Why it’s okay for kids to be shy
“She’s just a bit shy.”
I find myself saying this nearly every day. To friends who are excited to greet my daughter. To friendly shopkeepers. To kindly old ladies on the bus who bend down to pat her head.
She’s a cute kid. I get why they want to talk to her. But here’s the thing:
My daughter hates strangers.
She doesn’t cry or run away from them. She just stands there, totally silent and unresponsive. It’s super awkward for everyone – hence my need to try to explain it away.
I’ve gotten into this habit of feeling like I need to apologise to the people she won’t to talk to, as though she owes them something that she refuses to give them, and somehow it’s my fault. But here’s the truth: she doesn’t owe them anything. And her reaction is totally normal.
She’s an observer, my kid. Before she lets you in, she needs to figure out what you’re all about. Her strategy is to watch new people, listen to what they have to say, and determine whether they’re the sort of people she wants to talk to or not. It’s a very sensible approach.
Once she gets to know you and decides that you’re cool, you’re in. Good luck getting her to stop talking. She might decide to recite The Gruffalo to you in its entirety, tell you elaborate stories about her stuffed animals, or sing you the chorus of Love Shack on repeat. You’re part of an elite group that she has deemed worthy, and damn lucky to be in it too.
Not only is her response to strange people touching her and getting in her face logical, but it’s biological too. I was a shy kid too – rarely smiling, always watching. As an adult, I’m still shy, but – like many introverts – I’ve learned how to do a great impression of a people person.
Most introverts can put on a “Hey, look! I’m totally comfortable with this social interaction!” act when we need to, because everyone loves an extrovert. You want to hang out with the woman at the party who’s confidently telling great jokes, not the sullen weirdo who’s pretending to text someone to avoid talking to you. Lots of us introverts fight our inner sullen weirdo on a daily basis, all while appearing to be confident and appropriately sociable members of society. Doing the whole social thing takes a lot out of us, but most of us can put on a good show before returning home to hide under our duvet with a good book.
My daughter hasn’t perfected her extrovert act yet, but she’s only two. It takes time to learn to pretend that you’re really enjoying a conversation with someone who you’ve never met and have absolutely no interest in ever talking to again. She’ll get there. In the meantime, I’m not going to force her to smile at strangers just because they expect her to.
If you’re one of those well-meaning people who loves talking to cute little kids, here’s some advice:
No matter how nice you are, some kids are going to find you terrifying. It’s not your fault. It’s not their fault, either. Don’t be surprised if you ask them a question and don’t get a response. Don’t ask it again louder. That’s only going to make you scarier.
And – I really shouldn’t have to say this – but don’t touch a kid you don’t know really well. You know how you wouldn’t just grab the hand of some dude who just sat next to you on the train, because that would be totally creepy? It’s just as creepy when you do it to a kid. Creepier, really.
If the child who you’re talking to seems uncomfortable, don’t push them. Smile and give them space, and they may warm up to you. And then you’ll have to listen to them talk about their cat for 40 minutes or whatever, but hey – you asked for it.