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My Extroverted Son Gets All the Attention

My 3-year-old son is the kind of kid who flirts with Costco customers while we are in the check-out line. He likes to strike up conversations with strangers on public transportation. It’s like he’s practicing to become a Walmart greeter. He’s the kid who skipped right over the “stranger-danger” phase and slid straight into the “strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet” phase. As a result of his gregarious personality, people are constantly complimenting him.

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“Your son is so outgoing!” is a favorite. I also hear, “He’s so articulate for his age.”

The flurry of affirmative commentary about my son and his outgoing personality is understandable. The challenging part, though, is that his 5-year-old sister isn’t as interested in engaging every pedestrian on the sidewalk or every member of the wait staff at a restaurant, so she doesn’t get many compliments. For every 10 comments my son elicits, my daughter gets one. It’s almost always about her “beautiful blue eyes.”

My daughter’s way of interacting with the world renders her invisible compared to the “out there” approach of her brother.

Already at their young ages, the cultural message is clear: Having an extroverted personality is better, more praiseworthy, more desirable. Adults never come up to me and say, “My, your daughter is so demure.” Her more reserved personality doesn’t garner the same level of attention or affirmation. Not even close.

My daughter’s way of interacting with the world renders her invisible compared to the “out there” approach of her little brother. And as a girl she’s already going to be climbing mountains my son won’t ever have to. To be seen, heard, respected, noticed, she’ll have to overcome both the inherent biases against her gender as well as the biases against her more introverted personality.

And yet, she’s only 5 years old. It’s a little premature to worry about whether she’ll be passed over for Chairperson of the Board position in 30 years because a more social, extroverted man will snatch the job up. While it may be a stretch to draw a straight line from being ignored at Target to smashing her head on the glass ceiling, I can’t pretend there’s no correlation. I can’t pretend that I’m not seeing the larger cultural dynamics already at play.

Strangers project onto my extroverted male child the virtues of articulation, social acumen and a strong personality, and he reaps the social rewards through praise and attention, which encourages him to keep on flirting with the world.

My daughter, a strong personality in her own right (just not for constant public consumption), is rewarded with the meager and problematic compliment about her appearance. What’s she supposed to do with that? And more importantly, what am I supposed to do with that?

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I haven’t come up with an action plan per se, but my first step is to acknowledge that these biases are already affecting my children. It’s not a dynamic we will deal with “down the road” in middle school or high school. The time is now, which means I have a duty to gather the information and tools to empower my daughter to face the cultural realities and succeed in spite of those challenges.

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