What Is Wrong With Being “Shy”?

If a child is “shy”, why is it so important to send them to school to “cure” them of their shyness? How did it become common knowledge that shy children who are not properly socialized by other children their age then turn into self-closeted psychopaths who can’t get along in the world?

There are lots of shy, or shall we say “reserved” adults, who went to public or private school, and who get along just fine in the world. And there are a lot of people who are “outgoing” but also have a hard time keeping friends, getting along with others, or even understanding other people’s perspectives.

Shy kids might not win any popularity contests, but is that really the important thing in life? In school, it might be pretty important to some, but in real life, is that the point? To be considered “social”?

If a child is shy, or reserved, or slow to get to know people, is it a trait that needs to be “fixed”? Isn’t another way to say “fixing” someone, is to change them?

I just don’t understand the perspective that it’s important that young children have the personality trait of going up to complete strangers and being able to talk to them – or rather *wanting* to talk to them. How is that a “better” social trait than to stand back until one has become comfortable with someone before talking to them? Especially for children?

And what’s interesting, is that many school kids are not “shy” at school, but if you suggest they do something new, out of school, with other people who aren’t their school friends – or if you suggest they change school – their reaction is “how am I going to make friends?” Is being shy circumstantial?

School doesn’t teach kids to make friends. Kids are who they are. What determines a person’s likelihood of feeling comfortable in new situations is self-confidence. Understanding one’s self. Being comfortable in one’s skin. School doesn’t teach that. School can actually take that away. I suppose, given certain circumstances, life in general can take that away from a person.

But if a child grows up in a loving, close-knit and supportive family, it doesn’t matter if he is reserved. He will find who he is, because his family lets him be who he is without judgement. In fact, this makes me wonder – is being shy actually bad, or do kids who are accused of being shy learn that it’s bad through being told it is?

What if we decided being shy was OK? And that being reserved was actually a good trait to have? What would that mean for the role of school in a shy child’s life?

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13 Responses to “What Is Wrong With Being “Shy”?”

  1. Flo Says:

    I cringe whenever someone calls my child “shy.” I always reply, “She doesn’t know you.” It is not something that needs to be fixed and school would only drive her further into herself and make her feel wrong, bad, different. At the same time, I am sure to present her with opportunities to practice getting to know people on her time. In real life, it’s about regarding people at the various levels required- associates, aquaintances, neighbors, friends, family. Not everyone needs to be embraced in an “outgoing” way. School wants everyone to be the same, and that includes social skills. Life doesn’t work that way.

  2. Robin Says:

    Huh…shyness and lack of self-confidence do get lumped together. Then are we all self confident all the time? So we have to be in everything we do? I think shy is a good thing if that is who you are. What’s bad is being judged for being shy. And, you’re right, if you are for the most part comfortable in your skin *being who you are*, it doesn’t matter. And if you are not comfortable at times in your skin *doing certain things* (like giving a speech…I keep hearing parents talk about how it’s good for their young children to present information to a crowd so they can get used to it…) why isn’t that OK?

  3. Melissa G Says:

    This is one of my HUGE pet peeves. I am so glad I noticed the link to your blog on the FaCE forum. My oldest (5 years old) is very “shy” and will not speak to people most of the time. It makes me crazy when people talk about socialization and how their homeschooled kids are “comfortable just talking to anyone” etc. My child isn’t, so am I supposed to feel bad about that? Does that mean I’m not doing homeschooling “right” because my chid isn’t comfortable enough to strike up a conversation with anyone he meets. Homeschoolers often use this “my child can talk to anyone, especially adults” as their defense for the often asked socialization question. So what does that mean for the shy kids? The ones who really can’t talk to anyone they meet? I always feel bad for my son when a well meaning person comes up to talk to him (in line at the grocery store, etc) because I know it makes him uncomfortable. We’ve tried little ways to make him feel comfortable, nodding instead of saying “yes”, etc, but he would just rather hang on to me and hide. I’m fine with that, that’s who he is. I wish the world would quit telling him he has to be uncomfortable just to suit their needs.

  4. mom24bbs Says:

    Excellent points. My dh is “reserved” but I’d rather be like him. He doesn’t have trouble keeping friends. I am outgoing and am always sticking my foot in my mouth. If you ask me, being outgoing is over-rated (not to mention annoying because we outgoing people tend to think we always have to say something even when it’s inappropriate). I wish I was shy.

