What seems so simple and basic to most adults can be very intimidating to many children. You can help your children learn the basic and essential skill of meeting someone new. They will be grateful that you did.
"He's our shy one." beamed the mother. She was doing an awkward little dance as she said this because her six year old son had crawled under her skirt and was hiding as much of his body under hers as was physically possible. "He is just his mommy's boy. He has to always have his mommy" the mother continued to glow as her school aged child crawled around the floor around her feet hiding his face under her dress and jerking away when his mother tried to corral him.
My husband and I were greeting this mother and child as they left worship one Sunday, and as my husband spoke to the mother I had looked at the child who was getting restless and wanted his mom to stop talking so they could leave. I smiled and said, "Hi." hoping to distract him long enough for his mother to finish talking. His response was memorable. You might even say epic.
We all are completely aware that keeping our children safe means teaching them not to speak to strangers or to be drawn away by strangers. Care and caution in this area is vital. What I am talking about today is a situation in which your child is safe and a trusted adult or parent is near.
This little scene has stayed in my mind for a couple of years, and really made me realize how many parents hinder their children's social development by verbalizing proudly that the child is shy. We have heard many parents state with pride that their child is shy and it almost always prompts a demonstration by the child similar to the one I described. That one was a bit extra but, still.
Certainly there are some children that are cautious about meeting strangers and some whose temperament is much more outgoing. Neither trait is better than the other. Both have pros and cons and specific behaviors that have to be directed in order to encourage good social skills. But let's look at what happens when you announce to a group in front of your child that they are your "shy one."
First of all, scripture tells us that the power of life and death is in the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21) This means that our words have a powerful way of shaping our lives and the lives of those around us. Proclaiming that your child is shy, especially if the child can hear it, will impede their progress socially. The ability to respond with courtesy is a skill that can be learned regardless of temperament. By declaring that your child is "shy" you lead them to believe that not only are they incapable of interacting in a socially appropriate manner, but they are excused from learning to do so.
Second of all, maybe your child doesn't want to be the shy one. Perhaps your child wants to be shown how to function in social settings without feeling uncomfortable. If you make up your mind that your child is shy you may be missing the opportunity to help them blossom and become their more confident self. I'm not talking about them reciting Shakespeare in the park, but giving them the skills they need to say hello to a new acquaintance. Telling your child that they are shy could serve to convince them that they are unable to interact with the rest of the community and therefore missing out on meaningful relationships that could enhance their lives.
Here are a few easy peasy tips for helping your young one learn how to respond to a new person with a short, courteous, age appropriate reply:
Practice and Pretend: Using a stuffed animal or doll or puppet, approach your child speaking for the toy. Say something like, "Hi! My name is Wonder Bear. What's yours?" Help your child formulate responses. You could also have Wonder Bear introduce itself to you and you respond. Carry the conversation as far as you wish. At first, there is no need to explain to the child that you are trying to teach them how to be more socially competent. Children learn through play until a grownup ruins the fun.
Act it Out: This is a more realistic pretend game in which you introduce yourself to your child. Embrace your silly side by giving yourself a funny name or accent as you extend your hand to your child and reiterating how nice it is to "meet" them. Are there other children around? Great! Have them create funny names and accents for themselves and introduce themselves to one another. Help them learn to follow up the introductions with more conversational questions such as knock knock jokes or silly riddles. Keep it funny.
Fair Warning: When you are going with your child to a setting in which they are likely to meet new grownups, give your child a private head's up. Remind them that adults often ask questions like "What is your name?" or "How old are you?" or "Where do you go to school?" when they first meet a new child. Teach your child to respond to these questions, and encourage them to look at the face of the person asking. Teach them that a smile is a kind thing to give people. Remind them that you are right there and that you would like them to be polite when adults speak to them. Tell them that you know they can they can do it.
When you give your children this simple, basic skill their self confidence sky rockets. Suddenly they are empowered to be themselves as they interact with others in their community. This is an ability that will begin to see them safely on their way to becoming independent children who then become independent adults. This is what the goal of parenting is. Independent adults.
The next time you want to smile and say that your child is shy, ask yourself if your child wants to be shy or if it is you that wants your little one to stay little and in need of you for a bit longer. If that is the case I sympathize completely. The time we spend with our children is so short. Spend that short time well and doing the work that we are called to do by empowering them to face the world and say "Hi! My name is Wonder Bear! What is your name?"