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


  1. Amen to that. I feel so sorry for introverted kids whose parents ceaselessly push them into social situations that they just aren’t ready to deal with.

    Yes, an introvert needs to learn how to deal with social situations and crowds. No, they won’t learn those skills by being thrust into the middle of them without time to get used to the idea, or by simply being told that “parties are fun! what’s wrong with you?”

    Comment by dreadmouse | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more–and neither could my mother, who raised one biological offspring and two adopted children. She would tell you that in the nature vs. nurture debate, there practically is no debate, as 9 times out of 10 nature prevails. You can influence a child, sure, but the fundamentals (and I think extroversion/introversion is a fundamental trait) are quite immovable.

    Of course, we have to give the scientists time to catch up with my mother 🙂

    Comment by Annie | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  3. It’s an interesting one, nature/nurture. I’ve wondered about it a lot from a personal point of view. I’m most definitely an introvert by nature but I never learned social skills as a child, so I’m really unhappy socialising and have never learned how to do it. I wish I could figure out how to teach myself those social skills now! There really ought to be guides on how to teach yourself skills that your parents neglected to impart!

    Comment by Claire | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  4. I see a lot of “nature” in my son. I’m the extrovert but my husband is an introvert, sometimes in the extreme. Our son is extroverted most of the time, but will occasionally choose to sit back and observe the play of other children, rather than participate. Fortunately, he’s in a care situation where they let him express both aspects of his personality when he wants to.

    I wonder what will happen with our daughter, due to arrive in April.

    Comment by Kim | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  5. Since I was a single mom until October (okay, still “technically” single – we marry 11/24, but living together now), I was SO relieved that my daughter was naturally an extrovert.

    How arrogant for the guy to assume that it was HIS doing for his little girl to be an Extrovert! I just counted myself lucky that Maya IS an extrovert, and that the situations that come naturally to me were nurturing to her basic personality. Whatever, at least I know I can’t change who the child is.

    Good book on this, btw: “Nurture by Nature” — about recognizing a child’s innate personality and parenting them accordingly.

    My new dh-to-be is an introvert (INTP), and it’ll be interesting to see the temperment of any future child(ren)…

    Comment by Alli | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  6. You are soooooo bursting my bubble! I thought it was all of my wonderful parenting skills that turned my kid into a terrific young adult. Now you’re saying that her father’s genes can take 50% of the credit? Now, that’s not fair and I’m going away to pout! *wink*

    Comment by Avalon | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  7. There is an explanation of extroversion that seems to hold in Mia’s case. Children appear to have the psychological attitude of the parent of the opposite sex. If both parents are extraverted, the children appear extraverted, and if both parents are introverted, they appear introverted. But when the parents have different psychological attitudes, that is, one is introverted and the other is extraverted, the children appear to follow the attitude of the parent of the opposite sex.

    So if my wife and I have female children they are likely to be outgoing and opinionated. I am not looking forward to the teen years.

    Comment by Bill | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  8. ps. Mia does not appear in your cast of Characters?

    Comment by Bill | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  9. And I think this is the exact principle that explains why, despite the environment my stepkids (mostly – overwhelmingly “mostly”) grew up with, they’ve – so far, anyway – made choices that resemble something their absent parent would do. It’s not all environment. It may not even be THAT MUCH environment. Scary.. but the more time that goes by, the more I see this demonstrated.

    Comment by Kristen | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  10. Oh, I’d love to meet your wee ones!

    Comment by Jenorama | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  11. See, I’m on the other side of the Nature/Nurture debate. As an adopted child, I know that I have absorbed many of the characteristics of my family–enough so that anyone looking at us would easily identify me as part of the family even though I look nothing like my brothers.

    Which is not to say that I don’t believe that there is not a certain base identity that nature inscribes upon. The Diva Girl has been a diva since the moment of her birth. Extroverted, social, happily engaged in her world. The Zen Baby has always been quiter. When circumstances reared their ugly head, she because pathologically shy. But with careful nurturing of that nature, she’s becoming a very social little girl who has just begun spontaneously speaking to strangers.

    I think if you respect the nature, you can nurture a lot in a child.

    Comment by Ms Sisyphus | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  12. I think that environment determines how well a child functions within his or her innate personality. Mannerisms, values – these things can be taught (though mannerisms, in particular, can have a wonderfully creepy echo effect, even skipping generations). But one’s fundamental temperament – introverted or extraverted, among other things – that comes with the package.

    Comment by bubandpie | October 30, 2006 | Reply

  13. Q was super shy when he was a baby (now he’s moderately shy, and warms up to people after a little while), and I worried about what we had done wrong. Our parents reminded us that both SwingDaddy and I were shy kids, so might just have inherited that. Can’t you take credit for good nurturing when they do something you like and blame it on nature when they misbehave? Just kidding!

