I have two daughters who are very, very different. I also have a son. But it’s the girls I want to concentrate on here. My eldest is a whirlwind of movement. She is loud, rambunctious, and everywhere. She’s the kind of person people often describe as having “character.”
This is a word I often use to describe something that has an unusual taste, like wine or coffee. When speaking about my oldest daughter, some say it while shaking their heads in shock and others say it with admiration, but it’s always inspired by her loud and wild nature and the way she always manages to make herself the center of attention.
My other daughter, my middle child, is her sister’s very opposite. No one would use the word “character” to describe her. On the contrary, what I commonly hear is “she should stand up for herself more,” or “she seems to have no mind of her own.”
This is more or less what the day care staff told me during her last evaluation. At her age, direct, extroverted behavior is encouraged, and it’s expected that children will voice strong opinions about everything. Compared to her siblings, my quiet daughter does quite not fit in. The staff describes her as a follower who always does what she’s told instead of making decisions for herself. According to them, my sweet daughter is too quiet. “She isn’t talking to the other kids. She just sits there,” they told me with concern.
I understand my daughter’s behavior as well as their opinion on it. For too long, we taught our girls to be more reserved than our boys—who we gave great freedom to be vocal and physically active. Now we’re trying to teach our daughters to speak up for themselves and unapologetically and confidently voice their opinions.
And because we are so focused on the social development of girls, we are much more worried when a girl wants to play by herself. Sure, there are introverted girls like my daughter who need encouragement to pursue new experiences, but they also need the opportunity to play by themselves or in small groups where they can thrive. This makes it difficult to know when to encourage her or when to simply let her be.
But how will we ever find out what her needs and desires are when she cannot be heard over the children who are comfortable speaking up? The push for these children to be heard all of the time only adds to the constant noise of our already loud, extroverted world. For quiet children like my daughter, this approach doesn’t embolden them. Instead, it shuts them down.
Because we’re so fascinated with self-assured children, we worry (unnecessarily, I must add) when our little introverts are “too quiet” and think of them as lacking character or a backbone. And even worse, we are taught to assume that quiet people are “boring.”
Yet I know for a fact that I have nothing to worry about. My daughter has many ideas and opinions of her own, and in her own way, she expresses them. If she doesn’t like something, she says “no” in a calm but clear manner. There is no doubt that she does in fact makes decisions of her own. She rarely has the explosive temper tantrums that are the signature move of her older sister when she’s dissatisfied with something. I once described her behavior as nonviolent resistance, Gandhi-style. I can be threatening, yelling, pleading, or doing somersaults, and she still wouldn’t budge. Some might call it stubbornness, but I’ve chosen to call it persistence.
Her usual easygoing nature and willingness to go with the flow don’t make her boring or lacking character. On the contrary, when we say that a certain beverage has character, we mean that it’s unusual, interesting, and a little bit mysterious—just like my daughter. She has just as much character as outgoing children; it’s just different. We’d know this if we stopped telling these children they’re “too quiet” and, instead, began listening to what they’re trying to tell us.
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