When my daughter was born she was very quickly labelled SHY. Before the ripe old age of 6 months people had started calling her by the ‘s-word’ and it spiraled from there. She spent most of the first 3 years of her life in my arms or on my lap. She rarely wanted to go to anyone else, even many family members. It took her a long time to get comfortable with people. You had to work hard to get into her inner circle. Few people really took the time (on the flip side those who did were deeply entrenched in her heart and still are).
She was slow to warm up to new people.
She took her time getting used to new places.
She was attached to me.
For a long time my husband and I tried to re-frame the conversation. To re-state what people said to her in a different way.
“Oh, she is sure shy, hey?” = “She takes her time getting to know people.”
“She’s a shy little mama’s girl.” = “She feels safe with me.”
On and on it went. Before she was even a year old I realized we were never going to escape the word shy. She was going to hear it in reference to herself on nearly a daily basis. So I stopped trying to avoid the word. Stopped trying to re-frame what people were saying in different words.
Instead I embraced the word. SHY. SHY. SHY. I said it to myself 1000 times to try and change the feel of it for myself. Eventually it worked.
“Yes, everyone is shy sometimes, aren’t they? I know I am!”
This became my new default go-to response. Turning it from a negative into a positive.
When she was 2 she started saying “I’m feeling shy right now, mama”. And I told her always that was just fine. That I feel shy sometimes too. She stayed in my arms whenever she wanted and needed to.
When she was 3 she suddenly became interested in other kids. She started running up to them on the playground and telling them her name. Asking them to play. If they wanted to be her friend. I won’t say I wasn’t shocked. I was pretty floored at first. This little girl who buried her head in my shoulder when people talked to her was now initiating conversation with people of all ages. (The best was when the 15 year-olds would take her up on her offer to play and climb around the playground with her. I hope my 15 year-olds do that one day.)
We never pushed her. Not once. We kept her in our arms where she felt safe for as long as she wanted. If people asked her questions and she buried her head in our shoulders we would answer for her. We didn’t send her to daycare or preschool ‘to get her used to being away from us’. We didn’t taunt her for ‘feeling shy right now’. We just let her be her.
I can’t say I didn’t worry from time to time that she was never going to want to talk to another child, but that worry never led me to push her out of her comfort zone. I knew she was still so tiny, that it was my job to just keep her safe and make her feel secure. If she was going to sit on my lap until she was 12 then so be it. And some kids do just that. And that’s normal too.
It’s hard not to let the voices of so-called reason get to you after awhile. All those people nattering in your ear, telling you your child needs more opportunities for socialization. That they are going to be glued to us forever if we don’t PUSH them out into the world.
I don’t have teenagers yet but my theory is the more we push our kids away from us in the name of independence when they are little, the further they are going to run away from us when they are teenagers. This is not the relationship I want now or in the future with my kids.
I see so many parents PUSHING (figuratively and literally) their kids to not be shy, as though it’s some kind of reflection on them personally if their child doesn’t want to chat about the weather with strangers. Or doesn’t want to play with other children their own age. Or any age. There is this pervasive fear of socialization issues. Like we must force our children to get past their discomfort in various social situations or they won’t turn into successful adults. It’s just not true. There is a reason human childhood is so long. Sure if you lock them up in a room with no interaction with other humans they are going to turn out a little strange. But kids interact with all kinds of people on a regular basis in all different ways. Forcing them to do anything isn’t necessary. Just live life. Let them live it with you. Support them. Love them. Help them feel safe. Let them be shy for a day or a week or a year or for one little moment. Let them grow at their own pace. You can’t stop them but you can certainly help it be more or less enjoyable depending on how you treat them.
My shy girl is now a talkative, opinionated four year old who loves her friends and family fiercely. She still has days where she is feeling a little shy, and that will always be ok.
Because everyone is shy sometimes. I know I am.