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 Silent and withdrawn in unfamiliar social situations, I was not the confident, gregarious kid who initiated games with other children, never mind conversations.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.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
This is the most honest, uplifting article I have seen in a long time regarding shyness…I especially appreciated the “authentic” way Mike explained the important difference in first meeting an adult and first meeting a young child. I think every child in America is appreciative of the respect and restraint it takes to hold back on the “high fives”, the intrusive questions, and the song and dance act that so often takes place when meeting a child for the first time.
This is wonderful…thank you…this is once again a marvelous addition to any parents “how-to” guide!
My daughter is the same – she quietly surveys a situation before jumping in. I like that about her. I think it will serve her well in life.
This is such a great post. I agree that it is so important to let our babies, toddlers and children take the time they need to adjust to new situations and people.
Sometimes it is hard though, we brag about how many amazing things our kids can do and then they meet those people (like when I recently took my daughter with me to work for a couple minutes) and they don’t do any of the amazing things they are capable of. My daughter takes quite a while sometimes to warm up to a situation. Once she does, she charms everyone. I have tried really hard though, not to push her. I see it as such a positive quality that she is cautious and observant before she jumps in. Like Erica says, I think the quality will serve her well in life.
I think it is so unfortunate though that we label kids who are only doing what comes naturally to them- being cautious about something new. It would make sense, from a evolutionary perspective, for children to have this tendency- why would we try to encourage it out of them. It’s that instinct that could keep them safe in many situations.
I know exactly what you mean. We want our friends, relatives, etc., to appreciate all our child’s gifts and charms, but then she’s not comfortable enough to show herself. I agree that parental patience is those situations pays off. Our child needs to feel wholly accepted and understood by us, rather than being a source of our disappointment. And, I agree that it’s a healthy instinct to not open ourselves up to anyone and everyone when we first meet them. Now that I have a beautiful 17 year old daughter, I can REALLY appreciate that she takes her time to trust people and is not (at all) a performer/people pleaser!
Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
Do you have any tips for helping my 3 year old with what seems to be social anxiety? Whenever she is around new kids or people (at the park, the pool, school) she freezes and seems afraid. I have already made the mistake of expressing my disappointment that she doesn’t have “fun” at the park and I know that has made it worse in a number of ways. I want to support her to be confident in social situations and I don’t know if it’s best to just acknowledge that she seems scared (“You looked scared when the little girl came up to say hi to you at the park.”) or help her by offering ideas of what to say or role playing the scenarios with her toys or just ignoring it all together and continuing to expose her to new social situations? Help!
Thank you for this! My eldest, Truman, could be labeled shy. I cannot tell you the bs we have had to put up with from ‘well meaning’ adults! My son is confident, terrific, smart, and loving. A RIE child who does not feel compelled to make adults comfortable by performing for them….thank you thank you! And as Janet has seen, our youngest Ethan is a polar opposite! He needs time to warm up but once he is cozy (1 minute) he is all over the place 😉
Muah to conscious child raising! keep up the good work.
So glad my thoughts resonated. It’s only in my old age that I realize ‘shy’ is a catch-all misnomer for : thoughtful, guarded, quiet, scared (in my case), circumspect, calm, even polite, and any number of adjectives that don’t have the negative labelling connotations of ‘shy’.
I love this post. My husband told me he cried every day before kindergarten AND first grade- he wanted to stay home with his (awesome!) mom. He is now a multi-talented VP of engineering at a growing firm–and you would NEVER guess he was a ‘shy’ kid. He travels the country, speaking to customers while overcoming obstacles, constantly. I think his instinct to observe before jumping in helped him develop all sorts of social skills in the long run. I love that about him. =)
What a great article! Are you familiar with the work of Elaine Aron and the Highly Sensitive Person? Her website has a self-test to help you determine if you or your child are. (Our whole family is!). Statistically, about 15-20% of any given population is HS, generally labeled as ‘shyness’. Learning about our temperaments has helped us reframe our so-called “negatives” into true strengths!
Thank you for this insightful and quite personal post.
