Unintended Consequences

Otto and Etta love each other. Really, they do. But sometimes that’s hard to remember when they’re having one of their epic fights.

Their typical sibling battles are exacerbated by their wildly different personalities. One is a deep-seated introvert, and the other, a raging extrovert.

I’ll give you three guesses which is which:

Etta and Otto eating ice cream
Photo: Veronica Beck

Yep, Otto is our introvert. Though he loves hanging with his friends, he needs big stretches of down time to recharge. He’ll spend hours by himself contentedly curled up with a good book, or plugged in to his beloved Critical Role podcast, eating snacks and planning his latest Dungeons and Dragons campaign. 

To Etta, the idea of alone time is a frightening and alien concept. This is a child who begs for company in the bathroom while brushing her teeth, who prefers to sleep on the floor in our bedroom closet so she doesn’t have to sleep alone, who spends the entire day playing with friend after friend, and then is genuinely puzzled when we tell her no, sorry, we can’t arrange another play date for you at 8:00 pm.

Take one introvert, add an extremely persistent extrovert, and sprinkle in some big brother worship. What do you get? 

“Ottoooooooo! Stop running away!” 
“ETTA! Leave me alone!”

“Ok kids, come here,” I commanded. They were fighting over Otto’s “thinking time” ritual. Every night after dinner, Otto makes a beeline for the front yard where he paces back and forth, oblivious to his surroundings, lost in thought, happy, contented, and most importantly — alone. Etta, dying to be included and eager for his attention, runs outside to be near him.

“Listen up,” I began, as they glared at each other. “What you two have going on is a case of very different personalities. It’s called introverts and extroverts.”

“Otto is an introvert,” I explained to Etta. “It’s not that he doesn’t like you. Introverts just need alone time to recharge their batteries.”

“Etta is an extrovert,” I told Otto. “She’s not trying to drive you crazy. She just gets energy from being around people.”

We talked about introverts and extroverts over dinner. We talked about how different people need different things. We talked about how you could love someone and still not want to be around them every single minute. I was in my glory, in full-on teacher mode, lecturing, answering questions, drawing annotated diagrams, using examples and metaphors to drive my point home. 

In short, I was brilliant.

Except it didn’t work. They kept right on driving each other crazy, Etta doing everything she could to be near Otto, with Otto equally determined to get away from her.

I did notice, however, one unintended consequence:

Both kids have fully embraced their assigned labels. And play them for all they’re worth.

Me: “Otto, your teacher is asking if you’d be willing to be in the church play.”

Otto, offended: “Mama! I’m an INTROVERT. Of course I don’t want to do that!”

Me: “Etta, I know you can do your homework on your own. I’ll be in the kitchen doing dishes.”

Etta, speaking slowly and clearly, as if explaining a simple concept to a quite young and not-so-bright child: “Mama, I’m an EX-TRO-VERT. That means I can’t be alone!”

Otto: “No, I don’t want to go grocery shopping with you, I’ll just stay home and play video games. INTROVERTS like me need our alone time, you know.”

Etta: “Mama, you have to let me have a sleepover because I’m an EXTROVERT and I need COMPANY.”

Otto: “I can’t try out for cross country, Mama, because I’m an …”

I cut him off.  “Yes, yes I know! You’re an introvert! That doesn’t mean you can’t do things with other people, Otto! And Etta, being an extrovert doesn’t mean you can’t have alone time! Sheesh!”

The kids looked at each other and smirked. But they knew the jig was up.

“Actually, Mama, I just don’t want to do cross country,” Otto admitted, a sheepish grin on his face. “I hate running.”

“And I just love sleepovers,” Etta chimed in.

So much for my brilliant psychology lectures.

On the bright side, they get lots of practice negotiating, and navigating their very different personalities. And as they’ve gotten older, they’ve found more common ground, like capturing Pokemon, teaching Snowy the dog how to jump through a hula hoop, and seeing who can out-do the other in eating Halloween candy.

And yet, they are still very much their own, unique selves.

This conversation sums it up:

Etta: “They only let you have three flavors?? I want five! And ice cream in the middle, and gummies on top! Can I have more than one topping, please please please?”

Otto: “No ice cream, thanks. Just grape flavor.”

Etta, incredulous: “Otto! You’re only getting ONE flavor?”
Otto: “Yep ….. I like my flavors to be symmetrical.”

Otto and Etta eating shave ice
Photo: Veronica Beck

As for the moms, we help balance the kids out. Kate is more towards Etta’s side of the spectrum, while I lean more towards Otto’s. One flavor please, but go ahead and add that scoop of ice cream in the middle.

the Becks on the beach
Photo: Veronica Beck

Veronica Beck

Veronica Beck is a technical writer, blogger, and formerly reluctant parent.

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3 years ago

Wonderful! Oh to see the world through a youth’s eyes. As human beings, we all have different personalities and that is exactly why we make such a beautiful quilt of people all throughout the world!

3 years ago

*such* a good article. I am amused that they are now using the labels to define themselves, although, as you pointed out, that can lead to unintended consequences. They know, I assume, that introverts can sometimes be outgoing (but still need their alone time) and extroverts can need quiet time for thinking. And that people can change 🙂 And most people are mixtures, depending on circumstances. ( I don’t mean this to sound tutorial- just thinking aloud, as it were, and wondering how in the world extroverts do it!) That made me think- can introverts ever understand the extroverts? And vice versa. Just wondering.

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