  5. zaletabakman Says:

    I liked this article. I myself am a shy person. However, to speak with me or see how I interact with other people, one would never know that I am shy.

    I bave worked very hard at not “being shy”. However, my deep insecurities have kept me from changing my true nature.

    I am firm beleiver in schools for a whole bunch of reasons. One of them is the ability to “Learn” how to interact, to learn social norms, and learn all sorts of other things.

    In a perfect world, parents are perfect, in the real world, even with the best intentions, we are imperfect.

    We spoil our children with gifts, we don’t spoil our children with enough gifts,
    we don’t let children make mistakes, we let children make too many mistakes.
    We guide them too much, we don’t guide them enough.
    We give them to much love, we don’t give them enough love.
    We give them attention, we give them too much attention.

    I have five children, and I am an extremely active parent. I am the parent the the teachers and principles say “Why aren’t all parents like you.” And I can think about mistakes I make every day, but the reality is – my kids are going to grow up no matter what I do.

    My parents weren’t perfect – they made lots of mistakes. But I grew up, I contribute to society. I have children and they are already contibuting to society. Each one a little different.

    Here are a couple of my favorite lines.
    a) Kids grow up in spite of their parents.
    b) Incompentent parents create compentent kids – competent parents create incompetent kids.

    Have a great day – keep up the great work.



  6. Mette Says:

    ha ha ha! I had to laugh when I read your description of yourself, mom24bbs… reminds me so of myself.
    I´ve always been very outgoing and always had a point to make – it´s taken me years to understand that I really don´t always have to “win” a conversation or even put in my 2c (yet here I go again, rotfwl…).
    My husband has a bit the same problem, and together we decided some years ago to start working on getting better at listening and keeping our big mouths shot…and old proverb says that man has two ears and one mouth for a reason…*lol*
    anyway, I was thinking; is it possible that feeling you must always put in your word could be related to having never been properly listened to or taken seriously in our childhood?????? just a thougt…..

  7. dianeinjapan Says:

    Thank you for this, Tammy! I truly dislike when people treat shyness as a social or mental defect. And I know for a fact that it’s counterproductive to push (too hard) a shy kid who’s also smart and stubborn–they’ll resent it!

  8. margaret Says:

    Hi All- I agree with folks that being shy is not necessarily bad- but for my son I do see it as an issue- I see him when at birthday parties or other places where there are children that he even knows- and he is so uncomfortable- the reason I think he is uncomfortable is that he wants to be more part of the group but it is not easy for him to do it. If he was perfectly happy to sit on the sidelines and watch I would not be as concerned- Does school help shyness?- I think if there is a really good teacher they can help a child learn skills and strategies to feel more comfortable in social situations- but it really depends upon whether the teacher has the skills, knowledge and motivation to do this or not- and that is a big question.

    I don’t think homeschooling creates shyness at all- but for a kid who is already very shy I think it is difficult to be able to provide enough social situations with the same kids on a frequent and routine basis when you homeschool- there may be areas where this is not so difficult but this is a dilemma for me.

  9. Sunnymom Says:

    I think it depends ‘why’ they are shy- it is truly a lack of self-confidence, or is it fear? Maybe they are just content with their own company(that would be me). I would deal with each of these differently in my children.

    Another thing we should be aware of is that we don’t talk kids out of listening to their own instincts about people. They may be reacting with discomfort in someone’s presence because their Discern-O-Meter is in the red zone, KWIM?

    A great book that addresses teaching kids how to deal with their fears and instinctive responses to people is “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin de Becker. https://www.gavindebecker.com/books-ptg.cfm . I ask my kids ‘why’ a certain person made them uncomfortable, and sometimes they have surprised me with what they sensed in that person by the way they looked at them, or the things they said, or a previous incident of which I was not aware. I encourage my kids to be polite, but I don’t talk them out of their feelings.

