Growing up, I was labeled a shy child. Silent and withdrawn in unfamiliar social situations, I was not the confident, gregarious kid who initiated games with other children, never mind conversations. I would hang back and watch as the others interacted, bringing as little attention to myself as possible. It always seemed that the other kids knew each other, that they were already comfortable friends, that I was the lone outsider.
Eventually, I would settle in. I was athletic and relatively tough (playing ‘Five Fingers of Death’ in an apartment with brothers will do that), so at some point I would insinuate myself into the social order through sports or general rough housing, gain enough confidence to relax and forge friendships.
In common parlance, shy is synonymous with bashful and suggests a shrinking away from contact with others, an avoidance of scrutiny and attention. That certainly describes me as a child. I did not want to be noticed, especially by well intentioned adults who felt honor bound to drag me from my shell. But when I flash back to situations that were truly excruciating (i.e. first day of kindergarten), my sense memory recognizes feelings of anxiety and a good dose of fear. So, shy seems a rather understated, generalized descriptor.
Why was I afraid? I can only speculate, but probably an unfortunate combination of nature and nurture. Perhaps I came out of the chute subdued and circumspect (‘still waters’, don’t you know). While my parents were caring and reasonably available, I had a significant surgery when I was less than two years old and spent some time in the hospital – with strangers, of course. I don’t remember the experience, but I must assume it rocked my confidence in a secure, predictable world.
I also had an older brother who was not pleased with the fact of my existence. As the intruding second child, I was the target of his anger, natural jealousy and plenty of mischief. I was not going to be happy if he could help it. Nothing horrendous, but certainly a constant, unpredictable threat, physical and emotional. And, no doubt, I treated subsequent siblings likewise. As our family grew (six kids), opportunities for moments of my mother’s complete focus and attention became less frequent. The new babies’ physical needs took precedence over my emotional ones.
When I consider my own children who have had the benefit of Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy in their upbringing — respect, focused attention, empathy — I find support for my personal nature/nurture theory. As infants and toddlers, each of my kids was — to varying degrees — socially subdued. Like me, none was the kind of child who dove unthinking into unfamiliar situations with other kids. They would sit back and observe the action silently, taking stock of the personalities and social dynamic in the room. Eventually – whether in 10 minutes or 30 – they would perceive a point of entry and make their own decision to join in. Or not. But we did not push them to ‘go make friends’ or label them shy to explain their behavior to other parents.
I consider all of my children to be socially confident — even adept — certainly more than I was at their age, and older. Perhaps their instinct to hang back and watch was inherited. But I never sensed in their demeanor a hint of anxiety or fear. They seemed comfortable. I have to believe this is because as infants and toddlers they had a very different nurturing experience than mine.
Happily, none has spent time in a hospital or any other situation where they were separated from their parents for any length of time. And as RIE infants , their world was always relatively stable and secure. Rarely were they placed in situations that could be considered out of their own control — being handled without their permission by well-meaning friends and relatives; overwhelmed by sensory input like movies, TV or loud music; or carted around adult parties like an accessory.
Furthermore, emotionally, physically and intellectually they were allowed to develop naturally. They were not pushed to reach age appropriate benchmarks, or coached to say or do things to make their parents proud. Their successes were their own, and as a result, all three children gained confidence in their abilities to navigate the world on their own.
I learned to compensate for my social inadequacies by consciously pushing myself forward. I am the first in a room of strangers to step forward, introduce myself and shake your hand. I’ll compliment your dress or hair or shoes or kids, or make a self-deprecating joke to put you at ease. Sometimes I overcompensate and come on too strong. I’m a work in progress.
But when I meet a toddler for the first time, I am a very different kind of stranger. I will not initiate any physical contact. I will not demand a handshake or a ‘high five’ or a hug, drill the child with questions, or get in his face with a stand-up routine to put him at ease. These are social rituals adults have invented that have nothing to do with the feelings of the child, and for a shy kid, it is most certainly uncomfortable at best, excruciating at worst. He is on stage, all eyes awaiting an appropriate response, compelled to interact awkwardly with a stranger so as not to embarrass his parents.
I am happy to say that my respect for a toddler’s boundaries comes naturally. It is bred from empathy but confirmed by Magda Gerber’s approach to child care. Surely, no one can have more respect for a reserved child than an adult who was himself once labeled shy.
Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson