Saturday, November 21, 2009

She's Not Shy. She's Thoughtful.

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.

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Anonymous said...

But whether or not you choose to give "shy" a negative connotation, not being friendly with strangers IS the definition of shy, so when people say it, they are actually using a correct word. Are we so concerned that we not give are child anything negative, we can't use the correct word. God forbid they grow up and told they are "average"

Furthermore, like it or not, trusting too much, in a child, is a healthy sign. It's a mark of immaturity, yes, but also shows security in environment, their parents and their situation in life.

I'm sorry but I don't think we need to tell "shy" kids they are more thoughtful then other kids who are just well-adjusted. I don't think we need to say anything. My relatives have said MANY things I wish they hadn't to label my kids, which I never do. But the bottom line is, my kids listen up to what I say most so I don't sweat it.

Teacher Tom said...

I understand your point Anonymous, and one of the symptoms of shyness is, indeed, a tendency to be anxious about dealing with strangers, which might result in behavior that comes off as rude.

But I simply don't see how any good can come from labeling a person (especially a young child who you don't know well) as "shy" to their face in public. At best it's insensitive and at worst it's an attempt to shame the child. I certainly would never do that to an adult. But for whatever reason people do feel that they have the right to do it to children, so it's important that we teach our kids how to deal with it.

My broader point is that labeling other people, be it "shy," "fat," "ugly," or "mean," is hurtful, especially when it's done to 2-year-olds who don't have the ability to defend themselves.

"(T)rusting too much" may or may not be a healthy sign. We all have different temperments that vary over time. We all grow and develop at different rates and in different directions. Trusting too much or inappropriately, for instance, can also be a sign that a child has been neglected or abused.

And finally, I tried here to make the case that children who tend to be slow to warm demonstrate intelligence and thoughtfulness when they choose to hang back. I know that in the case of my own child, she has always preferred to spend some time figuring things out before leaping in -- I take that as a sign of thoughtfulness. It's not a relative term. Her thoughtfulness doesn't take away from the thoughtfulness of others.

Thanks for commenting.

Floor Pie said...

Anonymous, I have less of a problem the word "shy" than I do with its negative connotations. For example, you just used the term "well adjusted" to differentiate from "shy." Plenty of kids (and adults) are well adjusted and shy.

Shy is a component of temperatment, not emotional or psychological well being. And, as Tom points out here, it's perfectly normal for a young child to be wary and slow to approach a new person or situation.

Anonymous said...

This is good advice, my son is quite 'thoughtful' in new situations and it has always annoyed me when someone rushed to judgment and called him shy. I'd immediately reply by saying that it was all just new to him and he'll warm up. Thanks.

Jason, as himself said...

Teacher Tom, how DO you come up with such well written, insightful posts? And how DO you know so much? I've been working with kids for a long time, too, but I pale in comparison to you and your writing.

Anonymous said...

I see your point, although the line "She's not shy, she just doesn't want to talk to you" hit me the hardest. Like I said, I don't sweat what other people say to my kids. I would never label my own kid, and that is what matters most to them. Whereas, if I interjected something like that, I think I would give off a definite defensiveness, rather than a graciousness I would choose to set as an example

A father in my neighborhood was recently laid off. My daughter, when asked to pick a friend to go to the movies, chose his daughter. When we went over to pick her up, he asked me how I was and made a joke about how we spent some time struggling to get math done. He immediately straightended up and said,
"well lucky for my daughter, its never a problem, she gets her math skills from me." He said this in front of both children.

I smiled and nodded. My understanding of his situation and of his need to boast was immediate. My daughter knows I am smart and confident and I didn't need to say anything as a rebuttal.

Besides what he said may well be true, despite the fact that it didn't need to be said. His daughter does quite better than mine in math, for whatever reason. It is not the first or the last time in life my daughter will hear herself negatively or even just objectively compared to others. I would rather teach her not to pay attention.

jennifer said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you Teacher Tom. Your wonderful insights are exactly what I needed to respond in a healthy way to my 3 year old daughter who is quite thoughtful in certain situations. I'll be reading this again and again.(-;

Alison @ Educational Creations said...

I hate my daughter being labeled as shy .. makes me cringe. But I have learnt early on she needs time to watch the happenings. I have observed her observing the scenario, the different roles of the children and adults. Summing up what will be expected of her. Then when we least expect it, in she jumps with two feet, blended well with the crowd, confident, and "thoughtful" to others.

"She's not shy.", I politely tell people. "She's an observer, she's figuring out the whos, whats, whys and from that she works out her when."

Wouldn't change her for the world (although there are a few others I happily would .. like the child that ran out of a restaurant pushing my elderly and frail father in law to oneside, whilst the parents laughed at their child's energy).

I'll take my cautious observer any day.

GINGER said...

Well, As a 65 year old who was "shy" as a child, and still am sometimes, although being very outgoing and taking leadership in many situations, I was overjoyed this morning to read,".....she's thoughtful". THANK YOU! I regaled my sisters, with whom I live, and are 57 and 69 with this amazing comment! I look back and agree! Thank you!

Lou S said...

This post pleases me somewhat as the term "shy" *is* used negatively. For me, if I don't talk to someone or look at someone, it's not because I'm "shy"; it's because I've learned to distrust. It's a balance thing.

I am grateful that no one (in my hearing) called me "shy" 'til at least high school and not *really* until Katimavik (a year after the end of high school). People *did* use other words - out of my hearing (besides teasing/mocking/making fun) - and it *was* harmful.

Anonymous said...

