By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
We were hiking down a dusty mountain trail, scattered with loose pebbles, when I felt my son tense. His little hand, folded into mine, tightened, and I thought he was about to slip. Then I heard approaching footsteps.
The path was narrow, so I pulled Gabriel closer to me to let the man pass. But as most people do, the man stopped at the sight of my four-year-old son. Gabriel is a solemn-looking boy with wide dark eyes, thick lashes, and a head full of brown curls that glint gold in the sun. He’d tucked his chin and was staring at the ground.
“Look at this big boy, on top of the world,” the man said. “Did you take your mommy all the way up the trail?”
After a moment of awkward silence, I answered. “We made it all the way up there, didn’t we, Gabe?”
Gabriel muttered something, and I gave the man an apologetic look. “It’s been a long morning,” I explained, and he nodded.
“It sure is hot,” he agreed. “Well, have a good day. Take care of your mommy, Gabe.” He stepped around us and walked away.
The footsteps faded. A breeze swept the path and then quieted. Gabriel, still looking at the ground, mumbled the line that sank my heart.
“I’m not good at talking to people.”
I kneeled and pulled his rigid body toward me, wrapping him in my arms. I hated myself for who I was. “Gabriel,” I whispered. “It’s okay, honey. Mommy’s not good at talking to people, either.”
For years I harbored this secret fear: that Gabriel was going to be like me. He was sensitive to criticism, hated family parties, and braced himself when opening presents, preparing for the exclamations. At 2 ½ he spoke about fifty words and I had him screened. “Not a thing wrong with him,” the speech therapist said. “He has all his sounds. Guess he’s just the quiet type.”
I knew what it was like, being the quiet type. A snapshot of a Girl Scout’s meeting when I was nine sums it up perfectly; a cluster of laughing girls at one table and me sitting alone at another, looking miserable. I treasured my friends, but kept their number to two or three at most. In school, I enjoyed giving scripted presentations, but got tongue-tied (and still do) when forced to make small talk. Lulls in conversation in person or on the phone are anguish, and I usually try to prattle through them, assuming the silence is my fault and I bear the burden of filling it. Later, I cringe at the memories of my nervous chatter. When email and texting became accepted methods of conversation, I embraced them with relief. I love words, I just need time to shape them, arrange them, and get them right. “Shy” never seemed an adequate description for my shortcomings, so I settled for “different” and went about life feeling inferior to more talkative, outgoing types.
But there was no way in hell I would settle for my son feeling inferior. So when his behaviors began to reflect mine, I refused to accept it, convincing myself he was going through a phase that he’d outgrow like a pair of pajamas. I scolded him for his rudeness when he failed to answer questions from well-meaning strangers.
“Can’t you at least say, ‘Hi’?”
“An adult is talking to you, Gabriel.”
I would speak for him, excusing his behavior and slapping it with a label. “Sorry. He’s just kind of shy.”
He needs time, that’s all, I thought. With encouragement, he’ll learn to be more outgoing. But everything changed that day on the mountain. Because my job as a parent should be teaching my children to love themselves, and my son’s declaration revealed that he was beginning to think something was wrong with him.
That night, I stayed with Gabriel long after his eyes fluttered closed. Stroking his cheek, I recalled his first two years, how now matter what we had gone through on any given day, I would nurse him to sleep, softly humming a path to his dreams. He was no less fragile now, no less in need of acceptance and unconditional love. So why did I insist on rejecting this part of him? How much damage had I inflicted conveying a message that a piece of him was defective? I winced, hearing myself say, “I’m sorry. My son is shy.” What did he hear when I said that? “I’m sorry. There’s something wrong with my son.”
Gabriel squeezed his fist and his fingers slowly bloomed open. I touched his palm and his warm hand closed around mine. I vowed that whatever characteristics shaped his heart, I would not apologize for them. I would defend them. What I considered flaws, in me, would become treasured qualities in Gabriel. And I would make sure he saw them that way.
