In Defense Of The Shy Kid

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Nov 13, 2015

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“Don’t be shy” is the dreaded refrain many reserved kids must hear. I did, years ago. But I was also luckier than most, blessed with parents wise enough to figure it was harmless for me to enjoy standing in the shade. They only hugged me tighter when I overheard tactless murmurs sounding like “cold fish.” Or when I was told later that a woman, on seeing me propped as still as a doll on a shop counter, said to my mother, “Does she work when she is wound?”

And then – voila! Left alone, their shy-beyond-belief girl grew into someone so unstoppably social that her parents reeled at the change.

I chose a man innately gentle in his worldview to spend the rest of my life with. Unlike many other fathers, he’s never thought twice about bringing up self-contained kids. So what, if at first we wondered why they hung in the back row at parties? “Louder, we can’t hear you!” shouted jacketed, professional party organisers to rooms full of already vocal kids. As the air grew shriller, a few children – including ours – discovered the delights of participatory watching. It’s timidity versus temerity in that jungle out there.

When I read up on the subject in moments of misplaced panic, I found out “shyness” – as the term is used in developmental psychology – refers to a pattern of emotional reactions including inhibition of approach behaviours and discomfort before unfamiliar people or situations. While I can’t say I entirely inherited my parents’ let-it-be sensibility, I was aware that shyness should be seen as a perfectly permissible trait and that most such children still express themselves – just less obviously.

Just as I slowly learned to speak up as a child, I slowly learned to relax as a parent.

Today, our kids seem to fit psychiatrist Pervin Dadachanji’s description of quiet achievers. “Such children are attentive without saying much,” she says. “They have an inner shining peace about them. Slow to warm to strangers, once comfortable they are charming. They need time to form friendships, but these are for life.”

Quiet children are luminous indeed. They take in things observantly, closely, without expending unnecessary energy. They also bring beautiful insight and sanity to a hyperactive bunch of peers. Born listeners and steady arbitrators in a dispute, their calming influence could show any group good conflict management, if simply given a chance.

Here are five parenting tips from counselors to help parents ease up on shy kids, while still helping them open up:

  1. Recognise that not every child wants to be the focus of attention. Being centre-stage may please some kids, but shyer ones don’t enjoy it.
  2. Set modest social targets and be specific in your praise when they’re achieved. Encourage your child to say a word to one new person daily, or ask a teacher one question each week. When praising efforts, comments like “It’s great how you went up to ask that boy his name,” win over a general, “Wow, you were wonderful!”
  3. Prompt conversation without putting obvious pressure. Encourage your child to join a conversation by speaking to someone else’s kid before obliquely asking yours what he or she thinks. For instance, (to other child) “Those are nice Spiderman shoes.” (to your child) “Don’t you have a toy Spiderman that moves?”
  4. Show empathy while encouraging basic niceties. Understand a child’s reluctance to converse, but insist on manners. At least civil thank yous, hellos and goodbyes must be exchanged.
  5. Relate through your past experiences. Talk about socially threatening occasions in your childhood and how you overcame them. These confidences prove reassuring for kids, who then think, “If dad/mum could do it, I can too.”

Ultimately, there’s really no going against the grain. A shrinking wallflower can hardly be expected to suddenly rock the party. The kid hiding behind a mother’s kurta can’t be whisked upfront with a bright, “Come, say hello to Aunty and Uncle. Tell them your name.” And comparing them to more social peers only backfires. Kids thrown in like that flounder, unable to find themselves, and don’t forgive a family who refuses to accept them for who they are.

Shyness should be accepted. If it’s difficult to recognize as a strength, at the very least, we should recognize the weakness of the alternative. Asked if she wished her girl would talk more, my marvelous mum tagged a counter-question: “And listened less? No.”

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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