come with him—I had a moment of regret. We shouldn’t have come, I thought.
Then I took a deep breath. This was supposed to be a fun time! If he required his mom to keep himself calm, why shouldn’t he have her? So, when my wife said, “I think that would be fine, right?” I pushed aside my indecision and agreed, “Sure, if he wants you with him, then you should go.”
Hand-in-hand, they walked away, and like the introvert I am, I stood a small distance from the other parents and observed them in silence. My son made it across the balance beam, never falling because he had his mom to lean on. Later, as the kids ate cake, he smiled and laughed and talked a bit with the boy sitting next to him. My wife was at his side the whole time. He had a blast.
It’s easy to forget that our introverted children probably have the same responses we do to social engagements. In the Parenting Quiet Kids course, the story of Maya shows a little girl who also felt overwhelmed and overstimulated by a birthday party. She reacted in similar ways—hanging back instead of engaging with the others—and also required the help of her mother to enjoy the party experience.
My eyes welled up while watching the scenario play out—like Maya’s mom, I’d also made mistakes and not been the best support for my son in previous social situations. Learning how to be better has not always been easy for Felix or my wife and me. We all want with our whole hearts to protect our kids, especially from the things that hurt us as children. I remember being so scared of my peers in kindergarten, I would get stomach aches before school. Parties at roller-skating rinks or middle school dances had a terrifying edge to them that still causes the hair on the back of my neck to rise. I don’t want him to suffer the same!
The thing is, I can’t shield him from that. He is an introvert like me—full of energy and enthusiasm but also sensitive to his surroundings and more adept at small, structured, calm social activities. What I can do is help him navigate those situations so that he doesn’t lose a sense of himself. I can help him not slip so far into an anxious, over-excited state that his language and self-control go out the window. In this case, my wife (also an introvert) was there for him to literally lean on when he needed her, and that made this party different from all the others that came before it. Though he stayed on the outskirts with his mom, he was a quiet but engaged and smiling part of the group.
Our culture values extroversion to the point that even introverted parents can sometimes forget that not every child is going to be chatty, eager to participate, and fast to make friends. We’ve all internalized the extrovert preference to some extent! I’ve found that being a mindful, loving parent means seeing this preference as the unrealistic social expectation that it is. It means helping our kids understand their needs and acting as a bridge between them and the world. When they no longer need us as much, we may slowly step away to watch them confidently, and perhaps quietly, engage with others—on their own terms.