I want people to stop calling my son shy. To be fair, I need to stop calling him shy too.
It’s just such an easy word to let slip out of your mouth.
My almost-three-year-old son Remy and I were out for lunch at a cafe one day. It was a weekday and we were early, so we were the only customers there.
A waitress said hello to Remy as we walked in, trying to get a response out of him. Remy said nothing in return but smiled. He was grabbing hold of my leg.
“He’s so shy,” offered the waitress. I said “Yeah” or some other vague, non-committal response, and walked Remy to our table.
As we waited for our food, the waitress came over and pulled up a chair to have a second crack at getting Remy to talk to her.
She was intense: Made faces. Baby voices. Even tried to tickle him. Remy, not having the safety of my leg by his side, recoiled into his chair.
The waitress once again said, “He’s so shy”. I just smiled politely.
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‘I wish people would think twice’
It’s not an isolated incident, but that day bothers me for a few reasons.
I know she meant no harm, but I really wish people would think twice before they forcefully try to get a child to engage with them.
And Remy has now started calling himself shy whenever he takes a while to warm up to someone new. And when he does, there’s always this look on his face, like he feels he’s disappointed me.
I don’t know if the cafe incident was the trigger for Remy referring to himself this way or if it’s just the culmination of months of hearing that word bandied around; not only by strangers but by his own parents.
Mostly, though, I’m just angry at myself for letting that waitress get so close to Remy and making him recoil in such a fashion. And I’m angry at myself for not stepping in and asking her to back off.
I guess I’ve been used to Remy being a baby who we can say anything around without consequence. Now that he’s older, I’m still adjusting to him being aware of the world around him and finding his place in it. He’s now someone who actually understands what’s being said about him.
What’s really going on here?
Emma Spencer, a clinical psychologist with a special area of interest in children and parenting, tells me that before we can talk about anything else, we need to start by talking about attachment in children Remy’s age.
“Typical attachment behaviour would be that: ‘I’m with that person that I feel safe with, and I go out a little bit within my comfort zone to explore the world and I check that that person is still there’,” she explains.
“Or maybe, ‘if I stop feeling safe, I’ll retreat, but that’s my safe haven of how I go out into the world and where I can come back to as a safe base’.”
Of course, I have a theory of why we so freely dismiss children’s behaviour and label them as shy:
- 1.The adult trying to get the kid’s attention feels embarrassed, so, saying they are ‘shy’ pushes the focus onto the child and away from what the adult is doing.
- 2.The parents feel awkward for that person and/or embarrassed that their child is not being compliant. 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 be respectful of a child’s personal space.
“If I’m an adult interacting with a child, it’s actually up to me to ensure that that child feels safe in exploring who I am, because … I’m encroaching on their space,” she says.
How could I have handled the cafe situation better?
Ms Spencer suggests I could have said something to Remy like: “That’s okay. You can take your time to get to know this person”.
She also recommends helping Remy to feel reassured, and that this person is safe to speak with.
“They need us to support them and guide them and use helpful language,” Ms Spencer says.
“Because otherwise they grow up with these labels and it can start to develop a sense of self that relates to that, which can be largely unhelpful.”
The one thing not to do, Ms Spencer advises, is to push a child into a situation they’re not comfortable with, as it can trigger their fight or flight response.
“Then you might get a fear response and that can then actually have a flow-on effect to future strangers or new people,” she says.
For parents, Ms Spencer says it’s important to remind any eager adults that while their child may be withdrawn, they may open up as they become more familiar with them.
“They need to give the child their space and time to want to come out and explore who they are and engage with them,” she says.
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 will handle things a bit better this time.
“Overall, labels can be unhelpful,” Ms Spencer reminds me.
“So let’s try to look at behaviour and understand it, not just explain it away in a shorthand way.”
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