Shyness Is Not a Character Flaw

I am the mother of three, and as most mothers confess: “Each of my children is different”.

The oldest has an opinion to share with everyone and will argue his point until you are so exhausted you just give up the discussion. My youngest (and the only girl) is the talker of the family. She has never met a stranger. The middle one is the shy one. He was born with a speech delay and, for his first five years of life, he really struggled with vocabulary and pronunciation. I think that is where his shyness began. Adults were kind and patient. Children would walk away or ignore him if they did not understand him, and that contributed to his shying away from his peers. If you are a teacher or a parent of a shy child, you’ve probably already encountered adults or peers who see a child’s shyness as a character flaw, or a problem waiting to be fixed.

Shy children need someone who will protect them from being labeled in this way.  People sometimes talk about shy children in front of them, as if they are invisible. Words like withdrawn, introverted or inhibited can hurt. Think kids don’t understand?  Take note: children are experts at reading tone of voice and expression. Being labeled (even when you’re not sure what the words mean) can make anyone feel incompetent, and it sure doesn’t help put shy children at ease socially.

Shy children need adults who believe watching is a valuable way to learn.  Some researchers have suggested that shy children are more visually perceptive than outgoing children. Because shy children take in more, new sights can seem overwhelming at first. They take a brief look, pull back, and then take longer and longer looks until they actually begin to enjoy what they see. Eventually, they may join in. Watching can help a shy child understand new situations. Adults need to understand that watching is a legitimate way of being a part of what is going on.

Shy children need support in moving into new situations. When you’re very young, almost every situation is something new that takes getting used to. You can help your shy child learn that he can handle new things if he takes it on gradually. Keep in mind that enjoying just a portion of an activity willingly can build more confidence than being forced to endure the whole thing. Pushing children to join in when they feel uncomfortable usually backfires.

Shy children need time to recharge afterwards. Shy children put a great deal of effort into new social situations, even when they’re thoroughly enjoying themselves. Afterwards they may need to recharge by slowing down and processing what happened.

We Americans place a high value on sociability. That can make it hard for teachers and parents of shy children to give them the time, compassion and understanding they need.  My son is now 23. Though he loves adult interaction, he is still a bit shy around his peers. He is, however, the king of one-liners! The one lesson that I have learned as a parent and an educator:  Shyness is a strength to build on, not a character flaw!

4 thoughts on “Shyness Is Not a Character Flaw

  1. Kelsi

    These are great suggestions! As a shy adult, I still recognize some of these needs in myself. I like to observe as much as I can about a situation before I jump in, but once I feel comfortable, I can be just as involved as a more outgoing person. Forcing children who are shy to interact before they are ready can make their shyness even worse, so I love these tips to support them 🙂

  2. Karen

    Great piece Karen! The youngest I care for (2 yrs old) leans heavily towards the shy side. I’ve learned the importance of my being patient when he’s in group situations and allowing him to decide how much interaction he has with others. I’ve come to realize my role is to get him out around others and then let him to as he wishes, not to force the interaction. He is getting much better and has recently surprised me with his interactions w/ new people

  3. Cami

    Great viewpoint and food for thought. I appreciated your experience with shyness. I am a former shy child myself and I am also a parent of a shy child. I am always looking for ways to support her with the shyness in conjunction with the ever changing social scene. I Love her, and I just want her to be comfortable around her peers. You have a great point, and i must remember that patience is a virtue. Thanks for sharing.

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