As an educator of 4s & 5s, I have known many “shy” students. I have seen in real life/time how I absolutely set the tone in a classroom for children understanding & valuing each others’ differing styles.
For example, when we played games as a group, the children understood that “Henry likes to take some extra time” when it was his turn — the message was not “hurry up, Henry” — which allowed Henry to feel included yet take the time he needed or pass his turn.
Was wondering if you think boys have a higher expectation by adults to be bolder and “get over” being shy, versus girls?
Yes… I think shyness in girls is ‘tolerated’, endearing, perceived as sweetness. With boys, it’s seen as a deficiency of confidence and backbone which will be a future handicap in life. As far as ‘getting over it’, it’s all about the parents — whether they accept their kid’s nature for what it is — or if they have other, personal aspirations for them. Then they push. I cringe when I see that, especially if it’s being done for MY benefit. I don’t need to be impressed (and I don’t like precocious). I try to de-fuse the parent’s anxiety, let them know their child’s interaction with me is just perfect.
My adored grandson, who has always enjoyed the company of adults but has been reticent with other children, recently underwent some testing for school. Among the psychologist’s conclusions: Zach needs to be brave every day just to go to school. So you can add courage to your list of qualities in a thoughtful and circumspect child. They have our love, but they also deserve our respect for finding their own ways to navigate through whatever nature and/or nurture has dealt them. Just as you did — remarkably successfully if you ask me!
“brave every day just to go to school”. Now, that’s something to consider. He sounds like a remarkable boy, someone I’d like to meet sometime, exchange war stories.
This post describes my son! Thank you for writing it! I have a question though: as a parent, I want to support my son, but I feel anxiety myself when adults rush in for the high-5, or try to pull him out of his shell. What can I say or do to support my son when adults want him to perform the hellos, answer the questions, and engage when he’s not ready? I feel compelled to say something, but don’t want to say “he’s shy”. What do you suggest a parent do? I feel like these interactions are hard on both of us because I can feel (and often hear) the judgement “oh. He’s so shy” like it’s a disappointment. Help!
I too am wondering what a parent’s reaction to well meaning adults should look like. So often people come up to my daughter and start battering her with questions… “What’s your name? How old are you? I love your glasses. Is this your baby brother? What is your brother’s name?” These are strangers, people my daughter does not know and people I do not know. Maybe because we are in the south this seems normal to people but it is very intrusive and my daughter does not answer. I don’t know what to say in these instances. If I know the person but my daughter does not, I will introduce the person to my child and leave it up to her if she speaks to them or not. We never make our children have physical contact with anyone, not even relatives. What would you do if a stranger was asking your child questions?
Hi Michelle! Yes, I’m always amazed by everyone’s impatience to get kids talking to strangers… I would wait a moment and then intervene calmly with something like, “My daughter talks to people she knows well. Thanks for your interest!”
I often have trouble coming up with a response to people constantly trying to get my daughter to blow kisses, wave, give a high five, fist bump, the list goes on. My daughter knows how to wave but not the other actions and it is painful for me to watch others try and force her to do those things. Do you have a suggestion on a response?
I have a amazing and sensitive 2 years 3 month old boy who seems to have bags of confidence and loves (normally rough)playing with older children and is so kind and caring with babies. With children of his own age he is rather more reserved and it takes him a lot longer to “warm up” and try and play, but thats fine and I normally just say to the child wanting to play with him to give him a few minutes to “settle in” which although it can sometimes take 10 minutes or sometimes an hour most children are very understandable!! When it comes to adults however things are very different. With strangers and members of our family – just someone saying hello (not psychical contact)or someone giving eye contact and smiling can cause him to at best snuggle his face into my shoulder or hide behind my legs or at worst scream in their face or even hit them!! The only way I can make people feel a bit better is by saying sorry he is shy- but when it happens more than once, especially to a close family member they have even said- boy he must really hate me!
