In Praise of Shyness

Shyness is not a disorder or a disability to be treated or cured. It is symptomatic of a beautiful character trait – an ability to observe keenly and feel deeply.

Some kids are born with their windows and doors wide open and the world comes pouring in. How do you cope with that? You become shy. Shyness is an attempt to manage over stimulation. It is a coping strategy for dealing with high sensitivity and introversion.

We live in a world that favours the extrovert – the one who speaks up and gets involved. We need introverts too. They see and hear everything. They pick up on information that other people miss. They are slow but steady deliberators. They are often wise beyond their years.

We live in a highly competitive world where the extrovert seems to succeed best. We want our child to be able to get in there and compete with others. Susan Cain has written one of the best books on shyness called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She cites examples of many successful introverts including Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in the world, who has succeeded not in spite of his introverted nature but because of it. “He divides the world into people who focus on their own instincts and those who follow the herd.” Shy people are not interested in following the herd.

We want our children to be like other children – to “fit in.” We think social acceptance is a key ingredient of happiness and success, but what do we lose when conformity becomes our goal? We lose our true selves, and we never reach our full potential.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”        – e. e. cummings

Shy kids fight this battle every day, and they become stronger people for it – if they are supported. When kids are criticized for being shy, they become ashamed of their own nature. They accept the judgement passed on them and stop trying.

We need to do all we can to support the shy child, not change them into something they’re not. In fact, we need to honour the nature of the child whatever that may be. Our job is not to change children into what we think they should be, but to discover who they are as they reveal themselves to us.

How to help kids manage their shyness:

  • Use gradual exposure to more challenging situations – baby steps. Don’t throw them into stressful situations they are not ready for. Respect their boundaries.
  • Coach kids to develop a persona that they can “use” to function in stressful social situations that are unavoidable.
  • Teach self-coaching – knowing your own tendencies and being able to talk yourself through those situations you find difficult.
  • Simply avoid situations that are overwhelming and not necessary.
  • Allow kids “recharge time” alone after stressful social situations.
  • Shy kids will often prefer one close friend – honour that and facilitate it.
  • Shy kids tend to avoid team sports. They are more comfortable with individual sports like swimming, tennis or track and field.
  • Shy kids prefer to work alone and find group work difficult.
  • Honour the nature of your child. Don’t talk about shyness as a problem but as a gift.