If I were to describe my four year old in one word, it would be "mercurial." Some days he runs around the neighborhood, scuttling up to strangers walking their dogs so he can show them something he built out of tinker toys. Other times, he will not attend a single social event without his Kylo Ren hoodie, which completely hides his face. I understand his shyness (especially to those who also know him in his chattier moments) can be confusing or even irritating, but there are things I am tired of hearing as the parent of a shy child.
I, personally, don't really get shyness. I am, and have always been, the most gregarious person you'd ever meet. I'm basically a poster child for extroversion. I enjoy social situations and meeting new people; cocktail parties are my jam; I even enjoy small talk. Maybe it's surprising, and maybe it isn't, that I wound up married to a man who has described himself as, "painfully shy." Over many years and during many discussions on the topic, my partner has helped me become more aware of the problems shy people have and ways I can be sensitive to them. The truth of the matter is, I'll never completely get it and that's okay: I can still be understanding of the fact that some people are shy and (here's the kicker) it's not personal.
This is the revelation I wish I could share with the masses, especially as the parent of an often shy child. My kid's shy feelings aren't about you: it's something he's working out on his own. As his parent, I am doing my best to ensure that my kid remains polite even in his shyness (we're working on eye contact and saying "please" and "thank you" even when we're feeling anxious), but I'm also going to respect his nervousness and not push my kid to the point things start to get worse. When people insist on making someone else's shyness about them, somehow, no one benefits.
So, with that in mind and in solidarity with all the parents of shy kids, here are a few things I would absolutely love to never hear again:
"Don't Be Scared!"
Being shy and being scared aren't necessarily the same thing. Besides, even when it is, having an adult lean in and tell you, "Don't be scared" is hardly going to remedy one's trepidation. This is kind of like telling someone, "Don't be hungry." You really can't help feeling scared or not, especially when you're a child and you're still attempting to figure out, and work through, your emotions.
"They'll Grow Out Of It"
Look, maybe you're right. Maybe they will grow out of their shyness. Lindy West, my brassy feminist goddess, talks about going from being a painfully shy kid to a loud woman in her new book, for instance. Certainly it's not uncommon to shed one's timidness as the years go by. However, it's also not uncommon to maintain a more reticent attitude throughout a lifetime and, you guessed it, that's fine, too.
People Insisting Your Shy Child Should Talk To/Hug Them
I have gone on record as asserting that, for feminist reasons, I do not make my children hug anyone they don't want to hug. Shy kids? They're less inclined to hug than most kids, generally. So, as the mother of an intermittently shy son, I find it absolutely maddening when well-meaning but pushy relatives literally grab at him as he's politely attempting to decline their affections. It makes me tremendously upset and uncomfortable, so I can only imagine how he's feeling.
"That Wouldn't Have Been Tolerated When I Was A Kid"
I'm sorry you weren't allowed to feel feelings. That would make me a cranky adult, too. Alright, snark aside, just because someone chose to parent one way, doesn't mean we're bound to those (often out-dated) standards. It's honestly sad that certain kids (back in the day, and honestly now) aren't able to express their emotions, or even acknowledge them. Is this statement annoying and, honestly, probably a jab at my parenting choices? Sure. But is it also a little sad? You bet.
"You're Going To Make Me Cry"
I really don't encourage emotionally manipulating children (or, you know, really anyone). I do realize that it can be a blow to the ego when a kid really doesn't want to engage with you: we've all been on the receiving end of this at some point, but it's almost certainly not personal. If it is personal, remember, they're a child and kids are both bizarre and capricious. Usually, if you give a kid five minutes of personal space, they'll probably come over to you on their own terms.
People Comparing Your Shy Child To More Outgoing Children
We get it, Little Janey is bubbly and gregarious and you would prefer my child be more like her. Well, they aren't. They're their own person, and you pretty overtly telling them they should try to be someone else is really insulting and nasty.
"What A Face!"
I don't know if this is specific to the individuals who surround my children on the regular, but I hear it pretty much any time they aren't smiling. A more introspective child (one who may have, dare I say, resting bitch face), or one whose shyness leads to worried or nervous facial expressions, get this a lot round these parts.
People Impersonating Your Shy Child In An Attempt To Be Funny
I get that people do this in an attempt to get the kid to come out of their shell, but I have maybe seen it work twice in my life. Generally, a shy child will just feel dragged into the spotlight and sink deeper into anxious embarrassment and nervousness. Sometimes, even when one's heart is in the right place, the whole business comes across as bullying and has the opposite affect of their best intentions.
"It's Okay: Introverts Are Smarter, Anyway."
All right, this is where extrovert mommy rolls up her sleeves and defends her own kind. I'll hear this sometimes from sympathetic, often shy adults. First of all, even though introverts can be shy, shyness and introversion aren't the same thing. Secondly, neither being shy nor introverted is in and of itself some sign of moral or intellectual superiority. We don't need to put one group down to defend another, folks.
"What Are You Doing About That?"
Whatever I'm doing or not doing to help my kid cope with social anxiety is really none of your business. But beyond that presumption, I hate the implication behind this question because it insinuates that something is "wrong" and needs to be fixed. Some people are just shy. Yes, we want to make sure our kids have the social skills and confidence to function out in the world, but for many, many people, no amount of coaching, encouragement, berating, shaming, or witchcraft will make a shy person not shy.
So, the next time you encounter a shy child (hell, a shy person), be friendly, be open, and then let them interact with you in their own way, in their own time and on their own terms.