One of my mother's favorite stories to tell of her precocious daughter was how I made the entire family sit down in the living room and pretend to be engrossed in the variety of musical performances I created to entertain them. Costumes, scripts and even hair and makeup were planned methodically and of course, it would always be a one-woman show, with the spotlight on me. (Literally—I'd have my brother point a flashlight directly at my head the entire time as he whined about arm pain and exhaustion.)
I have never been a shy person.
I once pushed a young boy off a two-foot high stage because he was blocking me when it was my time to be a sunflower in the kindergarten production of "How Plants Grow."
So you could imagine my surprise when I gave birth to a daughter who felt uncomfortable with attention. Who clung to my leg far beyond those toddler-clingy years and who longed to be near me rather than her peers.
Who was this introverted child? If she didn't have my Italian nose, I would have suspected an error on the hospital's part after her birth.
But she is mine, and I love her more than I ever dreamed I could love a person. Still, I have struggled to understand her.
I struggled when she couldn't make eye contact with someone talking to her. I struggled when she wouldn't play with a fun new neighbor. I struggled when she preferred my lap over sitting with a group of girls who invited her to join them at the craft table.
And each time, I pushed her forward. I told her to stop being shy and just get out there. And each time, my actions failed. She held on tighter to the comforts of her safe and secure surroundings. She crawled under her invisible table of uneasiness.
Until one day, a friend said, "It's okay to just let her be her."
The problem was—I thought I was doing that. I thought I was helping her bring out her outgoing side. I thought I was pushing her to do the things she deep down wanted to do.
I was wrong. I was pushing her to do the things that I liked to do at her age. I was trying to turn her into me.
So I started to do some research. I began to learn more about having an introverted child. What it was like to have someone feel uncomfortable with the spotlight. And what happened in that process was that I learned how amazing her personality really was.I learned how important it was to highlight her accomplishments and not focus on what I "wished" she would do.
And the irony of knowing this new information was, when I finally stopped pushing her little body forward and making her talk to strangers, she started to step forward on her own. Instead of forcing her to do a group sport right away, I let her choose swimming. Eventually, she realized—on her own—that she wanted to play with other children.
But the biggest thing I stopped doing was making excuses for her. I stopped saying, "Oh she's just shy" when someone wanted to talk to her. I simply asked her to smile and be polite. She didn't need to put on a show, she didn't need to participate in the conversation, she simply needed to be kind and polite. And eventually, those one or two polite words turned into one or two polite sentences, which turned into one or two polite conversations.
She will never be the little girl wanting everyone to pay attention to her. But she is the little girl that I will always want to pay attention to—in whatever way she'd like me to.
If you're in a similar situation—parenting a shy child when you yourself are anything but—the following tips and lessons that I've learned firsthand can help:
1. Putting your child in the spotlight will not cure her of her introverted nature. It will only increase her anxiety and discomfort. Hold back the urge to push your kid on to that stage and let her walk up there if and when she's ready.
2. Present opportunities to him—but don't show disappointment if he's uncomfortable or not ready to participate. Encourage but don't push. An introverted child shouldn't be punished for needing to do things in his own time and place. You don't have to give up on the opportunity, just give it a bit of time before presenting it again.
3. Try not to compare. Phrases like, "Look at Sally, she's out dancing with everyone, having a great time" can be interpreted by your child as disappointment in her actions. Just because Sally does it, doesn't mean that your child will feel comfortable doing it.
4. Praise her successes. Focus on the positives of her actions. Use reassuring words like, "I would have been nervous too, good for you for getting out there" or "I'm so proud of you for trying something new."
5. Introvert doesn't mean she's shy. It simply means she has to feel comfortable before jumping in. My daughter now sings and dances with her friends constantly, but it wasn't because I pushed her into doing it, it was because when she felt comfortable, she let herself take that step. It's their walk to make, and our job to support them.