    So while I believe it is perfectly acceptable to be reserved, I also believe in teaching my kids how to deal with life situations, and to care for others. I take them to the Dollar Store or McD’s, have them pick something and buy it themselves, have them order their own food and pay for it. We visit nursing homes where they learn compassion for others, and how to reach outside themselves to be an encouragement to someone who needs it. When they have friends over, I teach them how to ‘serve’ as host or hostess, asking their friends if they can get them a drink, show them where the bathroom is, etc. IMO homeschooling is as much about learning how to live a vibrant life as it is about book learnin’.

    I don’t think shyness is a homeschool or traditional school issue- I firmly believe it is more of a personality and a parenting issue. I grew up on a farm where most of my friends were of the four-legged variety, and went to public and private schools. I tolerated being with people. I won spelling bees and science fairs, took debate and speech classes, and performed in tournaments. Then I went home to be blissfully alone with my collection of cheap paperbacks. 😀

  10. Kim Says:

    I was the most backwards child ever, and I am still a person that is hard to get to know, and I went K-12 in public school. Did public school help me? Not really, it is just some children’s personalities to be shy.

  11. shyness Says:

    people act like shyness is a disease you caught, they always ask why are you so shy, like what is wrong with you. Just because you don’t need/want to be the center of attention all the time. Which just puts you on the spot and makes a shy person feel worse. everyone always wants to judge everyone and i was reading through the posts and outgoing people wish they were shy and shy people wish they were outgoing. I guess we all want the opposite of what we are. but it doesn’t make me feel better, I hate being shy, I’m not even close to as bad as I use to be but it definitely holds you back in life. But whether your shy or outgoing nobody is perfect and I definitely would have gotten in alot more trouble if I wasn’t so shy.

  12. betsy davenport, phd Says:

    BEWARE: book length post ahead.

    It seems most of the comments here are two years old, like the article. In case someone reads it, here I go. (It always clarifies my own thinking to write, anyway.)

    I am relieved to read the original article inquiring about shyness as a trait, and as such is not something to be repaired or criticized. My daughter was, as a toddler, what I called “conservative” when it came to physical activities, yet when she knew herself to be ready, she went up the ladder to the Big Slide, and went down. No big excitement on her part; just that was the next thing to do.

    She has been this way since before that and at age i6, she still is.

    In the meantime, she demonstrated greater comfort playing with a small group of kids and when they gathered for “circle time,” she sat on the edge. She wanted to be there, was willing and interested in participating, was interested in showing things at “Sharing” time, yet was not able to ask teachers for help.

    This became a huge problem; not for her so much as for the school -one which prided itself on being not homogeneous, of all the children together being a kind of “mosaic” – yet her particular traits somehow didn’t fir in that mosaic or the concept of mosaic the school endorsed.

    She was described as “nearly mute,” and this was clearly judged a deficit. Never mind she was dashing around screaming, laughing “appropriately” and interacting with no inhibition during recess and at home and at friends’ houses. A teacher during this terrible 4th grade year was a forbidding man who rolled his eyes when a child didn’t know what was only then being taught. Her prowess in spelling was rewarded with a list of words she had to generate on her own that were to be used in a science unit some weeks later. That assignment was cruel and punishing and required her to use these words in a sentence. She told her father she knew she could write coherent sentences without knowing their definitions, but considered that “cheating,” by which she meant useless and busy work. When I described her experience to the head of the school, I was told that assignment was “an honor.”

    My daughter, always perceptive, was honored from infancy when she stiffened about being handed over to someone eels, and was able to choose with certainty who she wanted to be with, and not. We supported her internal knowing, always.
    After a disastrous year at another school that also described itself as wanting students of interesting and creative and unusual styles, declaring it an environment where “mistakes:” were freely made and considered simply learning experiences — yet every tiny error, like handing an assignment in typed in the “wrong” font made all the week’s work null and void; where grades were read out to the class every Monday English class; where she failed, for the first time, every class except her electives which were terrific in every way, but didn’t “count” towards her “GPA,” and those teachers were never at conferences, nor were those conferences, but auditory reports at which we parents were unable to speak.

    This girls has wonderful gifts, and some challenges in terms of ADD and slow processing time, but has always excelled in school, partly due to her own diligence and partly to her real interest, and – I’m afraid – to fear of not performing. No accommodations had ever been made for her. She, being reserved and shy, was unable to describe her situation, and we were essentially ignored, then barred, from speaking on her behalf. This was seen as parental intrusion and inability to release the child to maturing naturally.

