“Aw, are you shy?”
My 2-year-old daughter stood partially hidden behind my right leg, her finger in her mouth, face tilted down, refusing even to look at the person asking her the question.
“No,” I corrected, “not shy. She just sometimes takes her time warming up to people.”
This scene played out over and over in my daughter’s early years. She’s 9 now and not nearly as standoffish as she was as a toddler, though she is still prone to taking a few minutes to assess the room and its occupants before deciding she’s ready to engage with people.
I always hated when someone labeled my daughter as “shy.” I corrected people when they did it because I didn’t like sticking that label on my kid. Or any label. I don’t like the idea of boxing a kid in, especially not with a trait that is typically seen as negative or inhibiting.
Though recent research shows that personality traits seem to be determined at least as much by genes as by environment, environment still plays a huge roll. What we say to kids, how we view them, and how they ultimately view themselves, shapes who they become. It shapes their identity. So, while a child may tend toward being more reserved in most situations, our response to that behavior can influence how far up the spectrum they’ll go.
In my son’s school a few years ago, they learned about personality traits. Part of the lesson was that all the fifth graders took a quiz — the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, I’m guessing — that was supposed to define their personality. My son came home raving that he was an introvert. Apparently most of the kids in his class had claimed introvert status as well and were proudly announcing how they “hate peopling” and have “peopling hangovers” and “would rather be alone.”
I am not in love with this. The majority of these kids truly would prefer to hang out with friends if given the choice between that and being alone. But the introvert label is trending right now. It’s cool to say you “hate people.” It’s cool to say being around too many people gives you a headache. But if all these kids claim the “introvert” label now, some of them may feel driven to live up to it even when they’d feel better surrounded by friends. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert unless you’re just acting like one because someone said you are.
I’m not going to confirm to either of my children that they are or aren’t any one personality trait. I don’t want my words or the words of others to lock my kids into a seemingly immutable identity. My goal as a parent is to give my kids the tools and freedom to choose how to define themselves. Slapping labels on them infringes upon that goal and removes a piece of their autonomy.
It’s the same reason we don’t tell a kid they’re bad — we say they made a poor choice or that their behavior was unacceptable. This leaves a kid with the power to make better decisions in the future. Tell them they’re bad and they may very well start to believe it and behave accordingly.
Label the behavior, not the kid.
Removing the label, or refusing to claim one at all, allows for greater freedom. I know this from personal experience with my daughter and her “shy” early years. I made a concerted effort not to allow anyone to call my daughter shy. I openly denied it if someone said it in front of her. And, after a while, my daughter began to warm to the idea that maybe she wasn’t actually shy — maybe she just needed to engage with a space on her own terms. There is a huge difference in perceived autonomy between “I’m shy” and “Sometimes I need a minute to assess a situation.” Huge.
My daughter has latched onto the latter idea. Sometimes she’s feeling a little unsure and needs some time to warm up. But — and this is the cool part — she’s not boxed in by this notion. She is freed by it. She is free to take time to hold back, but she’s equally free to feel immediately confident and march right up to a new person and befriend them.
The fact remains, her behavior in any single instance is not a predictor for all her future behavior. For now and for always, she’s allowed to decide whether and when to keep a low profile or jump right into a social situation. Same goes for my son. When he came home and proudly announced his introvert label, we had a conversation. I didn’t want to smash his excitement for learning about personality types, but I did want him to know that he doesn’t need to label himself. He’s still young and has lots of growing to do, and, more importantly, he has the power to decide exactly who he wants to be.
If I had allowed everyone to label my daughter as shy, would she still feel the freedom to be however she needs to be? Or would she have paused and thought, “I’m shy” and withdrawn into herself? I wouldn’t want that for my daughter, or any kid. Label the behavior, not the kid. And watch the magic of a child growing into themselves full of their own confidence and self-determination.