It’s Not All Mary Poppins


Katie’s father stands on my porch at the end of the day, talking. He does that a lot. He’s a raging extrovert, Katie’s dad. An extrovert who believes that nothing fills the air better than the sound of his own voice. He hears very little of anything anyone says to him, doesn’t often even look at them directly, interrupts incessantly, but he loves to be with people, he loves interaction – essentially, he loves an audience. His wife, equally extroverted, is much more socially skilled; she listens as much as she talks, asking questions and – unlike her husband – actually waiting for the answers (!), and leavens it all with lots of eye contact and an engaging giggle.

I break into his monologue to tell him a story about his daughter – a topic more likely than most to actually engage his attention (though not to prevent him interrupting). Katie, at 20 months, has excellent people skills. She is not at all shy, she relishes contact with others, and that day, she had done some particularly noteworthy bit of social manoeuvring.

“Well, yeah. She does that because we’ve always surrounded her with lots of people. She’s had friends and neighbours, she’s had babysitters, new faces, practically from days one. We think it’s important that she know how to get along with people, so we’ve always made sure she’s had lots of people around her. We’ve seen to it that she likes people and isn’t the least bit shy.”

He believes his child is developing in a certain way as a direct result of parental decisions, that his daughter’s social skill is directly attributable to their manipulation of her environment. He’s wrong, of course.

Take a kid chock-full of extroverted genes, throw her in with a bunch of new faces every day, and you get a kid who rises to the stimulation, giggling and interacting, smiling and playing. She thrives on it.

“A-ha!” say proud parents. “Our strategy is working! Look at our outgoing, socially competent child!” They believe it’s their manipulation of her environment, their training, which has produced this social prodigy.

Nope. Katie is a socially skilled extrovert because she is awash in extroverted genes. The training had little to do with her skill level. What they’ve done is given her opportunity to express what’s innate. Had they put her in a closet for the first two years of her life, it would probably take her a while to develop her current level of social finesse, (say, a week or so), but develop it she will, because it’s part of who she is.

Not convinced? Picture the other side of the coin. Take a kid chock-full of introverted genes, throw her in with a bunch of new faces every day, and do you get a socially skilled kid who thrives on lots of interaction? No, you get a kid who is overwhelmed, nervous, clingy, unhappy, even terrified. The constant barrage of social stimulation is too much for her. Why? Because she’s not an extrovert.

This is not to disparage the significance of parents. For those first years, you are the single most important relationship in your child’s life. Even as they gain independence and autonomy, parents are still very important to their children. But we’re not omnipotent. There is a limit to parental impact, influence, significance.

You can give children skills, and you can hope they learn to apply them, but those skills are always superimposed upon their base character. Bottom line: no matter what your parenting skills, you cannot turn a child into something they’re not.

© 2006, Mary P

October 30, 2006 Posted by | individuality, parenting, parents, socializing, Uncategorized | 26 Comments