We need to teach our children that shyness is OK

shy children

There is nothing wrong with shyness in children. In fact, shy children often do well at school, are better behaved, listen attentively to others and are easier to look after. So let’s stop trying to change them…

When my daughter, my firstborn, was about ten months old, I took her to a playgroup. I observed as the other babies and toddlers crawled and toddled into the centre of the circle to grab one of the musical instruments that had been splayed out.

My daughter stayed with me, on my lap. She didn’t want to go. I gently encouraged her, but she wasn’t interested.

There was a woman sitting next to me, also observing what was going on. I found myself wanting to explain the situation to her, so I said, ‘I think she’s feeling a bit shy.’

The woman asked, ‘Were you shy, as a child?’

I replied, ‘Yes, I was, actually.’

And she said, ‘That’s why your daughter’s shy.’

I panicked.

I didn’t want to be somehow channelling my own childhood shyness into my daughter. But I was also confused: I didn’t feel shy now; I enjoyed socialising and putting myself forward in group situations. I wondered how it was that my childhood shyness would somehow transfer.

Most importantly, though, it all felt very negative: the way the woman was speaking to me, the judgement she was making, the analysis she was giving. When actually, if my daughter was shy, that wouldn’t be a problem.

Turns out she isn’t; a few months later she started nursery and hasn’t stopped talking, performing and displaying outgoing behaviours since. But that’s not to say her brothers will be the same.

We had another situation where a neighbour said, of our then two-and-a-half-year-old son: ‘Does he ever speak?’ He didn’t mean it rudely, he was genuinely curious, as our daughter is always so chatty with the neighbours, and our son isn’t so much.

We have to remember that we get the children we get, and any attempt to change something which is fundamentally part of their personality can just leave them feeling misunderstood. Confidence comes from security, not our determination

And again, I took it personally: were we doing something wrong, not to make our son more confident and chatty, like his sister? Was it him who had caught my shyness?

But it’s not helpful for outsiders to diagnose our children, and more importantly, if he is shy sometimes, or talks less in public, that’s OK. It’s not an issue.

Child psychologist Dr Ruth Erskine says that if she has a child come to see her who is shy, this in itself is not a cause for concern.

‘We over-psychologise lots of things,’ she says, ‘but unless a child can’t manage school, for instance, shyness is not a problem.’

And if they are struggling at school, this isn’t something that the child needs to deal with, it’s then down to the teacher to make the environment more welcoming for that child.

Dr Erskine remembers a series of sessions she had with a girl who had hearing problems caused by ear infections.

‘She was very shy,’ Dr Erskine explains. ‘She wasn’t particularly anxious, but she was reticent; I had to tease her out.’

She was about five and had developed a lisp, so felt self-conscious about how she spoke, especially as she was surrounded by articulate girls. Although she was bright, she didn’t speak up.

‘My advice was for the teacher to enable the child to interact,’ she says. ‘It’s not the child’s problem, the environment needs to be manipulated to help her feel confident. She needs to be more nurtured, helped to be part of things.’

This point, in terms of raising a shy child, is crucial: the shyness isn’t an issue for the child to fix; it’s a trait that should be accepted warmly. Both at home and at school, the child needs to be made to feel comfortable and welcome.

But it seems society, and so parents, often feel uncomfortable about having a shy child.

Dr Erskine says it depends on how much value the parents put on sociability. ‘In our current society, we put value on adaptability because everything is so fast-changing,’ she says.

‘You want your child to manage in social situations. But various things can lead to a child feeling disheartened: illness, dyslexia, experiencing a knock-back. This can all affect confidence and the child’s ability to engage.’

Now a mother-of-three myself, I can see how my mum must have felt when I was young, as the other kids ran off to play and I kept myself close to her; hidden away.

With shy children, it’s so important to go at their pace and to also take them seriously when they do feel ready to try something, even if we don’t imagine them being able to muster the confidence to do it.

That was where I felt safe and protected, but I wonder if there’s a biological desire to see your children confidently stride off without you.

Once upon a time, it would have been about survival; learning to be independent and to fend for yourself. In our current society, where confidence is celebrated and shyness considered something that needs to be overcome, in many ways it still is.

So I’m grateful that my mum allowed me to move at my own pace.

Psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg says that as parents, it can be really tempting to push our children forward and tell them ‘it’s OK, don’t be silly’.

‘But if we can put ourselves in their shoes, something internal is telling them that they need to stand back and observe before they can feel comfortable to explore.’

She says that children’s birthday parties are a prime example – some kids will be at the front chatting to the entertainer, others will be sitting on their parents’ knees.

‘Doing what we can to understand their experience and help them feel comfortable, validating their worry instead of minimising it, can gradually help them feel more confident to explore. But we have to remember that we get the children we get, and any attempt to change something which is fundamentally part of their personality can just leave them feeling misunderstood. Confidence comes from security, not our determination.’

It can be difficult when our parents have one method for supporting us through shyness, but the school has another. Or doesn’t have one at all.

I remember sitting in classrooms the whole way through school – and university, actually – feeling too shy to put my hand up and answer questions. I wonder how different it would have felt if shyness had been acknowledged in that environment, and spoken about openly.

I feel it would have eased my shyness; I might have felt less alone with what I was feeling.

Also, we should be talking about the fact that shyness in children has been found to be associated with a number of positive behaviours including:

• Doing well at school
• Behaving and not getting into trouble
• Listening attentively to others
• Being easy to look after

It’s these attributes that we ought to focus on, as parents, rather than feeling as if our children are somehow letting us down by not being the first in line to participate in group activities.

Popstar and actress Jennifer Lopez shared such a great example of what can happen when we enable our children to try out something new when they are ready, rather than forcing them.

It was during a Supersoul Conversations interview with Oprah Winfrey and Lopez described her eleven-year-old daughter Emme asking to be in her video for ‘Limitless’. Lopez said that when she was casting girls for the video, Emme overheard her and asked if she could do it.

At first Lopez wasn’t keen; she didn’t want her children to be performing and under pressure. But also, she hadn’t considered her daughter for this role, as she was shy.

‘She’s quiet, you know, she’s an angel, a thinker. But she was always quiet. My son is loud and rambunctious and full of energy, and Emme is the opposite: the yin to his yang.’

So she was surprised when Emme asked to be in the video. At first Lopez said no, then she decided to let her give it a go. But she said: ‘If you do it, you’ve got to see it the whole way through.’

Emme said ‘OK.’ And she did it.

‘We did the first take, all the way through, and she was a natural. And I look at her and I’m crying … like, “Oh my God”. And that’s when I knew she had “it” … she could do whatever she wanted with it.’

With shy children, it’s so important to go at their pace and to also take them seriously when they do feel ready to try something, even if we don’t imagine them being able to muster the confidence to do it.

They need to be given the opportunity to try. And maybe succeed. And possibly fail. But we can’t say: I don’t think you’re ready for this. As that’s for them to decide.

Ultimately, it’s about accepting our children and their personalities however they unravel. It can be frustrating and emotional to watch our child develop in ways that we think may make integration more challenging for them, but acceptance and nurturing are key.

And in terms of shyness, remembering that it may well bestow them with a whole host of attributes that they can tap into later in life. We need to teach our children that it’s OK to be shy, but also offer ways to instil confidence.

This is an excerpt from Shy: how being quiet can lead to success by Annie Ridout, published by 4th Estate, 2021