When my daughter Josephine was a preschooler, it typically took her awhile to warm up to new situations. As much as I tried to role model enthusiastically leaping in (which wasn’t necessarily in my nature) she tended to hold back, observing and assessing before finally taking the plunge. Looking back, I think I did a pretty good job of honoring this part of her temperment, but that doesn’t mean that there didn’t remain a part of me that felt she would somehow be better off if only she could learn to be a little more like those kids who play first and ask questions later.
You know the child I’m talking about. He’s the one who enters talking, unselfconsciously announces his presence, drops to his knees, and gets down to playing. He’s eager for every transition, responds to every call to action, and gets right to the front of every line. As the parent of a child who takes longer to warm up, it’s hard to not wish for a little of that attitude to rub off on one’s own child. It’s a deeply ingrained prejudice, one based in no small measure on the fact that we’ve all missed out on things in life because we held back when it would have been better to just go for it.
Of course, we’re also blissfully unaware of the many scars and bruises we’ve avoided through our hesitation. If someone is going to get injured, it’s almost always the kid who leaps before he looks. If someone is going to be embarrassed, it’s typically the person who hasn’t done his due diligence. If someone is going to get into trouble, it’s most likely to be the one who hasn’t taken the time to learn the ropes.
There’s a reason that most of our kids have a healthy suspicion of the unknown. No matter how colorful and exciting something might be, it’s a sign of intelligence – or even innate wisdom – to hold back a bit and see what happens to the other kids before risking our own necks.
I see this all the time, of course, during the early part of every school year, especially among the 2-year-olds who don’t yet know me, their classmates, or the school. Even now, two-months into the school year, there are still a half-dozen kids who have their doubts about me. Their parents tell me they talk about me at home, often even pretending to be me. They sing the songs and look forward to certain aspects of our day together, so I know they’re engaged and that’s what’s important.
This would be a problem in a traditional school with only one or two teachers in the room, but since we’re a co-op, there is no dearth of grown-ups to turn to – including one’s own parent – when an adult is needed. We have the luxury of honoring the children’s instincts and letting them take it at their own pace.
I’ve written here before about Sammy who spent the bulk of her 2-year-old year fleeing whenever I was anywhere near her, never speaking to me, and generally making it perfectly clear that she preferred her Teacher Tom at a distance, but who now treats me with the casual friendliness of old friends.
After all, it’s not a race, and in our preschool, which is really a 3-year program, we have all the time in the world to get from here to there.
This isn’t always true, however, in the world beyond our yellow walls. For instance, with the holidays fast upon us, our kids are going to be set upon by hoards of strangers (in the form of friends and family) who will be demanding cheery greetings, kisses and hugs. And when the kids do what comes naturally by hiding behind mommy’s leg or burying their heads into daddy’s shoulder, these people will call them “shy,” one of the most insidious and potentially self-fulfilling of all the names you can call a kid. And many of us will feel embarrassed, even while we might sympathize, and be pressured by the weight of social conventions to insist that they let these strangers handle them, kiss them, and even pinch their cheeks without even the buffer of a proper period of getting-to-know-you.
Seriously, first they call you a name, then they lay hands on you, then they slobber on your cheek and worse. Yuck! It makes me want to hide behind someone’s leg.
Of course, these aren’t bad people, in fact they’re probably some of your most beloved. And they just want to love your child. And you want your child to love them. And your child may already love them, but this isn’t an issue of love, but rather of trust. Trust between people doesn’t spontaneously appear for children any more than it does for adults. It’s something that grows and everything that grows takes time.
If you foresee this scenario in your near future, it would probably be a good idea to talk to your child about what to expect in advance. Remind her of who is going to be there and warn her that they’ll want a hug. Whether or not another person touches me, should be my own choice, but reality dictates that there are going to be times when I don’t really have a choice, especially if I’m a child and the hugger is grandma. If that’s in your child’s future, you owe it to him to prepare him: “Grandma is going to hug you.” And when he answers, “I don’t want to,” your response will have to be, “I know, but Grandma will still hug you.”
That said, in most cases we should have a choice about being touched. Instead of siding with the “stranger” and urging little Billy to “say, ‘Hi’” or “hug Uncle Louis,” it would probably be more productive to let their relationship develop at its own pace. Uncle Louis is a grown-up, he’s just going to have to accept it when you instead say something like, “Billy will say ‘Hi’ later,” or “He’s not ready for hugs.”
It can be a little trickier when someone hangs the “shy” label on your kid. That’s a tough tag to live with, and if your child tends to be slow to warm, she’s going to be hearing it a lot, possibly even to the point of internalizing it. As a parent, I never let “shy” go by uncorrected. I would respond with things like, “She’s not shy. She’s thoughtful.” If you say it with a knowing smile, a sensitive adult will catch on to what you’re doing – replacing a word with negative connotations (shy) for a word with positive ones (thoughtful) – and play along. But even if the adult is a little hurt by the correction, at least your child will have heard that label refuted. Of course, if we’re talking about friends and family, it should be easy to just pull them aside and let them know that you’re trying to avoid using the label of “shy” around the kid. They’ll understand.
The real fun comes when it’s a complete stranger who feels compelled to call your kid “shy.” It’s remarkable how often unknown people are compelled to demand attention from your child, then respond with something like, “Oh, aren’t we the shy one?” when he retreats behind the shopping cart. Parent educator Dawn Carlson, suggests replying with something along the lines of, “He’s not shy. He just doesn’t feel like meeting strangers right now.” Or, if it’s a particularly egregious example, “He’s not shy. He just doesn’t want to talk to you.”
As our kids get older, it’s important to keep giving them the tools that will ultimately allow them to stand up for themselves and to understand their own strengths even in the midst of the barrage of “shy” that our culture seems to accept in every day conversation. Often those who get labeled “shy” grow to feel that there is something wrong them. We all feel some level of anxiety or nervousness in new situations and it’s important to find age-appropriate ways to share that with our children, letting him know that their feelings are normal and universal. Teaching them how to politely decline unwanted advances with words like, “No, thank you,” is equally important.
The time it takes to build trust and the social demands for politeness are often at odds when it comes to young children and it’s our job to help them find a balance. There are times when we have to hug grandma, even if she does smell like oatmeal, but more often than not honoring our children’s social instincts should trump niceties. It’s not a race. We have all the time in the world.