    On the contrary, of course, we were contouring ourselves around her capacities in order to provide scaffolding so that she could still participate in the things kids like to do, and which gave her pleasure, She had a group of friends who love her to this day, some of whom she hasn’t seen in 2 years. After being ignored, as she got older and shyness turned into anxiety, we were literally shut out. And she was still unable to speak in her own behalf. After soldiering on through failing and teacher hostility and knowing her parents who she likes quite a bit were being mistreated by the school, she became ill most mornings, yet showed up in the kitchen day after day, backpack and lunchbox on her shoulders, ready to go. Except finally, her feet rooted themselves to the floor and she literally could not move.

    In April of that year, I called a halt and said, “No more. You do not have to — in fact, you must not — do this anymore. Your body is telling you to stop, to not go. Stay home and sleep and recuperate and then we’ll see what’s what.”

    Medical treatment for the anxiety that persisted and worsened was only moderately helpful. It was physiological. Once when I mentioned the idea that people always say an anxious child should be involved in an activity at which s/he can excel that is satisfying, to help with confidence, she sputtered and said, “Confidence?” I have plenty of confidence! I know what I can do, what I can’t, and this anxiety that it’s called has nothing to do with that. It just washes over me like a tidal wave and I can’t do anything.” And about self esteem: “Self esteeeem?? How could I have done everything I have done, as hard as it’s been, if I didn’t have good self esteem?” I completely agreed with her.

    So I take issue with the assumption that shyness and low confidence are linked. They sometimes co-occur, but so do confidence and shyness. It’s the “not confident” idea that leads everyone to assume the child is in need of repair.

    Now, she is just 16 and cannot attend school at all. We hired a teacher for one year, which had some advantages and some real negatives. This past year she thought she was ready, enrolled in 10th grade, became immediately overwhelmed and couldn’t go. The school was very helpful and kind, yet what was offered to her and to us was exactly what she couldn’t make use of. It required attending. She has spent the past year more or less doing not much, but reading as always, and researching horses, which activity she had to give up almost 4 years ago and plans to resume as soon as able.

    Her ADD makes motivation extremely poor (I have it, too, so it’s a poor combination); she can hardly meet new people; and I have, after exhaustive and exhausting research been able to validate that she IS NOT A HEAD CASE. She suffers with, among several other debilitating endocrine conditions, adrenal exhaustion. Presumably, this has developed over years of making the effort needed to meet the expectations the world placed upon her. And, not one single medical person ever suggested she be checked out from head to toe for physiological problems!

    In all likelihood, the medical profession being what it is, the problems with endocrine function would not have been uncovered anyway (kind of like the narrow view of the school system). EYE did the research, EYE found a doctor 3,000 miles away to consult with – initially for myself, because the profound and unremitting stress of this whole miserable mess has thrown me into physical disarray – and then for her. She is so unwell she’s been advised to exercise only by walking around the neighborhood for FIVE minutes a day so as not to deplete her nonexistent resources.

    THAT is illness. No one gave one hot damn, nor do they, still. I have aged by 10 years in the last 3. She was scrawny enough to look skeletal. She now has a decent appetite and eats well. No, she wasn’t anorexic. Anyway, all of this — and though I could, and should, write a book about this, I cannot because I think it is an unconscionable act to open a child’s life to the world for consumption — is to provide another horror story not to horrify but to inform and to provide support for parents of children who have their own ways to honor them and do what will assist THAT child to grow up in her/his own way. They all will, they’re made that way. But we jeopardize this when we try to make them fit the mainstream.

    (In my defense, and I often remind myself of this, I was always leaning back and forth on school for her because I knew I would have been a very poor teacher for her as would her father; and because she had such a good time with so much of school, including friends, reading, all the subjects, etc. In the end, what broke her was the slow accumulation of stress and then that hideous 8th grade year when she was really abused.)

    We’re not through this by any means, but I finally have found the right tree to bark up, and just picking up apples and eating through them with her, one by one. I don’t expect her to be “well” for at least another year, poor kid.

  13. Sai Says:

    To Betsy Davenport, PhD,

    That sounds almost exactly like my story, only I was severely bullied by teachers and staff alike. I wish your daughter the best of luck, and I’m glad you intervened earlier than I was helped. Good luck to both of you.

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