    Comment by Lady M | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  14. Proof in hand: siblings that are exact opposites of one another. One is shy, the other outgoing. One loves to run wild outside, the other loves to be in reading a book. One excels at math, the other barely can do simple computations. The list goes on and on…in me and my two brothers, in the students I had when I taught, in my own children.

    Comment by Mamacita Tina | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  15. This I would also describe as Listening with your mouth not your ears 🙂

    Youve probably heard of him before, theres a chap by the name of Morris Massey who has a scale of values/beliefs. Upto the age of 7, the imprint stage, parents affect a childs views/values/beliefs. From 7 – 14, the modelling stage, teachers, peers and friends influence the values/beliefs, from 14 – 21, the socialisation stage, values and beliefs are influenced by work and social events and parents have very little input.

    From the age of 21 a persons values/beliefs have been formed and are only affected by Significant Emotional Events (S.E.E), such as deaths, marriages etc.

    Comment by Si | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  16. I agree with you…to a certain extent. However I believe the environment is what allows inherent characteristics to become prominent. Or not.

    I have seen shy, quiet parents raise rambunctuous, outgoing, extrovert children – because they have provided an environment where this can flourish.

    I have also seen extrovert parents with equally extrovert children – and the whole thing was going to hell in a handbasket! No one with any self control, loud, loud, loud environment, all coming and going all over the place, and the child in this environment as CRAZY as the parents.

    I’m no expert, but I think there is a balance – nurture and nature.

    Comment by Karyn | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  17. Dreadmouse: You have to accept who they are, and start from their starting point. Introverts and extroverts both need to learn social skills, though they’ll likely have different areas that need emphasis: introverts to make eye contact, speak up, smile; extroverts to stop and listen, ask questions, give the other guy a chance. (Mia’s dad is a perfect example of an extro. with no social skills.)

    Annie: Your mother would enjoy that book by Judith Rich Harris I cited in the previous post. The older my children get, the more I agree with your mother – and that was most certainly NOT my starting point!

    Claire: I’m sure there’s no reason you can’t learn those skills now! My guess would be that one of those “life coaches” that are springing up all over would be good for this kind of task. (I am more intro than extro, myself.) Remember, as an introvert, you will probably always find social occasions a bit taxing, and will want to leave sooner than the extros in the crowd, but that doesn’t prevent you from meeting people, making conversation, and enjoying yourself in your own way, while you’re there.

    Kim: As far as the intro-extro thing goes, there is a continuum. Your son is toward one end of it, but he doesn’t totally lack the abilities of the other end. And it’s always fun to see what you’ll get in the little package after it’s delivered!!

    Alli: I’m an INTJ, with the “I” close to the middle. Their dad was an IN-something, very strong “I”. We produced one clear extrovert, one clear introvert, and one who’s not so obvious either way. It’s fascinating stuff, heredity! The book sounds like a good one. Onto my list it goes!

    Avalon: Oh, no, my dear. You’re missing one of the great joys of this discussion: OF COURSE you take credit for their good points – your wonderful parenting, all the way. Their bad points? Immutably in their genes – and donated by the other parent. Ha! Guilt-free parenting!

    Bill: The teens years will. be. Hell. [snort] That’s okay. It builds character. Parental character.

    (Mia’s not in the cast of characters because she’s no longer in my care. This happened some months ago.)

    Kristen: I’ve put a lot of thought into this over the years, watching my kids grow into the young adults/teens they are now. You have the responsibility to give them option and teach them skills; they have the responsibility of using the skills. Or not. I believe that all our training is overlaid on the foundation of who they are – and, as Annie said, the fundamentals are unchangeable.

    Jen: Maybe you can! Next week???

    MsSisyphus: Aha! I was wondering when the other side of the debate would appear! The question your comment raises is this: If you were dropped into a room containing your biological family, would it also become immediately apparent that you were part of this family? In more than just appearance?

    I didn’t intend to say, though, that there is no parental input, just that its significance/influence is exaggerated in our parenting culture.

    Bubandpie: “Environment determines how well a child functions within his/her innate personality.” I like that expression of it!

    About mannerisms: I commented to one of my clients about a particular distinctive face and posture her son adopts when he’s offended with you. She nodded and said that the first time she saw it, she was quite unnerved, because it was her father to a T – her father who died before her son was born!

    LadyM: And of course, there is nothing wrong with being shy, as long as the shy person is not unhappy with themselves, or feels that their shyness hinders them. This is an extroverted society we live in, valuing the traits of extroversion over those of introversion – but just as some traits of extroverts are not all that appealing, introverts also have traits that benefit society. It’s about balance, always.

    MamacitaTina: I have three kids. There are some obvious similarities, and a tonne of differences. I tend to think that if it were as much nurture/environment as we think, there’d be far more similarities than there are. It’s fascinating, though, either way!

