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Is your child reserved?
There's nothing wrong with having a shy child. She probably talks less and listens more.
I did so want to be The Invisible Woman, or at least petite and inconspicuous. Instead, I grew tall and obvious. In the way rapid height shoots you up, colt-like, through those forgettable gangly, formative years. That was when I was a kid, thankfully blessed with parents great enough to figure it was harmless shyness which made me enjoy the background.
You know the best thing? They let it be. Hugging tighter when I overheard tactless murmurs suspiciously sounding like "cold fish" ... or learnt that a woman, seeing me propped as a toddler on a shop counter, asked my indignant mother: Does she work when she is wound?
Then voila! Left alone, their shy-beyondbelief girl matured into someone so completely social, her parents reeled at the change. Years later, my own daughter wrote in an inspired burst for a Hindi essay: "Meri maa kursi se bhi baat kar sakti hai!" Her translation of "Oh, Meher can make a block of wood talk," as my husband declared indulgently, referring to taciturn interviewees his wife coaxed into speech with little difficulty.
I chose a man innately gentle in his worldview, with a shared take on vital issues like child rearing. Unlike other fathers, he's never thought twice about bringing up remarkably self-contained kids.
So what if at first we wondered why they hung among the back rows at parties? "Louder, can't hear you", jacketed professional party organisers would shout to rooms full of already vocal kids. As shriller shrieks rent the air, a few children reserved their response. Like ours, these discovered the delights of participatory watching. They were content predicting the theme of stillboxed birthday cakes, weaving original stories around random guesses.
Reading up on the subject in moments of misplaced panic, I found how shyness - as the term is used in developmental psychology - refers to a pattern of emotional reactions that includes inhibition of approach behaviours and discomfort on exposure to unfamiliar people or situations. It implies a constricted social life and involves physiological markers such as high heart rates and cortisol levels.
But classic symptoms ditched, family history repeats itself. We've ended up with gregarious teenagers. The house feels thoroughly refreshed, even energised by their friends' presence.
They appear to have played out psychiatrist Pervin Dadachanji's description of quiet achievers. Breaking the good news on shyness, she says, "Such children are attentive without saying much. They have a solid sense of self-worth, an inner shining peace about them. Slow to warm to strangers, once comfortable they can be charming. They need time to form friendships, but these are for life."
It is as reassuring to hear Ruta Vyas, director of Amadeus Consulting, distinguish between shy and introverted behaviour. Vyas, who holds "I Love Me" workshops, to encourage self-esteem in children, finds that society randomly harbours an unfair bias towards social extroverts.
"Shyness shouldn't be mistaken for introversion," Vyas explains. Shy kids are very much there in the moment. They may well be enjoying themselves, but prefer to participate in a different way. Quiet children take things in closely without expending unnecessary energy. They also bring beautiful insight and sanity to a hyperactive bunch or peers. Born listeners and steady arbitrators in a dispute, their calming influence can show a group good conflict management.
Research proves shy behaviour rarely lasts long and is no problem unless it is pathological, when it interferes with a child's functioning. The MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), a test of preferences, rates personality on four factors, one being the introvert/extrovert angle. Every child is inherently either. The damage is done when misguided adults force a move over to the other side, the direction mostly flowing introvert-to-extrovert.
Calling attention to what others think condemns the child to greater shyness. A little girl hiding behind her mother's kurta can't be whisked upfront with a bright, "Come, say hello to Aunty and Uncle. Tell them your name." The artifice of it all drains young development. Kids thrown in at the deep end flounder, unable to find themselves. Nor forgive a family refusing to accept them for who they are.
Who was I? Hindsight brings amazing memory rushes. Asked if she didn't wish her girl "talked more", my wise mum tagged a counter-question : "And listened less? No."
Counsellors see a growing number of pushy parents forcing shy kids towards the mass conformity of being 'outgoing'. Their suggestions to ease the situation:
- Show empathy, while encouraging basic niceties. Understand a child's reluctance to converse, but insist on manners. At least a civil 'Thank You', 'Hello' and 'Goodbye' must be exchanged.
- Recall your past experience. Talk about threatening occasions in your childhood and how you overcame them. These confidences are reassuring - 'If dad/mum could do it, I can too'.
- Plan play dates. Invite kids home to interact one-on-one with your child. Later, they might join a larger circle to romp in.
- Set modest targets, chart small goals. Shrinking violets can't suddenly turn the life of the party. Coax the child to say a few words to one new person daily. Or ask the teacher one question each week.
- Talk through another. Speak to someone else's kid before asking yours what he thinks. Parent to other child: 'Those are nice Spiderman shoes'. To own child: 'Don't you have a toy Spiderman which moves?' You are prompting without pressure.
- Reward slightest improvement and be specific. "It's wonderful how you went up to ask that boy his name" wins over a general "Wow, you were great!"
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