I was at my 5-year-old’s kindergarten orientation about a month ago when a fellow mom sat down next to me, visibly upset. Her daughter had just had a tough time separating from her and joining the other kids on a teacher-guided tour of their future classroom. “I mean, she’s not shy,” she told me, almost defensively.
“Well my daughter is,” I replied, equally defensively. It struck me that this mom was implying that being shy was a bad thing; that she couldn’t believe her usually outgoing (translation: well-adjusted) kid would have trouble in a new environment.
As the mom of a child who can be painfully shy, it’s a sentiment I’m used to. Shy = bad, outgoing = good. It’s an assumption I have to fight myself.
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“Is she shy?” people ask when my daughter doesn’t answer them right away, looking for any excuse as to why she seems to be giving them the cold shoulder; “Wow, she’s really shy,” some less-than-perceptive people will say to me when my daughter refuses to volunteer to be the center of attention. Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, she’s just shy,” as if it’s her personal get-out-of-jail-free-card.
Other times people assume my daughter’s being rude. Those who are slightly more plugged in to children’s emotions assume she’s anxious. The truth is that at times she can be one or both of these things. But five years into parenting her (I know, not the quickest of learners on this front), I’m starting to accept and even appreciate my daughter’s shyness—and the complexity of it all.
As a kid I was pretty shy myself. People who know me now might find this hard to believe (as a reporter, I’ve actually made talking to strangers my job). But I distinctly remember wanting the floor to swallow me whole when I’d be at a magic show or a puppet show and the actor would ask the audience for someone to come up and help. The very thought that I’d be picked was enough to make me want to run out the back door. I also remember feeling somewhat guilty that I wasn’t more outgoing.
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If I had to make a guess now, I’d say my daughter will never be the kid who throws her hand up and volunteers in front of a magic show. But I wouldn’t put money on it, either.
That’s the thing about shyness—it changes, and it comes and goes in different situations. Sometimes, when my daughter’s with her friends, she’s Chatty Cathy. Oftentimes I can’t get a word in when she’s talking. Yet, when there are adults she doesn’t know well (and even those she does) around, she can be practically silent.
I changed; she might too. But even if she doesn’t, I’ll try my hardest to ensure that she’s not limited—or defined—by this one trait.
See, as long as it’s not a sign of severe anxiety, unhappiness, or a real lack of confidence, I’ve started to realize that shyness can be a good thing. We tell kids not to speak to strangers, and with my daughter I’m pretty sure she never will. Plus, kids who are shy are also often sensitive and thoughtful.
I just hope my daughter realizes all these things more quickly than I did, that she doesn’t feel guilty or ashamed by her natural inclination to keep to herself. And most of all, I hope she surrounds herself with people she deems worth opening up to.
I honestly feel for that woman at kindergarten orientation. And it’s true that her daughter didn’t seem to be much of an introvert—she came up to me, a total stranger, and started talking away just minutes later. But, of course, it’s not only shy kids who can have trouble separating.
In her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking,” Susan Cain points out that one in three people are introverted.
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“At school you might have been prodded to come ‘out of your shell’—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same,” she writes.
I’ll admit that it’s tempting to try and push a shy child out of her shell, and to apologize for her refusal to come out of it.
But shyness is not always a “problem” that needs fixing, but rather one aspect of a multi-faceted personality.
My daughter is shy, for sure, but she’s also thoughtful, funny, sensitive, and sweet. Like all kids, she’s many things, and different things to different people. Almost all are worth celebrating …even the shyness.