A Reserved Child (and Mom) on the Dancefloor

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May 26, 2016

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“Oh no!” I groan to myself when I see the dance instructor walk into my son’s playschool classroom. The instructor is an enthusiastic fellow with good moves. He’s friendly, too; the other kids really like him. They like his song choices and really get into the activity.

But my son doesn’t. As the instructor enters, my son turns away, sulks, and clings to me. And after this 15-minute activity, he will not be in the mood for anything else.

He doesn’t dislike the teacher personally, I think, or the activity. At home, he busts out his moves at the faintest hint of music. He likes the song and wants to dance — but he doesn’t know the people around him, so he doesn’t get how it could be fun to dance with them. He doesn’t understand why the instructor, who barely knows him, should be SO happy to dance with him. He doesn’t get the overwhelming enthusiasm.

My son is a reserved child of 2; he can’t articulate these things. But I understand his distaste for dancing in a strange, new place among strange, new people, because I feel the same. I understand his hesitation in warming up instantly to people, because I hesitate, like him. It isn’t that we are unfriendly or anti-social. We are just slow to thaw.

Until the thaw, my son observes quietly. For weeks, my son barely acknowledged the other kids, but by the end of the session, he had begun to play and share his food. He even gave hugs on the last day of school. Given one more day, maybe he would have been ready to dance with them, too.

It’s in this way that my son and I are different. In similar, adult circumstances, I would rather observe quietly, but I push myself to engage and make friends. I would like to believe that no one would guess that people saw me as shy, moody or reserved child, or that, as I grew, I was called cold and snobbish. An American colleague once asked me, “Are you a brahmin?” by way of asking me if I didn’t talk to people because I felt superior to everyone around me. The truth was I spoke very little because I was in a new place and didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t understand the cultural references.

So now, I make the effort. I greet happily, smile broadly, network, ask proactively when I don’t know, and even dance when called upon to do so.

But my son’s reactions are authentic. He is the purest version of himself. He does not understand, nor does he respond to how others perceive him. He is who he is, unaffected and untouched by the outside world — just like the other kids in his class, who dance happily with the enthusiastic instructor, because they find him fun.

It is wonderful to behold the age of innocence.

But I cannot let it alone.

“Say hello… Shake hands… Say bye… Blow a kiss… Wave your hands and dance a little… Shake the pom poms!”

I say these things because it is what I hear the other mommies say. I am nudging both of us to make more of an effort. I am urging my reserved child to do something he is not ready to do, to pretend just a little, like I do in the adult world. Going against character is effortful and stressful, but it goes a long way toward fitting in — and time and experience has taught me that fitting in matters. How you are perceived matters.  

I want my son to fit in. I want him to smile, shake hands and be cute so he gets attention from his teachers. I want him to raise his hands for the opportunities that his school and extracurriculars may provide. I don’t want him to be left out because he didn’t look interested.

But I’ve realized that, in the process of fitting in, both of us end up losing a bit of ourselves; I become something of a helicopter parent, and my son learns to pander to the expectations of others. And one day, those expectations may not be the wisest or have his best interest at heart. One day, they could lead him to losing who he is altogether.

So, I’ve been trying to let him be. My son is not a finished product, and, I’m learning, for all my pretending, neither am I. We may take time to fit in, but we will eventually make friends with whom we’ll be happy to dance. And I know that when we do, it will be genuine. Until then, as new environments become familiar, as we watch and learn about the people in them, we will turn on the music at home and dance with merriment.

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Written By Jyoti Ganapathi

Jyoti Ganapathi did her BA in Economics & Psychology from Knox College, US and a Masters in HR from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She returned to India to work in the family business. Riding the entrepreneurial wave, along with her husband, she started Dosa Inc- a South Indian food truck in 2012, fulfilling a dream that they always had. She is an intermittent writer and is currently absolutely loving NPR podcasts!

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