Making room for shy

On an average day, I see more grumpy adults than grumpy children. The strange thing is, while the adults are allowed to continue their behavior unsupervised, the children are always expected to explain themselves. Especially children who are shy. Or children who appear to have charisma, but display it only after they have warmed up to you. Re is one such child. He is constantly monitored by the adults who allegedly ‘dote’ on him. Why are you quiet? Why are you not talking? Why are you not answering my (idiotic) questions? Do you want a chocolate? Sometimes, the questions are directed not to him, but to me: Why is he shy?

More so since Re’s antics and banter precede him (partly my fault), and there are so many conversations in the public domain that many adults feel a sense of familiarity when they meet him (and I can’t grudge them that), so they behave not like strangers, but people who know him really well. It’s as though he has to display his Mr.Congeniality behavior on loop, and of course, he has bad days like everyone does. He is shy, but because his charm precedes him, he doesn’t find enough room to be shy.

I don’t think shy needs fixing; I never apologize for it. Earlier, I used to say, “He’s still learning” or, “He takes time to be comfortable with new people”. It was my way of saying that labels like “shy” are unrealistic and unhelpful. But as I went along, I let him know that it was alright to speak up as much or as little as he was comfortable with. I never gave excuses for his shyness. I encouraged him to share his name if he was asked, but I was also okay with repeating the answers for him if the words come out too quietly.

Probably the worst thing to do to a shy child is to say, ‘Don’t be shy. Don’t be so quiet.’ Shyness is not a pathological disorder. The danger, of course, is in rescuing too soon, too often, too much. When you do that, the kids don’t develop their own coping mechanism. I usually let Re be until he turns to me for help. Often, he doesn’t.

Re knew he took his time with strangers, both adults and children, and he wasn’t always ready to answer questions posed by them, even something as banal as “What’s your name?” But since I never introduced him to the ‘shy’ label, he didn’t know what it was until we watched “The Shy Princess”, an episode from Sofia the First, a Disney series about a girl from a village who becomes a princess. Sofia is his latest role model, and he really looks up to her and the things she does. This particular episode was about Sofia trying to be friends with a shy princess, Vivienne. It’s when it struck him. “Oh, I am also like her. I am shy, but sometimes I can be not shy also, when I meet someone like Sofia!”

She even had a shy song. That was it! Shy became legitimate from that day on.

We live in a society that places a lot of value on extroverted people. Society rewards extroverts, but quiet types have a hidden strength all their own. When I found myself with a child who had the exact opposite personality from me, I knew it was important that we learn how to support him. It wasn’t easy, though. I often felt judged when Re was reluctant to respond to an adult’s questions, or when he held back from joining activities or hated going to birthday parties. I grew up with shy siblings; it has always been a difficult task not to complete their sentences or offer to read their minds aloud.

Susan Cain, whose bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, addresses the western culture’s tendency to undervalue introverts. In her book, Cain says one-third of people are introverts — folks who’d prefer to listen rather than speak. But this personality type also comes with many other qualities — innovation, creativity and sensitivity — that have led people to make great contributions to society. (Famous introverts include Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.)

I like shy. I am always attracted to shy, and I still find it an endearing quality in most people. Even as a teacher, I find myself listening more to the child who talks less.

Shy children are not antisocial. They’re simply sensitive to their environments. But in a society that celebrates the bold and the outspoken, shy and introverted are perceived as disadvantages. It’s natural for young children to be shy around new people, especially adults. Although the child may appear to be afraid, their response is less likely to be caused by fear than by simple discomfort. Many children feel uncomfortable with new people until they have got to know them better. Many adults are the same way. And in the world today, it is not always a bad thing for a child to be wary of strangers. So, make room for shy. It could be useful.