I slipped out of bed and turned on the computer. In the search bar, I strung together words that described him. “Creative, quiet, cautious, intense, perfectionist.” Flashing back at me, from dozens of websites and scholarly articles and blogs, was the term “introvert.” I clicked from one site to the next, fascinated, devouring descriptions of people just like my son, just like me. Descriptions that placed value on our personality traits and dispelled common myths associated with them: standoffish, antisocial, shy. I nodded as I read how most introverts prefer a few close friends over dozens of acquaintances, enjoy meaningful conversation but are inept at small talk, and often have an affinity for creative arts. How we can become insecure, not because it’s inherent in our personalities, but because we’re frequently pressured into becoming something we’re not. Everything negative became a positive: not bad at talking, but good at listening; not withdrawn, but thoughtful; not antisocial, but private, and respectful of others’ privacy.
In the following weeks, I shifted my expectations and began putting my son’s needs first. Approaching the grocery check-out line, I prepared Gabriel for the cashier’s inevitable cheerful questions.
“You don’t have to talk to her, if you don’t want,” I whispered, kissing his cheek. “A smile is fine.”
At family get-togethers, I drove Gabriel in a separate car, so we could leave after an hour or two while my husband and daughter enjoyed the rest of the party. And I didn’t force my son to dole out hugs.
At home, we all worked hard on giving Gabriel extra time to speak his two cents. In the past, we had the tendency to finish his thoughts for him, blurting out the words we assumed he was thinking. With additional time, he spoke them fine on his own, and often surprised us with his astute observations and playful sense of humor.
I could see the difference right away; Gabriel was more relaxed. He had fewer meltdowns. And with my vision cleared, it was easier to appreciate what makes him special: his tender heart, creative mind, the way he works so hard to hold his crayon exactly right. I felt lucky, knowing that few would really know him well; his trust and love would have to be earned, and when he crawls into my lap and rests his head on my chest, I know I’m one of the privileged few.
“Elizabeth, we think Gabriel could benefit from another year in preschool.” The teacher smiled at me like this was no big deal. “He’s a May birthday; he’ll barely be five when the school year starts. It’s perfectly acceptable to hold off until he’s six.”
I stared down at the progress report, confused. “But, you said he’s doing great, knows all his letters, colors, counts to twenty . . .”
“It’s not that. Academically, he’s fine. But, well, confidence is the best gift you can give to your child.”
“You think Gabriel has a confidence problem?” I was astonished to hear this. I pictured him kicking a ball around the crowded park, surrounded by bigger kids; kneeling over a 2 x 4, easily tightening a screw; climbing the jungle gym and reaching down to help the child below him.
“He still freezes up when I call on him in circle time. He covers his face and struggles with his words.”
I smiled. “Oh. You mean he’s not comfortable speaking in group.”
“It’s a skill he’ll have to build up in preparation for kindergarten.”
In my mind I saw Gabriel running up to the crossing guard at his sister’s school, a woman he saw every day, bursting with news of his latest project. He talked loud and fast until another child and her parent approached, and then his voice trailed away.
“Gabriel just doesn’t like a lot of attention,” I said. “He’s fine talking one-on-one with people he knows. But he hates the spotlight, and he probably always will. When you call on him and everyone’s watching and waiting for him to say the right thing—he is so far out of his comfort zone.”
She stared, and I rushed to fill the silence. “You know what? I think it’s kind of cool. Not everybody loves the spotlight, right? Maybe it’s a good thing.”
She glanced at the progress report, and then shrugged. “Well, it’s up to you, of course. He’s a smart kid; he certainly won’t have a problem keeping up. But one more year might help him build his confidence.”
“My son has plenty of confidence,” I said. “He’s just an introvert. And holding him back won’t make a difference, because he’s not going to change.” I spoke the next words without regret or apology; in fact, I spoke them with a touch of pride. “I know he’s not going to change,” I said, “because I never did. He gets it from me.”
Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website http://www.