    Si: Mia’s dad does not listen. Ever. Even when he asks you a question, he starts talking before you’re halfway through your first sentence. Annoying man.

    I’d heard of Massey, but only in a very vague way. I like his framework, though: it makes a lot of sense to me!

    Karyn: If shy parents have rowdy outgoing kids, it’s obviously not the environment that’s producing them! As you note (and I agree) there is a balance. I just don’t think the fulcrum, the centre point, of the balance is where we tend to think it is…

    Comment by Mary P. | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  18. Momnipotent! That is Awesome. My Mom is still considered Momnipotent by those of us that know. Some significant others do not think so.

    Comment by Peter | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  19. Peter: Must give credit where it’s due. Much as I love the word, I did not coin it. (Damn!) Credit for that goes to the wonderful Nancy White, who has a disk out by that name.

    All you new parents? Or those with kids under the age of, oh, four or so? Buy this! Very funny!

    Comment by Mary P. | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  20. HAHAHA! I like to think that my fabulous parental skills have made my daughter so perfect in every way. HOWEVER, deep down I know that she is who is she because that is who she is, regardless of my skills. Momnipotent—that’s great!!!! 🙂

    Comment by So-Called Supermom | October 31, 2006 | Reply

  21. I also agree with you. If he had ME for a daughter, he’d be going out of his mind, wondering why I’d rather sit quietly and play alone instead of doing the social circuit.

    Was it you or another blogger who said something about “discovering our children” instead of “making our children”? Wise words that few understand.

    Comment by Alexandra | November 1, 2006 | Reply

  22. You’re absolutely right, of course. As tempting as it is to want to credit nurture for everything, we have to acknowledge the role of nature. That said – do you think it’s possible to make introverted children more socially comfortable by exposing them early to many and varied social situations? (I don’t have an introvert, as I think you know, but I’m curious what you think about this.)

    Comment by Her Bad Mother | November 1, 2006 | Reply

  23. So-Called Supermom: Take all the credit you like! As I said to avalon, way up at the top, with this mindset, all her good stuff is your amazing parenting; all the bad stuff? In her genes. Probably from the other side of the family. Heh.

    Alexandra: It wasn’t me, but it’s a great concept. I totally agree. Now, I do think parents have an influence. I just don’t think it’s as great as is commonly believed. You’re right: had there been a genetic hiccup, and those two extroverts got an introverted child, nothing they did would change that child’s base personality/preference.

    HerBadMother: It’s tempting to credit nurture/environment for everything when things are going well. Not so tempting when your previously wonderful child starts skipping classes and flirting with self-destruction in adolescence… Nor is it always right or fair.

    I definitely believe an introvert can be given the skills to aid their social development. As Alli said above, you ‘recognize the child’s innate personality, and parent accordingly’. An introvert is probably going to find “many and varied social situations” a bit much, and you’ll end up with a fretful, unhappy baby, not a social swimmer.

    Picture the reverse: a skill of introverts is the ability to savour solitude, using time alone to explore ideas, develop self-awareness, developing the ability to be reflective. Good life skills, all of them.

    So is the parallel way to train an extrovert in the values/abilities of introversion to leave that extroverted child alone in a room as often as possible? Even if they were different rooms with different toys? I think this would only make them resist downtime even more. They need to learn the skill, yes, but in a kinder, more gradual,way than the throw-them-off-the-dock school of training.

    Thus, you proceed a little more slowly, and adjust your goals accordingly. An introvert is probably NEVER going to adore tonnes of socializing. She needs friends, of course, but not so many, nor does she require the amount of people-time that an extrovert does.

    The goal is that they manage the socializing that’s essential to getting through life, and that they do it well, not that they learn to love being in crowds.

    Comment by Mary P. | November 2, 2006 | Reply

  24. It’s because of this that I am at a complete loss to explain my son’s irrepressibly cheery and outgoing demeanor:
    The baby who never cries when dropped off at daycare.
    The baby who the other parents love because he grins at them when they show up.
    The baby who eats everything and isn’t scared of anything.
    The baby with two introverted, anxious, picky-eating parents.

    It can’t be the example we set. It’s just… Mendel.

    Or my antidepressants.

    Snort. I’m sure there must be at least a few cheery, easy-going, non-picky extroverts in your families. I’m betting Mendel.

    I have two introverts, one who is more socially comfortable than the other, and I’m truly undecided about the third. Kid’s twenty-something, and I still haven’t figured it out…

    Comment by IfByYes | September 6, 2011 | Reply

  25. I gave up on the nature/nurture debate when we had the twins. But I don’t feel guilty at all in admitting that sometimes it’s just too easy too take credit for the positive traits and blame the rest on genetics. Yes, even when it’s the same trait showing up on different ends of the spectrum. 😀

    Comment by Kat | September 19, 2011 | Reply

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