The Long Runway: Granting Kids the Time They Need to Socially Succeed

As our newsletter subscribers learned over the weekend, we’ve launched a brand new podcast! It’s a true labor of love and is hosted by Susan Cain and our partner Panoply—and it’s all for the parents and educators of quiet kids. Our first episode discussed the long runway. Below, one of our authors shares her own story of what the long runway looks like for both her and her daughter.

Leaning against the back wall of the school gym, I shifted awkwardly, rocking on my feet, arms crossed tightly across my chest. I had staked out this spot seconds before in the hopes of looking cool, calm, and confident in my solitude, and already I’d failed. As an introvert in a large room quickly filling with energetic bodies and the buzz of chitchat, I didn’t think I’d get any more comfortable than this.

When I spotted a group of friends gathered nearby, I looked away, pretending not to see them. It wasn’t that I was avoiding any one person in particular, but there were just too many of them huddled together, making small talk. With the clock closing in on the Winter Concert, moms began to peel away from the group, each intending to secure the perfect angle from which to videotape her child. I wanted to do the same, but as it turned out, the few women who remained stood right where I needed to be to capture my son’s ukulele prowess. There was nothing to do but take a deep breath and join them.

One of my friends welcomed me with an enthusiastic hug. And just like that, my shoulders relaxed, and I took off…out of my head and into the moment.

You see, as a quiet type, I understand the long runway: the extended amount of time it can take an introvert to warm up in a new situation and become comfortable enough to socialize. Because of this, it should come as no surprise to me when my quiet children also need time to adjust to different social settings. And yet, it does.

When we walk into a party filled with enthusiastic laughter and activity, my leg is probably the least interesting thing in the room unless you’re my 4-year-old daughter. She wraps her arms tight around my thigh, refusing to let go. It takes everything in me not to grab her by the shoulders and say, “Look at everyone else playing. It’s a party…it’s fun!”

In almost ten years of mothering three quiet children, I’ve learned that it will be fun. In time. I just have to hope that that time comes before the party is over. (To be totally honest, there have been a few times when it hasn’t.)

With a lot of trial and error, including a few not-so-shining moments of my own along the way, I’ve developed some techniques to help all of us cope with new social situations—or old social situations on a new day.

Start the runway at home.

I talk to my kids about the social gathering we’re about to attend as we’re getting ready at home or in the car on our way there. I paint a picture of the setting, giving them as many specific sensory details as possible. Will it be loud? Bright? Crowded? Outdoors? I also discuss who will be there and give my children a bit of insight about a couple of them, laying some social groundwork, a foundation for them to build upon. My kids range in age from 4 to 9. Knowing that a distant cousin loves to play basketball as much as they do can make him seem less intimidating, give them an ice breaker for conversation, or even lead to active playing with him…eventually.

Focus on the positive.

Each time my kids are entering an intimidating group situation, I talk to them about a recent social success they experienced. When I remind my son that he scored the first goal once he decided to join the soccer game at his friend’s birthday party, we can then rehash why things went well, how he felt about the win, and what behaviors he can repeat in order to have another successful event. I’m using my words to build his confidence now, with the hope that his inner voice will eventually take over and he’ll naturally begin to enter new situations with more ease over time.

Connect with that one special friend.

At 7 and 9 years old, my boys have learned to seek out a buddy to help smooth the transition from quiet time to party time, but my 4-year-old daughter still needs my guidance. I help her look into the sea of people to find that one friendly face. If needed, I’ll engage the child in conversation myself until my daughter warms up and joins in too. Sometimes all it takes is a little one-on-one moment (and mom’s assistance!) to launch my hesitant little girl into the action.

Give your kid a break.

Sometimes introverts need to escape the crowd to recharge. Yes, even in the middle of a social gathering—heck, especially in the middle of a social gathering. I find it helpful to give my kids a pre-party reminder that, if they get overwhelmed, it’s okay to sit out a game, get a drink of water, or find me for a comforting moment of quiet. And, if they feel like they’re done before the party is, that’s perfectly fine as well.

Plan for lift off.

I enter the social fray with an escape plan for myself too. I explain to my daughter that I’ll stay at preschool drop-off long enough for her to get the first coat of paint on an art project, or I’ll tell my son that I’ll walk him into a birthday party and help him locate a trusted friend to talk with, but then I’m out of there. While I believe in showing compassion for my kids’ challenges, I also want them to know I have faith in their abilities to soar. (And let’s face it…I also really, really need to escape for some alone time.)

Be forgiving.

Of your child. Of yourself. We all have moments that don’t go as well as we hope—even with all the planning and thoughtfulness we can muster. I try to remind myself that the next time I see a graceful lift off, it will be because of something learned on a rockier day—even though it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes the long runway feels very long, so it’s important to remember—and celebrate—the successes along the way.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you probably have some unique insights to share as well.

How do you help your introverted child successfully navigate the long runway?