How do I not pass on my shyness to my son?
March 6, 2009 6:50 AM   Subscribe

[NewDadFilter:] I'm a shy person and a new dad. Is there anything I can do to keep from transmitting that trait to my kiddo?

I've had a lot of trouble with shyness, and I'd prefer for my son not to have the same trouble. I remember my parents and other relatives commenting on my shyness, so, of course, I never do that. I'm actually quite capable of interacting with others in certain contexts (teaching, playing music live). But other really simple interactions are often very difficult for me (e.g. interacting with waiters, for some reason, induces a lot of anxiety). But, in most social situations involving new people, I tend to be quiet at first, and only gradually warm up and engage others in conversation. I'm quite talkative among people I know well.

I found a lot of good advice in this thread about strategies an adult might take to deal with the issue, and that's helpful, but I'm coming at this from a different angle (I think).

My son turned one year old in January. He seems to have some of my same temperament. In social situations, he tends to survey the scene before jumping in. He doesn't strike me as overly shy, I just want to do what I can to make sure that he doesn't become that way.
posted by wheat to Education (23 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There are worse things in this world than "surveying the scene before jumping in." Perhaps you need to rethink the way you view yourself - rather than seeing yourself as timid/shy, recast yourself as the "strong silent type."

Find someone to emulate/admire who talks little but is definitely not shy - Clint Eastwood comes to mind, or John Wayne. Read Louis L'Amour's "Hondo" for a world-class example of a guy who says little but makes each word count; Farmer Hoggett from "Babe" is another good example.

Work on your own confidence, believe in the man you are, and it'll become that way - and as a result, your son will follow suit.
posted by jbickers at 6:54 AM on March 6, 2009 [7 favorites]

I think that a lot of shyness comes from not understanding social situations. If that's true, then learning could help a lot. You can study social psychology - seriously, read a textbook - so that when he asks you a question, or has an issue to deal with, you can advise him in a thoughtful way from the start, rather than having your own shyness and social background as your main source of information.

Social psychology is pretty great for this. Forget Meyers-Briggs tests, there's a lot more information out there about what causes shyness and how it's conquered. Actually, from the class I followed last semester, I can tell you this: one study found that parents who encouraged their originally-shy kids to interact more were likely to succeed in helping the kids be less shy.

Want more information like that? Actual studies? Then, my friend, the text is out there!
posted by amtho at 6:56 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

It is probably at least partially genetic, so don't sweat so much about what you can or cannot do about it. Kids are their own people, and they follow our lead or ignore it as they see fit. Assuming that our behavior will be reflected in our kids is a little bit of a conceit, I think.
posted by zachawry at 6:59 AM on March 6, 2009

Best answer: What's so awful about being shy?

It sounds like your relationship to being shy is actually harder for you than the shyness itself.

As someone else said, anyway, I personally believe it's a genetic thing, mitigated by environmental factors, and the best thing you can do for your son is not push him into interactions but provide opportunities to meet people and have experiences, knowing you'll be there to support him. And if he is shy, you don't want to give him the message that being shy is problematic, as someone clearly did to you, and as my mom did to me.

-Fellow Shy Person
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:09 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Kind of in the same situation...I have two toddlers, and I consider myself to be reticent in many social situations. Setting the whole nature/nurture thing aside, there are a few things we've done as parents that may have influenced our kids' social behavior:

* Make them feel comfortable, loved, and safe (lots of hugs & kisses, all the time)
* Be wild & crazy with them, play lots of silly games, etc. (surprisingly, this came naturally to me, even though it seemed to be the very opposite of my nature)
* Quite honestly, I've been trying harder in social situations to set an example for my kids.

Maybe this will help, maybe not...I'm certainly not a child psychologist or anything. I just know that I don't like that part of my personality, and I want to do everything I can to help build my kids' self-confidence.
posted by brandman at 7:19 AM on March 6, 2009

A lot of it is just going to be innate, and not something you can change really. On the other hand, I don't think it has much to do with genetics rather a lot of personality traits are dependent on hormone levels in the womb. It has a huge effect on personality, and it's not something that gets inherited.