Yes my focus is on my son and I know as an adult its up to them to realize he is just a child and his response is his own but I want to understand his behavior and I want to understand why his is feeling this way so I don’t just feel like I have to label him as “shy”. When we have a scream or he hits out- I cuddle him, speak at his level and ask him if he feels angry or scared (he can’t speak very well yet but is very good at communicating) I can’t understand why he would be scared and no-one is getting in his space?? Also I want him to understand his actions can hurt other peoples feelings, but I understand he is too young for that at the moment…
Any ideas for making this easier for him? As it happens he is fine with saying goodbye to ANYONE- strangers and family alike and even after a screaming session as soon as its time to say goodbye he’ll be all sweetness and smiles!!
Thanks for any advice in advance x Mirrie
My two and a half year old is reserved around people he doesn’t know. When someone asks him a question – his name or how old he is, for instance – he looks the person in the eye and remains silent. I usually wait as long as I can stand it (maybe 10-15 seconds) and respond for him. I don’t prod him (tell him your name, what’s your name? say your name), I wait quietly and then answer. How do others handle these situations? I don’t want to speak for him, but it seems like someone should say something!
Thank you for this! My son was so incredibly shy that I had to say to his violin teacher “if you could just not do that aggressive thing where you have eye contact with him, he’ll be fine.” Now that he’s 12 his shyness comes across as aloof or arrogant when I know it’s anxiety and fear. RIE honoring and respect still informs my attitude but it’s nice to know he might turn into someone like you who would actually walk up to someone and shake hands (can’t fathom).
Thank you for this post. I appreciate everything you’ve said here, and I have some questions. I also fall into the “shy” “highly sensitive” category and so does my son at 2.5. I remember the awkward feelings and interactions as a child. My mother always “respected” me in the sense that we weren’t pushed to perform and weren’t given words to help us engage others but I felt plagued by her own awkwardness “shyness” and her never helping me out to get comfortable. Now as a parent, I believe in respecting a child’s own inner knowingness of when / how to step forward and engage others but I also realize my son occasionally needs some encouragement to get unstuck. I really don’t think he wants to be entirely left on his own to decide when / how to engage and actually takes a great deal of comfort when I help him into social interactions in a respectful way. We worked w an OT on this over the course of a month and I witnessed his confidence shoot through the roof. He was then able to more easily free play with other children, take off on his own in a group setting, and draw from his language skills w both parents and kids. He seems happier and more confident. So my question is, do you think there’s a place for respectful encouragement when your child is withdrawing in social scenes. I would just add that i also had to recognize some things internal to myself – that I also tended to withdraw, and that as I got more comfortable in social interactions, I could better encourage him and better exude the comfort that he needed to support his own reaching out.
I loved your post. I am a facilitator with the Gordon Neufeld Institute in Vancouver Canada, which has a developmental and attachment foundation.
Dr. Neufeld does a brilliant job of defending shyness as “serving” attachment and uses the term “reserved”, saying children’s affections are reserved for those they are attached to. He further outlines how shyness has, in traditional cultures a very natural function of keeping children close to primary attachments and safe from outside influence. For me this has been very helpful in normalizing shyness as our culture seems to pathogogize it.
This is such a good and thought provoking piece. I always disliked being labelled “shy” but don’t always think enough about my own use of that word.
My 2.5 year old, who takes a little time to warm up to new people (or even people she hasn’t seen for a while) has started saying “feeling shy, mummy” when she sees someone new or someone she doesn’t want to go and talk to, and I had started to worry that she has picked that wording up from me and others.
Perhaps I am being over enthusiastic about putting her into social situations. I guess it is also good that she is being open with me about her feelings, and maybe she is not so much labelling herself as sharing how she feels at that moment.
This so completely describes me and my children. I was terribly shy, scared and embarrassed my whole childhood. They are reserved and like to watch but they are confident in who they are and what they want to do.
I find your articles extremely helpful in my parenting journey. I have always been introvert but now have learnt to behave well in social situations. My daughter is the same. She’s now 4 years old and does not find crowded situations comfortable at all (unless it’s a gathering in her own home). Today we went to a birthday party of a daycare friend, and ended up parking the car outside and staying in the car the whole time. I didn’t want to force her to do something she was completely uncomfortable but im a bit worried about this situation. Do you have any advice please? Thanks.