The kids and I arrive at our friend’s house and are greeted warmly at the door. I smile and say, “Hi, guys!” Our girls chime in with “Hello!” and a cheerful “Good morning!” Our son slides in and says nothing.
My friend greets him by name and asks how he is. He looks down, takes off his shoes, then turns to ask me a question—totally off-topic and totally ignoring our friend’s greeting. “She said ‘hello’ to you, sweetie,” I say, trying to guide him toward a response. “Hi,” he says dismissively, barely glancing at her before running off into the house.
How rude, I imagine someone thinking. But I know my son. He’s not being rude—he’s being a shy kid. All of our children have gone through shy stages, some of them more severe than others. Someone will say hello to them—even someone they’ve known their entire life—and they respond with crickets. Maybe a split second of eye contact. Perhaps the briefest of hand movements that could barely pass as a wave. But usually not a word. And of course, this does feel horribly rude to some people. It’s not that we haven’t taught our kids to respond to people who are speaking to them. We have. We do. We even practice it with role-plays at home. But it doesn’t always work. Shyness is a big hurdle to jump over.
I know there are kids out there who will talk to anyone. I’ve had young children strike up conversations with me at the grocery store, totally devoid of self-consciousness or reservation, and it shocks me every time. I love it—those kinds of kids crack me up—but it’s totally foreign in my household. I was nothing like that as a kid. My husband was nothing like that as a kid. And through the magic of DNA, our kids are nothing like that either. I also know kids who are not that outgoing, but who are perfectly comfortable greeting and talking to people they know. These kids wouldn’t go out of their way to talk to strangers, but when someone says hello and asks them a question, they’re able to respond with a full sentence or two.
Then there are the painfully shy kids. That would be our kids, from ages 4 to about 9. People who know me now might be surprised by this, but I was one of those kids too. I remember what it was like to be shy—it sucked, frankly. Unless you’ve been a painfully shy child, you probably have no idea how it feels. Imagine that when someone talks to you, you feel like you’re suddenly up on a stage with a spotlight right on you, and there’s a huge crowd of people and you’re supposed to give a speech, but you’re totally unprepared and everyone is waiting for you to start. Oh, and you might be a little naked.
That feeling of discomfort, nervousness and even terror is what it feels like when someone—anyone other than an immediate family member—speaks to a shy child. The racing heart. The flushed cheeks. The inability to speak. All of that stage, spotlight, crowd, naked response happens inside of you when you’re shy and faced with having to talk to someone. You quickly learn to look somewhat normal while all of this is happening, of course, because God forbid you draw any more attention to yourself by showing how uncomfortable you are. But that just makes the appearing rude thing worse, because the speaking thing just never cooperates.
You might muster a barely audible “hi” that takes every ounce of energy you have to spit out. You might lift your hand to wave, but then you make eye contact that throws you into a tailspin, so you quickly look for some distraction to avoid having to speak. You might giggle or make weird noises or bury your face in your mom’s leg or run off. Anything to avoid the intensity of someone trying to have a conversation with you.
I know this all sounds very dramatic. After all, conversation is kind of a big part of being a human—how hard can it be? But for shy kids, normal social interactions, especially when they first arrive someplace, really are that dramatic. Perhaps they’re hyper-aware of their surroundings and need a little time to get their bearings. Perhaps they need to feel out the landscape before being ready to be social. It’s hard to know.
What I do know is that when a shy child seems like they’re ignoring you, they’re not. They’re actually extremely aware of you. They’re just so busy dealing with all of this internal drama they don’t have the ability to pull together the social graces to converse with you.
I don’t know what causes shyness. I just know that I had it, and I eventually got over it. Or outgrew it. Or overcame it. I’m not sure which, but probably a combination of all three. Through experience and practice and probably some gentle coaching, I found my voice. I realized it was actually much more uncomfortable to be shy than to not be. But it took me until my tween years to really get there. And our girls, who are now 11 and 15, have gotten past their extreme shyness for the most part. So I’m confident our son will eventually get there too.
My point here is that if a kid seems like they’re ignoring you, please don’t write them off as impolite or ill-mannered. I know it’s easy to see and label their behavior that way, but if you understand the Herculean effort it takes just to make eye contact and say “hi” for some kids, you might see it differently. One of the best things my parents did for me was to let me be shy without shaming me for it. As a result, I was able to let it go.
One way you can help shy kids is to not pressure them to converse. Smile at them, acknowledge them, but avoid too much direct verbal attention until they feel comfortable. Try saying, “It’s nice to see you!” instead of asking how they are. Then leave it at that. And try not to be offended by their lack of interaction at first. They’re really not being rude—they’re being shy. There’s a difference.