So I wouldn't worry too much at this age.
posted by delmoi at 7:22 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Phillip Zimbardo has written several books on understanding and overcoming shyness. He also did an awesome video series called Discovering Psychology that a lot of people watched in intro psych classes.
posted by electroboy at 7:23 AM on March 6, 2009

Best answer: I am a fairly shy person in many social situations, but I'm not afraid to try new things, because one thing that my mother did right was instill a fierce independent streak in me. I remember being a very little kid and when I wanted pizza for dinner she made me order it. She showed me how to use the phone book to find the number, role played what questions I might get asked, and then made me make the call. I was TERRIFIED. But that experience was a real turning point--I realized I could DO THINGS and in many situations if I just asked for help from someone who had been there before, I would be fine.

I am still a homebody, still dread going to company social events or doing things like moving to a new place and finding new friends, but I am not afraid to function in society. Calling customer service numbers, interacting with waitstaff, generally anything involving being a consumer (even unpleasant interactions!) do not cause anxiety in me, and I really think it's because of that one pizza order.

So I recommend empowering your son as he gets older with age-appropriate tasks that challenge and scare him a little, so he can learn that being shy or reticent is not shameful but that he can also stick up for himself or ask for what he wants or needs.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:31 AM on March 6, 2009 [19 favorites]

My husband and I are both on the introverted side. Somehow, our daughter is the most fearless, extroverted child ever. She thrives on being around people, talks up a storm, and has absolutely no fear of strangers (we're working on that last one).

I think that it's helped that my daughter has been in Mom's Day Out or preschool programs since a young age - it's given her an opportunity to hone her social skills. She's also been involved in many classes at the local YMCA from 6 months on - swimming, gymnastics, etc. I think that just getting her out and exposing her to different situations has been beneficial. She has learned that trying new things and meeting new people is fun.
posted by Ostara at 7:33 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are two issues as I see it, being a fellow introvert.

1- Being quiet or introverted is not a personality defect. It's a valid as any other personality type and comes with strengths and weaknesses just like all the others. It took me years to realize this. You can do a lot to reinforce this for better or worse in your child by how you talk about your personality type. If you act ashamed of it, he'll pick up on it.

2- Fear and anxiety are not good and should be dealt with somehow. Again, your child will learn from you and, especially in this case, behavior speaks louder than words. How he sees you interacting will become his frame of reference. If he picks up on your fear in talking to the waiter it will reinforce for him that situations like that are to be feared.
posted by jluce50 at 7:36 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I appreciate the responses, and hope there will be more. I half-expected there to be a single response more-or-less along the lines of "you're over-thinking this; move on." But there's lots of good advice here.

Some additional facts: 1) my son is in daycare with kids his own age and seems to really enjoy it, actually. He's been going there since the first of this year. It's a very warm and loving place. His teacher is a peach. 2) my wife, while a very private person, is quite a bit more comfortable/confident/capable in social situations than I am, and that helps.

amtho: Long ago, I was a Psych major (before moving to English). I took and really enjoyed a social psychology course. Is there a particular study (or even a particular text) that you would recommend?
posted by wheat at 7:45 AM on March 6, 2009

I think your son will be fine whether or not he picks up your shyness or has his own anxiety about social interaction of some kind, especially since some shy kids grow up into very social adults. There's one thing your question made me think of: something my mom taught me (I was very shy as a child) was that shyness is not an excuse for rudeness. When an adult said hello to me, I was expected to return the greeting, even if it made me uncomfortable. I think that's the biggest issue for shy people--understanding that our handling of our own discomfort can come across as rudeness or aloofness. So, I wouldn't worry so much about whether or not he's at all shy, but instead focus on the importance of being thoughtful and self-aware, whatever his personality is.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:27 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was like this as a kid (and still am).

One of my parents was very much the opposite and always tried to set up play dates for me when I was little. When I was in late elementary school/middle school, they would tell me to try to be more social and that I should have more friends. It didn't happen all that often, but it always made me feel like they were picking on me. I didn't really like most of the kids around me, and I didn't have a good time hanging out with most of them, so being told that I should felt like being told that I should somehow change my whole personality just to fit in. Partly as a response, I reverted to the classic mentality where the quiet/not-popular kid (me) is really much better/smarter/deeper than the popular kids (everyone else). I do agree with the comment above that there's nothing wrong with being introverted, and I certainly got a lot out of sitting home alone and reading all day. Still, in retrospect, it would have saved me a good deal grief if I could have learned better social skills as a child instead of now, as an adult. I just wasn't ready to be told that at the time.

