"Well, hello there! What's your name?" An innocent question like that turns my happy-go-lucky toddler into a shrinking violet. At home, she's a veritable wild woman, pontificating from her soapbox and hurling herself onto the couch from the ottoman with wild abandon. In public, however, she's the very picture of timidity: thumb in mouth, peeking out beneath her mop of curly brown hair, and clinging to her mother's leggings. There's nothing wrong with being an introvert, but I still need my shy toddler daughter to know that her voice matters.
All evidence to the contrary (based on the current iteration of my personality), I was a painfully shy kid. I was most happy playing by myself in a corner, acting out little stories with my barrettes as the main characters. In kindergarten I was sent to the nurse's office with chickenpox and was so quiet they forgot about me. The secretary eventually found me crying silent tears into the sleeve of my hot pink windbreaker. I was never fully at ease around my biological father, so when we went out to dinner with him my sister placed my order for me.
I came out of my shell in high school, bolstered by a close-knit group of friends who loved and supported me (and still do). My toddler's shyness may be something she grows out of, just like I did. Or perhaps she'll always be on the bashful side. That's totally OK. It's not appropriate me to try to change the person she fundamentally is. However, it is my job to teach her the power and importance of her own unique voice.
I Respect Her "No"
This doesn't mean that my 2 year old gets to decide not to hold my hand in the parking lot or skip her shots at the doctor's office. When it comes to health and safety, mom makes the decisions.
However, there are plenty of times when I definitely listen to my kid's "no." When she wants me to stop tickling her, when she doesn't want to give hugs and kisses to grandma, and when she doesn't want to take one more bite, she calls the shots.
My hope is that respecting my toddler's "no" will not only teach her to expect that from others (an essential component of understanding consent), but will also bolster her burgeoning sense of self and confidence in her own agency.
I Give Her Choices
At this point, I'm very careful about it. I ensure that whatever choices I give, I am comfortable with whatever she chooses. I also only ever give her two. I don't open the closet and say, "What do you want to wear today?" I ask her, "Do you want to wear the Elmo or the Minnie shirt? Blue or pink socks? Tennis shoes or flip-flops?"
Asking her if she wants vanilla or chocolate might seem insignificant, but by providing her with a series of options throughout the day, I'm giving her the sense of control she so desires. Her ability to make choices is the foundation for future responsibility. When faced with a difficult decision in her teenage years (say, drinking and driving), she'll have the self-possession to make the right call because she's been doing it her whole life.
I Ask Her Questions
Sometimes, I keep it pretty simple: "Do you want music?" or, "Would you like a cookie?" My daughter learns that her "yeah" (we're working on "yes, please," because baby steps, you guys) can be a good way to get her needs met.
I also like to ask her questions she can't necessarily answer yet. Just because she doesn't have the verbal skills to respond doesn't mean she doesn't understand me. I'll be reading a book, and I'll ask her, "What do you think the mama bunny is going to do?" It's a simple way to show her I care what she thinks.
I Acknowledge & Confirm
My toddler is very into labeling these days. She will repeat the word like a broken record until I echo it back to her. I think she's primarily looking for confirmation that she's correct. ("That's right. That's your ball.")
It's tempting to ignore her when she's patted me on the chest and said "mommy" for the 23rd time that day. But when I say, "Yes, I'm your mommy," or respond with an "Is that right?" to her babbling, I send her the message that I hear her and that I am interested in what she has to say.
I Teach Her The Correct Names For Body Parts
I do not want my child to develop feelings of embarrassment or shame around words for her body parts. That's why I refuse to use cutesy words. When I'm bathing her, I label each part matter-of-factly and reinforce that it's not OK for someone who's not mommy or her doctor to touch her there.
My daughter already has a tendency toward shyness, so I want to make sure that if there's a problem, she's not ashamed to tell me and that she has the correct terminology to describe it.
I Read Her Books
I'm a former teacher and granddaughter of a librarian, so it's important to me that my child have access to quality children's literature. I make sure that I read her books with strong female leads, from classics such as Madeline and The Paperbag Princess to more recent releases like Chelsea Clinton's Nevertheless, She Persisted.
My daughter's latest favorite is My First Book of Girl Power. It's an introduction to female superheroes. She's enamored with Raven, Bumblebee, and Hawkgirl. I love seeing my cautious girl stand on the arm of the couch, spread her imaginary wings, and pronounce, "Haka!"
I Model For Her
Perhaps the most important example in my child's life of a woman who uses her voice is me, her own mother. When I've been wronged, whether by my husband, co-worker, or cashier at the grocery store, I stand up for myself. I put myself out there and go for what I want. When I don't agree with something, I express my opinions verbally or in writing.
I don't expect my daughter to be a miniature version of me. She might not grow up to be an extrovert like me, and I don't mind one bit, as long as my shy toddler can use her voice to advocate for herself. She doesn't have to sound like a dictionary for her words to have weight. Her voice matters because she matters.