When Children (and even Adults) are Shy

We were waiting for a table for brunch yesterday when a little boy started talking to Fred. “Hey, what’s your name?” he asked. Fred took a sideways glance at him and didn’t respond. The little boy kept trying to make conversation, and finally Fred came over to me and buried his head in my stomach.

“Hey, he doesn’t want to talk to strangers.” The little boy’s mother snapped. “You should be like him, Christopher. He knows. Don’t talk to strangers.” His mother’s voice was sharp and she went on and on. But the boy was sweet, and I always appreciate when other children are willing to put themselves out there. So I walked over to him and tried to do some small chit chat. Christopher waved at Fred and introduced himself to him.

“Christopher! He doesn’t want to play with you, okay?”

I thought about how this would make Christopher feel, so I quickly said to him, “No, it’s not that. Fred is just really shy.” If Fred had 20 more minutes with Christopher, they’d be playing together, and they’d have a ball. Once Fred warms up, he is incredibly fun and generous. I also felt the sting of the mother’s tone and words, whether real or imagined. My boy isn’t cold. My boy isn’t snobby. He’s just shy. And sometimes he just wants his personal space. 

I had grown up shy too. And I remember being misunderstood often. I used to be amused and bewildered at the things people said they thought about me – that I was really confident, or that I didn’t seem like I needed anybody, or that I was so good and pure and innocent. I’d wondered where they had gotten these ideas, and then one day I figured it out. When you don’t reveal yourself to people, they will color in your portrait for you.

The fact that I could eventually grow out of it (in many though not all situations) makes me wonder if my shyness was not inherent, and that I had changed because my environment and circumstances changed. I know for a fact that the moment I had started to fill out a bit, the moment I started to look more like a 17 year girl instead of a teenage boy with stunted growth, that I became less shy. In fact, by the end of my senior year, a male classmate said to me, “What do you mean you are shy, you are the  most UN-shy person I have ever met in my life!” Which, to me, was another surprise. All those years of being the quiet girl and here is a guy talking like I was Julie the cruise director.

And years later at work I would literally be called Julie The Cruise Director. I was the one who organized all the office parties, the one who always kept her office door open. Flash forward more years and I walk into my son’s kindergarten classroom one day to have the teacher say, “Hey, how would you like to be Class Mom?”  (To which I respond, “Sure! Uh, what’s a Class Mom?”) So alot of years have intervened, and now “hey how are ya” rolls off my tongue without any effort whatsoever (unless I haven’t had a chance to wash my hair and I don’t want you to look at me too long, and then I just retreat behind my baseball cap visor and pretend I don’t see you). But now another thing has changed too: the way I look at others who are shy.

Take, for example, a Japanese mother at my son’s school. Her son and Fred play so well together and I would like to get to know her better as she seems like a quite nice and interesting person. Except that she never talks to me unless I talk to her. I am always the one initiating conversation. She responds every time, but I get the feeling that if I stop initiating, she’d stop talking. And I wonder, is it me? What is wrong with me? Am I annoying? Do I look gross? (She always looks good.) I asked Max, who is Japanese, and he said,

 “She is probably shy, because she’s the perfect mother type.” Okay, my husband does not speak English as his native language, and you can see how being married to an American who is very picky about words can lead to some big misunderstandings. But I have learned over the years to not jump on him immediately.

“Um, what do you mean by “perfect mother”? Do you mean that she is too perfect to talk to me?”

“No, I mean that she cares about appearance, she has to appear perfect, and she is self-conscious about her English, so she is scared to talk to you.”


How quickly I have forgotten what people used to think about me when I didn’t talk. That is why I would scoff when they thought I was “so confident.” HELLO. If I were confident I would talk to you, I would laugh with you, I would share my opinions and not worry if they sounded stupid. I would open myself up to you without the aid of vodka or wine, intoxicated by my own confidence alone. So if I don’t talk, it is me, and not you, but it is not because I am  cold, or snobby. It is because I am not sure if you’d like me as your friend. But I am so happy that you are making the effort and I would love it if you don’t give up on me.

How clearly I do remember that now. How I need to remind myself of that when I meet new people. And how I want you to keep that in mind the next time your child wants to play with my child, but he is not immediately ready to say yes.

6 thoughts on “When Children (and even Adults) are Shy

  1. I am exactly that type of person you describe so well at the end of this post – always have been and always will be. I don’t talk to you because I am not confident, pure and simple. It takes me a long time to get to know someone and feel comfortable in their company but once I do I am the life and soul of the party. But initially – no, not at all like that.

    I think it is innate – my daughter is very shy initially with new people too, but once she gets to know them she is incredibly sociable.

    Great post by the way – love the way you went to talk to that other little boy and explain.

    Thank you for stopping by my blog and for your lovely comments too!

    • Thanks for stopping by! I am also glad you can relate to this. I think there are more “shy” people out there than we realize 🙂

  2. Oh, my goodness. I feel so good inside that I found you. I was a painfully shy child. And I can clearly hear my mother’s admonishments in my ear.

    How awful. After all these years, she labeled me, and I still feel that way. Though people tell me I’m not, I wonder, am I? Or was it her telling me that I was??

    I do believe in a shyness gene. I’ve read so much on this subject, from a behavioral viewpoint. You can do so much to cover up, but it remains who you genetically are. Doesn’t mean you have to be chained to it. I think a lot comes from super sensitiveness. I always assume the worst,but it’s usually not me. I’ve been pegged as snobby. Which I can’t believe. I don’t’ think I am. But I am quiet, I observe, and I wait to see if anything would be at risk by me speaking.

    Yeah, I’m like that.

    Your blog is a joy to read!!!

    • Alexandra, you are like a bicycle pump! You inflate me when I start feeling tired or overwhelmed by writing. Thank you. I am extremely sensitive too and read too much into things. Very nice that blogging can work for both shy and non-shy people, eh?

  3. It’s interesting how easy it is to misinterupt others. I have a good friend who is shy and people often confuse it with snobby, which she isn’t. And I tend to come off as very extroverted with a hundred friends, but I don’t enjoy very large social events and only have a few very close friends. I just find it easy to strike up conversation and say my piece. But I still am thinking: PLEASE BE MY FRIEND (just don’t come over TOO often 😉

    • It’s funny how we can be both. I am like that too – I get really surprised when people think I am a social butterfly, but I do need to recharge batteries and I definitely prefer small groups of friends over huge parties. You definitely sound outgoing in your blog! I love that you can show your personality so well in your blog. I am still struggling with that.

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