My nephew can stick 12 French fries up his nose. My daughter’s friend regularly hangs up the phone on her mother, and my son’s buddy refuses to play if he doesn’t win at Mario Kart. But my children seem to raise the most eyebrows. Their issue? They are shy.
I have raised four (formerly) shy kids. They all cried at preschool. They all quivered at the word “babysitter.” None of them could look an adult in the eye until about age 8, much less answer a question.
I’ve peered reassuringly through a doorway at ballet class while holding a baby on my lap. I’ve sat in the preschool hallway waving at my 3-year-old. I’ve perched on a rickety stool and given the thumbs-up during piano lessons. But I’ve also learned that with steady perseverance and encouragement, my children eventually gain the confidence and assurance they need. Their shyness didn’t last forever.
We live in a time where kids are encouraged to be assertive, strong, and outgoing. These are wonderful traits to have, but it’s also important to remember that some people are naturally just more quiet, bashful, or hesitant. “Shy” shouldn’t be a bad word.
Based on comments I hear, I think many parents feel quiet children must be pitied while outspoken kids are to be lauded. “Don’t be shy,” parents admonish their children when the kids clam up before a stranger or in an unfamiliar situation. Are they really being shy? Or just sizing up the unknown?
Now, I have nothing against rambunctious, crazy kids. My husband comes from a family of daring and outgoing siblings. The stories of their wild antics growing up are one of the things that makes me love them. But shy kids are a concept they have trouble understanding.
The differences between our families came to a head in the middle of a family vacation. My husband and I were being pressured to put our kids in all-day ski school. We struggled between the allure of a few cherished hours of freedom on the slopes and the fear that the kids would most likely be miserable. Eventually, we were coerced into doing it and it was a disaster. My son and daughter never even made it out of the lodge and onto the slopes. When we came to pick them up, my son lay crumpled on the dirty floor where my daughter watched over him, tear-stained.
My mother-in-law was astounded. “What is so hard about it? I mean, why can’t they just stay inside and color then? What is so hard about just coloring?” She didn’t intend to be cruel, but she simply could not grasp the challenges that new situations pose to shy children.
The funny thing is, once I changed my mindset and stopped forcing my kids to do things they didn’t want to do, our struggles subsided. I worked with what I’d been given. Too scared of ballet? Let’s wait. Crying at the thought of a playdate? Just hang out with the siblings then. We all relaxed.
Shy or outgoing, all children have issues. We all have issues. Most of the time, we grow out of them. Not always, of course; that’s what makes the world such an interesting place. My 8-year-old daughter recently came home with a project asking her to list three things that describe her. “I like to read, I’m a good friend, and I’m shy,” she proudly wrote. No apologies necessary.
Laura Amann is a freelance writer whose four children exhibit varying degrees of social assertiveness.
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