I describe myself as an extroverted introvert. If casually presented with the opportunity to socialize, I will typically decline. It is only when I am forced into social situations that I open up.
As a child I had to be told to say hello to others. I often wondered why I wasn’t more outgoing or eager to raise my hand when I knew the answer in school. I wanted to be the first one to volunteer to read, but I usually silently chanted “Don’t pick me. Don’t pick me,” instead. I didn’t really overcome my timid ways until I took a public speaking course…..as a sophomore in college.
Nowadays, I will ditch my sweats and go out because I think I should. I’ll begrudgingly put on make up and heels and head out into the wild. Afterwards, I’m glad I got outside my comfort zone, but always ten times more happy to be back in my sweats.
And I am fine with that life for myself.
Once I embarked on the ‘stranger danger’ phase with my son, Brooks, I was not surprised that it came on like a tidal wave. My husband was also a shy child, though he blossomed a bit sooner than I. We expected our child to have a healthy dose of skepticism in his blood.
I started to get a bit concerned when well past the 12 month mark, Brooks’ anxiety escalated. (Stranger danger usually peaks between 6-12 months.) He would cry even when his grandfather, who lives nearby and sees him often, visited. I felt awful for his grandfather because it was a meltdown every time he came over. But I always justified it with, ‘Sorry, you know he’s just so shy.”
At the time, he was still an only child (I was about 3 months pregnant), and I was a stay at home mom. We didn’t do many playdates outside of our home, and most of our outings were familiar. I hadn’t put much of an emphasis on socializing him or getting him outside of his warm and cozy shell.
His anxiety progressed into a phase where he would physically try to make himself as small as he could, balling up in corners or behind houseplants, hoping not to be seen. Once he realized that he was still clearly visible, he would shoot his arms out to me to be picked up and the flood gates opened. And there I was to offer “Sorry, he’s just so shy,” to make a guest feel more comfortable with the situation. Not realizing that my son was the one who was truly uncomfortable.
On any given day, he wouldn’t show any characteristics that triggered anything concerning beyond just being timid. Nothing like lack of direct eye contact, inability to smile, etc. that would lead me straight to the pediatrician’s office. So we worked on it slowly. First in more familiar situations with both parents by his side, then with just one parent, then with more strangers. We had our ups and downs but overall there was progress.
We continued down this path until the 2 year mark. At that point I took a leap of faith. I enrolled him in an interactive music class. We were the first ones to the class, and the teacher greeted him with open arms. He immediately froze. He was scared, unsure, and hid behind my leg. Instinctively, I pulled the ole ‘Sorry, he’s just so shy,’ out of my hat.
The instructor’s response stuck with me. She brushed it off and said, “Every child learns differently.” She went on to say that if Brooks is an observer, he will learn first by observing me. I would be his greatest teacher.
Great. So I, a former shy child myself, have to participate in this class and act like I would gladly dance around with a tambourine for 45 minutes? So I did. And eventually, at the 43 minute mark, so did Brooks.
Afterwards, I thought about the exchange I had with the instructor before class. I had essentially apologized for Brooks being Brooks. He is shy, but he also has the kindest heart. He loves to sway to sounds. He gives the best hugs. Why was I not opening with that? Though Brooks couldn’t understand what I was saying, I imagined how he would feel if he heard me apologizing on his behalf for a quality that comes so naturally to him.
I was heartbroken and ashamed. I realized that I was more concerned about the experience of others- strangers- than I was about the experience of my own child. From that moment on, I made a conscience effort to stop apologizing for my shy child.
I see his rambunctious, happy, playful side all the time. He loves to run and yell ‘tip-toes!’. Need a baking assistant? He’s there in a second. Got a ball? You can bet he is going to try to take it and run. Just because others’s don’t see this side of him, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or matters any less.
I imagine that he will be a lot more like me, an extroverted introvert, than I ever expected. The music instructor was right. I am his greatest teacher. I often find him hanging out in his bed relaxing. He knows that he needs a little extra time to recharge at 2 years old; something I didn’t realize until my 20s.
The other thing that he knows is that not everyone is worthy of seeing those special sides of him. He will grow up making others earn his trust. He is not willingly giving the most valuable pieces of himself away to any stranger who says hello on the street. Again, something that I didn’t learn until my 20s.
I realized that if I go through life expressing regret for Brooks being a shy child, that teaches him that there is something wrong with the way he is. And that’s just not the case. He learns best by watching others. He observes. He eventually mimics, and if someone really peaks his interest and earns his trust, he will engage.
And I am fine with that life for my child. No apologies.