When I was in high school, I learned that for my dance group’s spoof awards ceremony, I’d been selected to receive the award for being the “Most Reserved” at our big, fancy graduation dinner. Knowing the agony that label caused me, My Mom suggested that I tape a sign that read “I AM NOT SHY” to the back of my underwear and, when in front of the group to receive the award, to moon everyone with my, ahem, (not shy side).
Although I appreciated the sentiment, I did not take that advice.
Even the littlest kids intuitively know how people want them to be. In general: gregarious = good; quiet = problem. Well-meaning adults often pursue small children who aren’t quick to respond with a sweetly teasing inquiry of “Oh, are you shy?” To a kid who, like all kids, is looking to find acceptance in the world, this question—no matter how good-natured the intentions—can be perceived as, “You, little human, are not okay as you are.”
In truth, the child may not be shy at all. He may just be an observer. Splitting hairs? Nah. For some, it’s actually quite different, and both can be completely developmentally normal. There’s a world of difference between lacking confidence and being an observer who’s sure of oneself, yet who likes to enter the pool through the shallow end, so to speak. Going slowly gives quiet kids, no matter their motivation, the information they need to feel comfortable in new situations. Regardless of your child’s confidence, it’s important for the world’s naturally gregarious people to understand that the seemingly innocent question about shyness can actually cause pain or embarrassment for some kids.
For those of us who have the quiet ones in our homes, part of gentle parenting is accepting our children for exactly who they are, and trusting that they’ll be who they were designed to be.
What does that trust look like? If your child isn’t inclined to approach new people or situations boldly, here’s how you can support him or her.
First, when in a situation that’s typically challenging for your quiet one, talk ahead of time about what to expect (even if she’s seen it before). To you, it might just be another kid’s birthday party. To your kid, it might be “a place where people I don’t know look at me and adults try to talk to me, and noisy kids are everywhere.” Rather than telling your child what’s expected of him (which can be perceived as pressure), state just the facts and describe what your child is likely to see there. Then, remind your child that you (or another trusted adult) will be with him the whole time. Finally, agree on a script of what he can say if he needs support. If talking to another adult without your involvement is tricky for him, consider giving him a small “help card” to show that adult, instead.
If you’re staying present with your child, here are some steps you can try:
- Wait to see if that anyone says anything to your child, and let your child enter the social scene at his or her own pace (or not at all). If someone does say something, then ask your child something like this (within earshot of that person): “Would you like to respond, or shall I tell them you prefer to observe?” There are lots of variations you can try here. For instance, once we graduated from this question, we moved onto, “Would you prefer to say ‘hi’ or just wave?” Remember the importance of your loving, supportive touch along the way.
- Respect your child’s choice. If she chooses observation, simply tell the other person: “She prefers to observe until she knows people better.” And then redirect the conversation.
- Support your child by not offering apologies or excuses. A simple smile assures the person with whom you’re engaged in conversation that all is well.
If you don’t have a quiet child, the best thing you can do is let the quiet ones be, without judgment. By doing that, you’re sending the message that they’re exactly right, just as they are.
Stay tuned for Part Two, Engaging the Quiet Child (particularly for those for whom quietness is like a foreign language).
Book recommendations for further reading (Amazon afflinks):
This book helped me understand sensitive kids better than any other I’ve found; I highly recommend it.