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Dealing With a Shy Child

It's late afternoon, and my children and I are playing in the backyard. We're having a fine time. Three-year-old Henry is trying to make the rocket-rider reach high enough for him to touch a branch that hangs above the swing set, while Sam, 7, is poking for roly-poly bugs under the rocks. Then my friend Dinah drives up.

As soon as they see a visitor's car pulling into the driveway, the boys shift out of their comfortable backyard selves into their public, we're-onstage-now roles. It's opening night, and once again Henry's the self-made star of the show. Sam, hanging back behind the curtain, isn't even in the cast.

In his haste to greet Dinah the very moment her car door swings open, Henry nearly kills himself attempting to dismount the rocket-rider while it's still in full flight. Perfectly happy before the encroacher arrived on the scene, Sam, by contrast, glares at the offending vehicle. Suddenly he's a slump-shouldered imitation adolescent, leaning sullenly against the swing set and clearly dreading the summons he knows I'm about to give.

I know that Sam's toe-in-the-dirt, mumble-into-the-collar, one-syllable response to social obligation is not shyness. It's more like reserve. He gets along well with his classmates and almost always receives more invitations to play than he can accept in a single weekend. But he refuses to think of someone as a friend just because friendliness is the feeling expected of him in a social situation. Even when he was a baby, strangers would lean into his stroller and make goofy faces at him, but Sam always considered them gravely for a moment before deciding whether to laugh.

Henry was exactly the opposite sort of baby. He bestowed his first social smile at 3 1/2 weeks, his first laugh at barely 2 months. Now he routinely climbs into someone's lap after 30 seconds' acquaintance. He blows goodbye kisses to checkout clerks and gives a jaunty wave to the school crossing guards. People I could swear I've never seen before greet him by name as we stroll through the mall. Is it any wonder that Sam, already reticent by nature, tends to hang back in the shadows while adults make a huge deal over his twinkle-eyed brother?

I always nudge Sam to greet my friends when they drop by, but in truth, I know exactly how he feels. I, too, take a little while to warm up to people. And I, too, have a younger brother who always viewed strangers with an open, interested gaze. Whenever our parents threw parties, Billy would walk from knee to knee, sweetly accepting treats like an openmouthed baby bird. Watching him in action from the doorway, I always found myself doing exactly what my oldest son does now: standing in the chill outside of warm conversation, glowering.

Thankfully, I'm long past those days. Now I look people in the eye when I meet them; I smile and make small talk in gatherings of strangers. When circumstances call for adult social behavior, I can behave like an adult. But I still prefer a quiet dinner out with my husband, or an evening in the home of our best friends, over any party. As with Sam, this is not shyness. It's simply a preference for what's familiar and beloved over what's uncertain and new.

I don't remember when I first noticed that my oldest son was following in my footsteps, but I remember the first time someone else noticed it. When Sam was 4, he went to a birthday party for one of his neighborhood friends, Walt. It was one of the first dropoff parties, but I wasn't really worried: Sam and Walt played together often, and Sam felt at home in Walt's house.

But neither Sam nor I was prepared for the extravagance of this particular occasion: Also invited were seven other kids from our neighborhood, all ten of the birthday boy's preschool classmates, six children of assorted family friends, Walt's oldest sister, and two of her friends. Plus a clown. Sam looked apprehensive when we reached the front door, but he was soon swept into the great tide of kids following the clown toward the backyard, so, despite my misgivings, I left him as planned.

I shouldn't have. "I think I should tell you about Sam," my clearly irritated neighbor whispered when I arrived two hours later to pick him up. "He wouldn't play any of the party games, he wasn't interested in the clown's magic tricks, and he stayed by himself up in Walt's room while the rest of us were downstairs singing 'Happy Birthday.'"

Sam was subdued as we walked home together. "I think Walt might be mad at me because I didn't want to play those stupid party games," he said quietly. We went a few more steps as I wondered frantically how to respond. My instinct was to say, "No, honey, I'm sure Walt's fine with that." But I knew Sam was right: Walt really wasn't fine. Before I could stammer out some sort of explanation or words of comfort, Sam came up with a solution of his own. "I think we should invite Walt over tomorrow," he said. "Then he'll see it was the party I didn't like, not him." It was a better answer than I'd have come up with myself.

I've never fully resolved my social discomforts, so it's difficult for me to offer Sam much guidance on getting past his own. I can't teach him how to be truly sociable, or how to just relax and enjoy the casual, friendly banter his younger brother already excels at. But I can share the things I've learned since I was the one mumbling self-conscious answers as my younger brother happily chattered away. I can explain to him how to pretend to be having fun at a party, and how to answer politely at the family reunion when he's asked, for the fifteenth time, "So, how do you like second grade, Sam?" And I can show him that even though the social birds may have some real advantages, homebodies have pleasures all their own: Watching old movies in bed. Arranging flowers you grew yourself. Talking in your own comfortable chairs with good friends who know you well and love you anyway.

But far more than I want to give Sam social grace, I want to help him understand and appreciate that there's great worth in his own brand of quiet self-sufficiency, in his deep and honorable honesty, and in his absolute faithfulness to those who've managed to gain his trust. That's why when he stands before new people, tongue-tied and miserable, I resist the urge to push him too hard. Instead, I just put my arm around him, give him a little squeeze, and wait for an opportunity to set him free. Yes, I want him to learn to speak politely to my friends, but I don't want him to pretend they're all his friends, too. All that really matters is that Sam knows that I am proud of him, exactly the way he is.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor. She lives in Nashville.