Sometime ago a family member came over to the house to meet my son for the first time. When this well-meaning person, technically a stranger to my kid, tried the Big-Smile-Arms-Open-for-a-Hug style of greeting, my son (totally appropriately) hid behind my legs and refused to respond. My relative immediately responded with a hearty “Oh, you’re just being shy!“. He seemed put out that he wasn’t given the hug he thought he deserved and reacted by calling my child shy.
Shy vs Introverted vs Anxious
Our society teaches us to be social beings and tends to reward the outgoing. So when children don’t greet us in the “right“ way- we notice. Calling children shy has become an acceptable response in these situations. When our daughters hang back instead of running right onto the playground and when our sons hide behind us when we greet our friends, people seem to find it appropriate or cute to toss out remarks about the child being shy. More accurately, they are saying the child is being too something or not something enough, to suit them. Just like my well-meaning relative, people tend to focus on their own feeling of rejection instead of noticing what the child needs in that moment.
Your Child is Not “Just Shy”
Calling a child shy can inadvertently leave a kid feeling less than or as though just being herself is not good enough. Now, I know that you know labels can be harmful but what the heck do you even say when you need a tactful way to tell someone “don’t label my kid”? Don’t worry, I’ve got you- here are a few ideas to get you started (and just to be clear- the following strategies are addressing the quiet or observant behaviors that tend to get labeled as shy. If your child experiences intense or persistent fear or avoidance that interferes with her enjoyment of life then please consult with a professional to rule out more serious anxiety).
Alternatives to Calling a Child Shy
Here are 10 alternatives to using shy as a label and some ways to gently, but firmly, draw healthy boundaries for all the well-meaning relatives, ever so helpful strangers, and maybe even yourself.
- My son does things in his own time.
- She likes to check everything out before joining in.
- He’s not shy, he’s thoughtful.
- She’s not too quiet, she prefers to observe and take everything in.
- He’s not shy, he likes to get to know people first.
- It’s so brave the way she sizes things up before jumping in.
- He’s warming up and will talk/play when he’s ready.
- It’s okay to take some time to get comfortable.
- She’s feeling quiet right now.
- It’s completely normal to not want to talk until you feel comfortable.