Teacher Tom's words here are SPOT ON. Back in the early 90s, if there had been more information on Selective Mutism, I would have been diagnosed with it in kindergarten and my parents would have had a much easier time trying to explain my personality to relatives, teachers and friends' parents. Instead, I had to see a cruel child psychiatrist every week for several years, and although my IQ tested in the 160s, everyone treated me like I had a learning disability at best, or pretended I wasn't there at worst. Of course, I was extremely observant and was perfectly aware that people were treating me strangely (she's "so shy"), which made me feel even more uncomfortable in social situations than I already did. Every day I'd try to convince myself that I'd raise my hand in class or do something that "normal" kids did, but all of the negative vibes from my teachers would send me right back into my shell. Strangely, I never had a problem with any of my peers.

In the end, I was much more successful than EVERYONE I knew as a kid - I got a full ride to college, moved to Japan by myself to teach English, married at age 23 to a fellow introvert, and recently earned my M.A. from one of the top ten schools in the world! I attribute all of my successes to my keen awareness of EVERYTHING around me and my desire to understand how systems/situations/people worked before jumping in. I wish other people had made an attempt to understand me.

50smom said...

Thank you! I've never know what to say when people label my son shy. I was recently at a wedding where one of my friends from high school gave a reading. Afterwards someone said to her " I'm surprised you gave a reading because you were always so shy in school." To which she responded "I believed the people who told me I was shy and it wasn't until I was in my mid 20s that I realized I wasn't"

Anonymous said...

I sighed with relief upon reading this post. Just encountered a situation with another parent who labeled my thoughtful boy as "painfully shy", as she shared with me how he warmed up to her during reading group. I am often stunned in these situations, not quick to respond with something (perhaps I am thoughtful too:), so the examples that other parents have offered are extremely helpful. I feel that "shy" does have a negative connotation, and I will work to educate my intelligent, thoughtful, sweet young man about what the word means, and how it is ok to feel however he feels.

Rach said...

I am delighted to have found this post. I have linked to it on my blog. I hope this is ok.

Nancy said...

I stumbled on this post from another blog. It touched on many of things I am feeling regarding my daughter. She has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, so she goes beyond "shy" or "thoughtful". I do my best to prepare her for new situations and people but I also have to keep in mind that she is going to do things and engage at her own peace and the more I force it, the more anxious she will get.
Thank you, Teacher Tom for such a sensitive and thoughtful post. I'm not quite sure how I feel about "shy" as a label or a word.

Anonymous said...

One of the best reasons not to label any child anything is that it can become the child's internal voice.
Yes, the devoted parent's voice should prevail in a secure, well adjusted "Cautious" or "Careful" or "Thoughtful" child who is being called Shy time and again by others - but that child will often wonder if they are shy because of it and as they grow, may emulate shy behaviors as a defense tool in uncomfortable situations.
Everything starts with an idea.
Lets give our kids good ideas.

(and lets keep our assessments of other people's kids to ourselves)

princess granola said...

I am new to your blog and have enjoyed reading through it tonight...there might be an updated form of this post but I didn't see it and so am commenting here.

I think the point should be to not use labels at all. By parents saying that their children aren't 'shy' it makes 'shy' a negative for them- something they wouldn't have necessarily thought before.

And even just changing it to 'thoughtful' is still creating a label that they may or may not want to follow them into adulthood.

I prefer saying and hearing things like, "He's feeling shy, thoughtful, tired at the moment and wants to be alone, have some space, not talk...etc."

It's the same with food... I ask my daughters to say, "I am not in the mood for soup right now." Or "I don't like the taste of broccoli today." or "that doesn't smell good to me today." All emphasis on the now and today parts. So that if she does change her mind in the future it's not about changing who she thinks is, just about an opinion she had one day last week.

princess granola said...

I think the point should be to not use labels at all. By parents saying that their children aren't 'shy' it makes 'shy' a negative for them- something they wouldn't have necessarily thought before.

And even just changing it to 'thoughtful' is still creating a label that they may or may not want to follow them into adulthood.

I prefer saying and hearing things like, "He's feeling shy, thoughtful, tired at the moment and wants to be alone, have some space, not talk...etc."

It's the same with food... I ask my daughters to say, "I am not in the mood for soup right now." Or "I don't like the taste of broccoli today." or "that doesn't smell good to me today." All emphasis on the now and today parts. So that if she does change her mind in the future it's not about changing who she thinks is, just about an opinion she had one day last week.

Anonymous said...

Came across your article and it is spot on. My 3 year old daughter started preschool this year. I have never used the word shy around my daughter. The first week of preschool she came home and told me she is a little shy around the kids. The teacher already labeled her "shy" and she now tells me she is shy at school. I was always quiet at school and when I walk into my daughters preschool classroom I can relate to how she feels at that moment. I try to give her confidence yet it comes off as babying her from her teachers point of view. I was labeled shy from the moment I started school and I feel my daughter will be too.

Ramona said...

I love this post... While we have avoided the 'shy' label with my very thoughtful son, others use it with a frequency that bothers me. You give some good strategies on how to politely correct people. Thanks. What is your opinion on a 'thoughtful/shy' child (3.5 year old) attending preschool I general? I am trying to decide whether to try preschool with my child... He has a very difficult time playing with other kids and withdraws and only wants to play with me (mom). It's hard to know if it will help him learn ways to be more comfortable with other kids or if it will just be forcing him into a terribly uncomfortable situation.

Anonymous said...

I've been hearing about Selective Mutism a lot recently. It's a term that has concerned me. Particularly after reading that book about introverts ("Quiet") and the culture of valuing extroversion in the US. In Taiwan, it's not considered unhealthy for a child to be 'shy'.

It sounds as if some of the kids you've described would be now be labeled with 'selective mutism', and available for counseling.