A lot of introvert-themed posts that you see around this time of year are things like “An Introverts Guide To Surviving the Holidays” or “How Not to Run In Terror From Your Extrovert Relatives.” That last one’s not an actual article, but it’s pretty close to some I’ve seen.
Often, writers of articles like this assume introverts don’t like people, that they’re always overwhelmed in social situations, and that they hate parties. But being on-edge in social situations, panicking when you have to interact with people, and going out of your way to avoid places where people gather aren’t actually signs of introversion. Those things are more a part of social anxiety.
Part of the reason for this confusion is that people don’t understand what being an introvert actually means. For example, (despite numerous complaints and petitions) if you Google “introvert definition” the first thing that comes up is “a shy, reticent person.” Only if you expand the Google result to see translations, word origin, and other definitions do you finally get something a little closer to the correct result: “a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.”
Being an introvert doesn’t make you socially awkward. It doesn’t mean you hate people. Being an introvert means that you’re born with a trait that gives you a preference for the internal world. It also means you re-charge better in quiet, low-stimulation environments (usually alone, but not always). Introverts might avoid parties, but if so they do it because they’d rather be somewhere else (like at home reading or hanging our with a small group of friends), not because they’re inherently shy or scared of interacting with others. Read more →
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Marissa whose parents were worried about her going to kindergarten. She was going to be away from home all day, five days a week for the first time in her life. So her mother enrolled her in a summer school program where she would only be gone half a day, to help her get accustomed to being away from home.
Every time Marissa was dropped off at this school, her little sister would cry because Marissa was being abandoned. Years later, there are only two things Marissa remembers about this experience. One was that the teachers wanted her to take naps on a thin blue pad in the middle of a large room filled with strange people. She never slept because she was too nervous, but she had to lay there anyway. The second is hiding under the playset outside the school when all the children were sent outside so she wouldn’t have to face the other children (her mother says one of the boys hit her, but she must have blocked this memory).
One day, when Marissa’s mother picked her up from school, Marissa was crying. She asked, “Have I been away long enough? Can I come home now?” This broke her father’s heart, and he decreed that Marissa would never have to go back to school again.
After this short summer, I was homeschooled through all twelve years of elementary, middle, and high school. My sister also graduated from our homeschool, and my brother is currently finishing up high school at home. I’m one of those homeschooling success stories who went to college, earned better grades there than I did in high school from my mom, and earned my B.A. along with an undergrad research project that I’ve been assured could have gotten me into grad school and on track for my English PhD.
The previous paragraph aside, my goal today is not to defend the academic merits of homeschooling. I want to talk about socialization. Last week, a friend shared with me a great blog post that covered everything from the hypocrisy of America’s talk about “diversity,” to the merits of homeschooling, to defending introverts. In this post, Matt Walsh addressed the frequent claim that we need to send our children to public schools so they can “be socialized.”
In fact, kids who are homeschooled tend to be much better in “social situations” because they learned how to socialize from adults, rather than aping the personality traits of their peers. Public school doesn’t make kids “sociable,” and I think you could more accurately argue for the opposite. The whole concept that we need to send our children to government facilities to be “socialized” makes me shudder. Our children aren’t animals, and I wish we’d stop speaking about them as if they were.
This is a common argument from homeschool families and homeschooling supporters. I don’t exactly want to argue against it, but I have to admit my experiences are somewhat different. While the homeschooled me was quite comfortable socializing with adults and people younger than me, I was never very comfortable in my peer group (a fact that hasn’t changed much, though I’m a little more confident around other young people since going through college). The flip side of this is public school kids I’ve met who ignore younger kids and make no effort to hide the fact that they don’t want to talk with adults. There are, of course, both homeschoolers and public schoolers who are comfortable socializing with anyone and everyone (I suspect this is a personality-type thing more than a where-they-went-to-school thing).
Introverts in School
In a book titled Introvert Power, Laurie Helgoe (who holds a PhD in psychology) discusses the pressures that introverts face in an extroverted society, including the public school system.
In an extroverted society, we rarely see ourselves in the mirror. We get alienating feedback. Alienating feedback comes in the form of repeated encouragement to join or talk, puzzled expressions, well-intended concern, and sometimes, all-out pointing and laughing. … Alienating feedback happens where neighborhoods, schools, and offices provide no place to retreat. Alienating feedback happens when our quiet spaces and wilderness sanctuaries are seen as places to colonize.
Unfortunately, I don’t have her book in front of me at the moment and can’t find the other quote I wanted online. I’ll have to make do with a paraphrase. In her discussion of the school system, Helgoe talks about how the emphasis on group projects and participation in class can sabotage introverted children’s efforts to learn. Her idea isn’t to completely do away with this kind of work, but that schools should cater to different learning needs instead of trying to fit everyone into the extrovert-ideal mold. In the absence of such an education environment, she suggest homeschooling can be the best environment for an introverted child to learn because it allows them to utilize their strengths and can more easily be designed to fit individual children.
Though I did have friends my age while growing up — most through church, a few through homeschool groups — I did not really interact with a wide variety of people my age until I started college. There, I got a taste of what it might have been like for me to have gone to public school. After settling into life at college, I usually ate alone while reading, talked in class only when I was called on or had an idea I really wanted to share, and socialized with a few people one-on-one or in (very) small groups. And, in spite of the teacher who proclaimed that people eating alone was the most pathetic thing in the world because at heart we are (or should be) social animals, I was content with the level of socialization I enjoyed/avoided at college.
I don’t know exactly what would have happened had I been in public school instead of homeschooled those twelve years. If thrown into the social environment of public school while growing up, I might have made friends and “crawled out of my shell.” However, I suspect it would have been much more like my summer school experience and my first quarter of college, except without the confidence gained by twelve years of studying on my own and being told it was okay to be bookish. My basic personality would not have altered, but I would have felt pressured to hide my quietness and conform instead of being supported in my personal growth. Like Beatrix Potter says in this quote, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” The world doesn’t need cookie-cutter minions popped out of identical molds and taught identical things. It needs a wide variety of people who have been given the chance to shine using their individual talents. And that is something homeschooling is uniquely suited to do.