It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Introverts, Extroverts, and Manipulators

“I want to be alone!”

I know some caregivers who just don’t allow that. It’s seen as unfriendly, anti-social, inappropriate, and just plain weird. What is wrong with that kid?? “Don’t be like that, Simon. Suzie is your friend! Now come here and help her build her bridge with the lego.”

I am an introvert. I totally get the need to be alone. (We can talk about how the introvert copes with a day spent with in-your-face toddlers some other time.)

So when a child expresses a genuine need to be alone, I respect that. They get to be alone. They do not have to mingle, mingle, mingle, interact every living second of the live-long day. They just don’t. And the extroverts in the group can back off for a bit.

Now, they have to ask politely. Introvert or extrovert, we all need to respect the social niceties. A howl of outrage, a shove and a scream, are not how you get your time away. “If you want to play alone, you ask nicely.”

It puts the caregiver in a bit of a bind, though. You can’t pop them on the Quiet Stair for shoving another child, as you might otherwise do, because in this case the Quiet Stair would be a reward , wouldn’t it? You’ll only train the desperate introvert into bad behaviour. “I need some space!! I know! I’ll just deck little Josh over there!”

What to do? I offer them what they want, in exchange for what I want. “You can play alone at the puzzle table, if you ask politely.” Then I give them the words. Or if they’ve been acting badly to get their quiet, I will require them to play with the others, nicely, for five minutes first. Then they can have as much time as they like, alone.

Because the request to be alone? It can be a real and genuine thing, and you should no more deny it than you’d deny the extrovert his social time. “You want to play with the other kids?? Now, Simon, don’t be pushy! Do this puzzle quietly, there’s a good boy!”

However. There is the desire to be alone experienced by the kid who is feeling overwhelmed and drained, and needs time and space to recharge. That’s genuine and valid, a legitimate need. And then …

Child A flings himself over the pile of blocks. “You go ‘way! I want to play alone!!”

That one’s easy, a clear example of a child who just doesn’t feel like sharing. “Playing alone” is code for “having ALL THE TOYS!!!” It’s not too hard to determine need to be alone from want to have all the toys: Offer the child half the huge pile o’blocks in a private corner. The child who needs to be alone will accept it. The one who just wants ALL THE THINGS will not.

(And if it’s both? He wants ALL THE THINGS, alone? Tough. Half the toys, alone, or none of them.)

And then there’s this:

Child A is in a bit of a snit. Has been all morning. Contrary and prickly, nothing quite right for Her Most Precious Princess. Child A, the Snit Child, plays with the lacing cards in a desultory way. Child B sits down companionably and picks up one of the cards. Snit Child turns her back on Child B with a whine of outrage.

“Noooo! I want to be aloooone!”

Child B, a mellow little thing, gives Snit Child a puzzled look before wandering off with no comment.

Now, if that were the end of it, it could well be that Snit Child has reached the end of her introverted rope, and just needs some solo downtime. But that’s not what’s been happening at Mary’s the past three weeks or so. Just watch what happens next:

Mellow Child B is soon happily involved in some other activity. Snit Girl approaches sidelong, ostentatiously holding one of the Magic Dollar-Store Sparkly Princess Wands. Snit Girl waves it about just within Mellow Child’s line of vision. Predictably, Mellow Child is attracted to the sparkle, and wanders closer.

Snit Child roars her outrage: “Nooooo! You can’t play with me! I want to be aloooone!”

Uh-huh. That’s why you deliberately provoked the attention, because you wanted to be alone. Yeah.

That? That is not valid. That is sheerest manipulation. Snit Child was looking for a conflict, and, when Mellow Child didn’t deliver the first time, she deliberately provoked the attention she wanted to reject.

Now “being alone” is code word for “I’m rejecting you”, or “I control you by not giving you what you want.” It’s really devious. This child has a lot of social savvy. Too bad she’s working it on The Dark Side.

So now poor manipulated Mellow Child really, really wants to play with Snit Child. SC, having achieved her goal of enticing the attention she wishes to reject, redoubles her protests. “No! Go away! I want to be alone!!”

What do I do? I pretend to believe it’s genuine. I pretend Snit Girl has a real and genuine need to be alone. Because, you know, there is nothing wrong with needing to be alone.

“You want to be alone? No, Mellow, if Snit wants to be alone, we will let her be alone.” And then I get Snit Girl all comfy in an armchair, with a blanket and a book and a toy … and then I take Mellow Child a distance away, in the next room but still in view, and snuggle her into my lap for a story. Or take her to the table to colour. Or play clapping games with her.

If Snit Girl genuinely needed time out, this will be fine with her. She’ll stick with her quiet activities, and happily recharge her batteries.

But if she was playing mean girl head games, this will not please her. Mellow Child getting MARY’S attention?? Mellow Child and not her? She will wriggle out of the chair and trot over.

“I don’t want to be alone any more.”

At this point, I can play it either way. “Sure, sweetie. You come sit with us.” The snit has passed, and she’s willing to share time and attention. Good for all of us!

But if she’s been really rotten to Mellow Child, or if I think she needs to be more rigorously deterred from this particular behaviour pattern, I’ll twist the knife just a bit more.

“Oh, no, sweetie. You said you wanted to be alone, and I think you were right. I think you really do need to be alone. Away you go back to your comfy chair. You be alone for a little longer, and when I’m done reading this story to Mellow Girl, maybe it will be time for you go get up. Away you go!” All said in my best, most cheerful “Don’t Mess With Me” voice. (You don’t have a cheerful “Don’t Mess With Me” voice? Find it and practice. It’s an invaluable parenting tool.)

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April 16, 2013 - Posted by | behavioural stuff, individuality, power struggle, socializing | , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. YES YES YES. I love this post – so timely, as you know – and thank you for detailing exactly how you offer ‘alone time’ as a reward for playing nicely with others.

    I had suspected all along that Louis screaming at the other children to “GO AWAY!” had more to do with monopolizing his favourite toys than it did with a genuine need to unplug from the social circle for a little while. Your examples reinforce that belief and give me some concrete tools to address it.

    Heh. I’m glad you liked it, because you know what? It’s just a draft. I started it yesterday morning, then scheduled it for this morning, thinking I’d have time to come back to it last night. I didn’t, and totally forgot I’d set it to appear! There’s too much in here, and much of it not developed properly, and it ends too abruptly. If you can like it despite all those flaws, and even better, find it useful, I’m delighted! :-D

    Comment by Hannah | April 16, 2013 | Reply

  2. Love the post. Love the blog. I can totally relate.. There is one in every daycare year I’ve lived. Seemingly more often than not a female.. Hmm?.. Not. It comes with the territory in my experience lol

    Comment by shesactuallyprettysmart | April 16, 2013 | Reply

  3. Love it! It does end abruptly, but all the important stuff is there.

    Comment by IfByYes | April 17, 2013 | Reply

  4. Thanks for this post-I have this exact situation going on over here as well and it is always with a girl….SO frustrating when they manipulate like that but I like the examples you give to help me navigate those moments better…

    Comment by jbjokne | April 18, 2013 | Reply


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