I can still remember our middle daughter Norah, at age three, burying her face into the back of my leg, hiding from a cousin she’d never met at a family reunion. You would have thought my cousin was out to get her. But to be fair, I hardly knew this person either. We only saw each other a couple times a year. My cousin wanted a hug from Norah, but she wasn’t all that into hugging strangers.
My cousin made a sad face and said, “She’s pretty shy. You are going to need to work on that with her or she’s never going to have any friends.”
She said it with the best of intentions, but looking back, it pissed me off. In fact, every time someone says that about my daughter, it pisses me off — and it happens a lot.
Norah was the cutest little three-year-old, but getting a glimpse of her was about as easy as seeing a chipmunk for more than a few seconds. The moment she noticed someone looking, she’d hide.
She didn’t shake hands with strangers. She didn’t give out hugs or tell stories, or let elderly people at the store pinch her cheeks. This was in total contrast to our other two children. Her siblings can’t seem to get enough attention, telling folks about their pet kitty or doing cartwheels and wacky dance moves upon meeting them.
Norah is nine now, and I must admit, I assumed this whole shy thing was a phase. I assumed she’d grow out of it, and though she’s gotten a little less shy (she doesn’t hide behind me nearly as much as she used to when she was a toddler), she’s still not interested in giving out hugs to strangers. She doesn’t like being in front of the classroom, and when she first meets anyone, she usually looks them up and down, suspiciously, and then quietly watches them, waiting for them to earn her trust.
According to my mother-in-law, my wife was like this as a child too. And to be honest, in so many ways, Mel is still like this. She hates public speaking. She doesn’t hug strangers, and it takes time for her to build up enough trust with someone to really open up.
In fact, a lot of people are like this. They take time to warm up to others. They aren’t interested in your attention or friendship from the gun, and for whatever reason, every time we meet with a new teacher about our daughter, every time she meets some long-distant relative, and every time we invite a new family over, and she doesn’t immediately jump into playing with their children, we hear the same refrain: your daughter is shy.
It’s rarely said with compassion or understanding, but rather like it’s a personality flaw that is going to prevent her from future success. Some people act like they are offended when our daughter won’t open up to them, which drives me nuts.
All of it is ridiculous, and I’ll tell you why.
Norah is thoughtful. She is funny, and intelligent, and a wonderful sister. But she takes time to warm up to people, and that’s just the way she is. She isn’t rude. She doesn’t think she is better than you. She doesn’t think she is better than your child. Just because she didn’t jump into your arms at first meeting after realizing you are family, doesn’t mean there is something wrong with her. She is a reserved human who doesn’t necessarily need touch or verbal communication with strangers.
The people in her life who she knows well, she values those relationships. But new ones, she takes her time with. That’s it. It’s that simple.
With shy children, you need to realize that this isn’t about you. They don’t think they are better than you, and they are not destined for failure because they don’t put themselves out there. They just take their time to understand their surroundings, and make a decision before getting too comfortable.
So take a step back and let them go at their own pace.
Over the years, Norah has gotten better at opening up and accepting that there are times when she will need to be polite to strangers. She is getting better at talking with other children in group projects at school and on sports teams. But on the whole, I think we all need to realize that there are people in the real world, adults and working professionals, who are quiet. They are reserved, and slightly introverted, and just because they don’t jump out of their office chair, snatch your hand, and then ask you 400 questions about your life, doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Children are the same way. But instead of using terms like introverted or reserved, we call them shy as if it’s a personality flaw, and tell them to not be rude, and push them into giving some elderly stranger a hug at the mall.
Listen, there are all kinds of people in this world, and all of them make it go round. Some of them are outgoing and some are shy, and all of them make contributions. So let’s just give the shy kids a chance. Let them be who they are, because chances are, it might just be something truly great. My suggestion is that we all stop making assumptions and let the shy kids find their way.