April 23, 2012

Quiet Kids

If you went to church camp, you may remember it fondly – friends, games, singing in chapel and swimming in a pool or lake. Or, like me, your feelings about camp may be mixed. You loved the singing in chapel, enjoyed some of the games, but the first few days were always painful until you adjusted to the other kids in your cabin. There was also the fact that you never had a moment alone except when you were in the bathroom. 

I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. The book is about how modern society values extroverts and often undervalues introverts. I’m much less shy than I used to be, but still very introverted, and this book is full of revelations. Suddenly the dissonance between who I am and how I should act – socially and professionally – makes a lot more sense.

The book touches on many of the author’s own experiences, including camp, which made me think about my own days at an Episcopal camp in Texas. I have many fond memories of that camp, but it was also exhausting. It was cool to be extroverted and social and friendly, but I was shy and reserved. The camp counselors were always full of energy and seemed to enjoy performing for the kids, and almost every activity was social. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only kid who found it exhausting.

Many churches, youth ministers, and camp counselors still place a high value on being social and outgoing. Without realizing it, they subject shy kids to ice breakers and other games that force them to perform or stand in the front of the group, or simply forget to make time for quiet, serious conversation. Pushing naturally reserved children a bit can be good for them, as it was for me, but too much can send a different message: that you need to be extroverted and gregarious to be truly accepted and liked. The coolest kids, the popular kids the youth minister likes the best, are the kids who are effortlessly social and speak up. 

What I think camp counselors and youth ministers, who are often the most extroverted people in the church, can do is to simply make an attempt to understand and value introversion, without trying to change it. This doesn’t mean letting the shy kid sit by himself the entire time (he might want to be included, but isn’t sure how to join in), but it could mean making more time for quiet conversation in smaller groups, or going to see a movie (I found going to see a movie with a group was often just the right mix of social interaction and quiet), or even break things up with small group conversations, meditation, and prayer. 

Our culture teaches us that we have to be extroverted to be successful and popular, but a large portion of the population (between 20 and 50 percent, according to Cain), isn’t naturally extroverted. The church can be the first place where the extrovert, the quiet, awkward kid, or the reserved kid who is not shy at all but doesn’t enjoy an afternoon of nothing but large group activities can all feel accepted for who they are.