Last weekend, I took my two daughters to the Disney store at the mall. We were immediately accosted by a sales clerk.
“HI PRINCESSES!” the man boomed at them.
Both girls tried to hide behind me.
“YOU ARE SHY!” he shouted at them.
“WHAT ARE YOUR NAMES?!? HOW OLD ARE YOU?!?"
At this point, both girls were cowering and trying to shrink from his view. I tried to be polite but firm as I told him, “They are cautious with new people.” Then I grabbed their hands and we tried to walk away.
He followed us.
“I LOVE YOUR SHOES!” he shouted at my terrified four-year-old who immediately began to cry.
Then another sales clerk came over and it started all over again. We had to leave the store.
I understand that most people mean well and are genuinely trying to be friendly. What I don’t understand is why so many people view shyness as an offense and a challenge -- a problem that they can personally cure.
As someone who was a painfully shy child and who still struggles in certain situations, I can tell you: shining a spotlight on shyness is the worst thing that you can do. A shy person feels attention directed at them as actual physical pain. Yes, PAIN. Your skin burns, your stomach hurts, your heart pounds, your muscles start to shake. And the more the attention is directed, the worse it feels.
The very best thing you can do for a shy child (or any shy person) is to be friendly and kind and then give them the space that they need to be comfortable. My older daughter needs to spend the first half hour of any big social event (birthday parties, family gatherings, etc.) near me or my husband and not speaking -- just watching. If everyone leaves her alone and lets her get comfortable then she can start to join in. Then, she is usually laughing and playing within an hour. And after that she doesn’t want to leave.
I think shyness makes people uncomfortable and that is why they want to fix it right away. Especially if the shy person is a child. But shyness is natural -- and in some cultures, even the norm.
If you give a shy child enough time and space they will often come out of their shell. But it’s not going to happen by commanding them to speak or pursuing them in a store.
It happens over time, with quiet encouragement, patience, and practice. So if you meet a shy child, please understand that they are not rejecting you. They are scared and nervous. If you want to be kind, do not force them to speak or try to “cure” them. The kindest thing to do is to let them know that it’s OK to be themselves.
So it’s OK to say “Hi!” and smile. But if a child is scared or shy don’t keep pushing them (it’s scary), don’t call them “shy” (it’s embarrassing), and don’t call attention to it (it’s painful). Give them a chance to get comfortable.
In other words, put their social comfort above your own.
Photo Credit: arcticpuppy.
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