I want people to stop calling my child shy. To be fair, I have to stop calling her shy too.
It’s just an easy word to come out of your mouth.
My nearly three year old son, Remy, and I were having lunch at a cafe one day. It was a weekday and we arrived early, so we were the only customers there.
A waiter greeted Remy as we entered, trying to get a response from him. Remy answered nothing but smiled. He held my leg.
“He’s very shy,” said the maid. I said “Yes” or some other vague, non-committal answer, and ushered Remy over to our table.
While we were waiting for our food the waiter came and pulled up a chair to try a second time to get Remy to talk to him.
He’s intense: Making faces. Baby voice. Even tried to tickle him. Remy, who didn’t have my leg guards by his side, backed into his chair.
The waiter once again said, “He is very shy”. I just smiled politely.
‘I wish people would think twice’
It’s not an isolated incident, but the day bothered me for a number of reasons.
I know he doesn’t mean anything bad, but I really hope people will think twice before they forcibly try to get a child to get involved with them.
And Remy is now starting to call himself shy whenever he needs some time to warm up with someone new. And when he did, there was always an expression on his face, like he felt he had let me down.
I don’t know if it was the cafe incident that prompted Remy to call himself this or just the culmination of months of hearing the word circulate; not only by strangers but by their own parents.
However, for the most part, I was just mad at myself for letting that maid get so close to Remy and making her back off in such a way. And I got mad at myself for not coming in and asked him to back off.
I guess I’ve gotten used to Remy as a baby that we can say anything without consequences. Now that she is older, I am still adjusting to her being aware of the world around her and finding her place in it. He was now someone who really understood what was being said about him.
What actually happened here?
Emma Spencer, a clinical psychologist with a special interest in children and parenting, tells me that before we can talk about anything else, we need to start by talking about attachment to children Remy’s age.
“Typical attachment behavior is: ‘I’m with people who make me feel safe, and I get out of my comfort zone a little bit to explore the world and I check to see if that person is still there’,” she explains. .
“Or maybe, ‘if I stop feeling safe, I’ll back off, but that’s my safe haven about how I get out into the world and where I can come back as a safe base’.”
Of course, I have a theory as to why we are so free to ignore children’s behavior and label them shy:
- 1.Adults who try to attract a child’s attention are embarrassed, so saying they are ‘shy’ pushes the focus on the child and away from what the adult is doing.
- 2.Parents feel awkward for the person and/or embarrassed that their child is disobedient. So we use ‘shy’ to make the situation less awkward and embarrassing.
It’s easy and everyone wins. Except for the kid.
Ms Spencer reminds us that we need to respect a child’s personal space.
How can I handle the cafe situation better?
Ms Spencer suggested that I say something to Remy like: “That’s okay. You can take the time to get to know this person”.
He also recommends helping Remy to feel calm, and that this person is safe to talk to.
“They need us to support them and guide them and use language that helps,” Ms Spencer said.
“Because if they don’t, they grow up with this label and it can start to develop a sense of self associated with it, which is largely unhelpful.”
One thing not to do, advises Ms Spencer, is to push children into situations they are not comfortable with, as it could trigger their fight-or-flight response.
“Then you might get a fear response and that can then really have the effect of flowing into strangers or new people in the future,” he says.
For parents, Ms Spencer says it’s important to remind any excited adult that while their child may be withdrawn, they may open up as they become more familiar with them.
I’ve stopped calling Remy shy now. But we haven’t been back to that cafe since. Maybe it’s time. And if the same thing happens again, I’ll handle things a little better this time around.
“Overall, labels can be unhelpful,” Ms Spencer reminded me.
“So let’s try to look at behavior and understand it, not just explain it briefly.”
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