Given all that, I'm trying to think what might have helped. My other parent was a lot like me. Possibly if they'd sat down with me now and then and sort of gently talked about how we related to people in general, it might have helped. My real problem was that I was scared of most people, didn't identify with them at all, and figured that they'd look at me and see a weirdo; thinking of myself as somehow simultaneously inferior yet superior to them was also a problem. It might have helped to have someone to talk with about that - not in the sense of having a "life lessons" lecture, but just talking it over and maybe learning some different ways to think about people and about taking risks in general. I think as I got older, there was a better chance that such conversations could be useful. This is all hypothetical, of course, but I really didn't realize how normal I was, that so many people felt like me, or at the same time that learning how to interact with people really could be rewarding.

So based on my experience, I'd say keep observing and be mostly hands-off. If it does turn out to be a problem, try to find ways to help build your kid's confidence and to help them think about other people in more healthy ways. Listen to them to see whether they actually think there's a problem. Just don't let them feel like there's something wrong with them for being scared.
posted by mail at 8:32 AM on March 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

One anecdotal point but I was a painfully shy kid and worried about this with my son, but he is anything but shy, and as far as I can tell it is basically innate. The majority of my son's life I've been his primary, at-home caretaker (he's now 4.5) My wife is very much an extrovert. I think it's genetic. I agree with the general sentiment that being introverted is not intrinsically bad provided you aren't unduly hassled for it and that you are still challenged to try new things, take risks and so on.
posted by nanojath at 8:33 AM on March 6, 2009

I can be shy, and am definitely anxious in new social situations. My daughter, who is 3 now, is not a particularly shy kid. Her mom is probably less shy than me, but not overly outgoing.

I don't know if I agree with those that say its genetic - I've worked hard in my life to overcome shyness, and its possible. So much of it has to do with not only providing social settings, like you are doing with your daycare, but also instructing your kid in how to act during those occasions - responding to hellos/goodbyes, asking to play with others, sharing with others, etc. I really think practice helps out a lot.
posted by RajahKing at 8:43 AM on March 6, 2009

Best answer: I've seen shy people actually use the fact that they have a kid to explore more social options than they might otherwise and also use it as an opportunity to show their kids that it's okay to talk to people etc. I am not a parent. That said, kids can pick up their cues from you even if you're not saying anything special.

So, when you're at a restaurant, if you're brusque and agitated around a waiter (I am like this too, I totally sympathize) your son will be able to see it. What you can do is use the occasion of having your son with you as an opportunity to sort of explain the interactions, thus opening yourself up more and modelling better behavior for your son. Not to be overly simplistic but

"Okay the waiter is going to come over and ask us what we'd like to eat. What would you like? Does the pancake sound good?" (I realize he's too teeny for this now but as he grows older)
"Okay tell the waiter you'd like the pancake, you can point to the menu if you want to."
"Do you need more water, let's ask for more water."

Also if your wife is more social, it may be easy and comfortable to have her do more of the "social" work in your relationship. Try to avoid this so that you can pass on the lesson that each member of a couple has to do some of the things in a relationship, even if they're not their favorite things. I'm not saying "suck it up" but that raising a child where they have an expectation that they way to deal with shyness is to find someone who loves them to handle social situations (not saying you are doing this) is not actually a coping strategy. Obviously, you strike a balance that's important and there's nothing wrong with being shy as a personality trait generally, but I'd work on getting the message across that even though you're shy there are some things you just sort of have to learn how to do, even if it's by rote.

I'm shy in certain situations -- people tend to not believe this when I tell them -- and having little "this is how this is going to go" scripts that keep me moving forward have been really helpful to keeping me in interactive and not avoidance mode with certain things. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 8:57 AM on March 6, 2009

There's a real difference between a shy person and an introverted person. Shy has a negative connotation like "I want to talk but I cant" while introverted is "I dont want to talk right now." Its important to know which is which and if anxiety is a factor.

That said, the advice up top to learn social situations helps quite a bit. If you dont know whats going on socially its difficult to come up with a strategy on how to act or express yourself. For some people this comes naturally and others need to work on it.

I also dont like the genetic determinism present in this thread. Who knows where all this stuff comes from, but its defeatist to assume your kid will have it, or will have it as the same degree as you do. Not everything in genetic. Heck, the more we learn about human behavior the less we see a strict genetic determinist role. Education, social development, culture, social learning, handling negative experiences, abuse or lack of, etc are still very big on how people turn out.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:04 AM on March 6, 2009

Best answer: I am not remotely shy, yet I rarely speak, and spoke even less as a child. This is because my father was very gregarious, and came across as an ass to nearly everyone he associated with. I recognized this as early as 4-5 years old and didn't want to emulate him.

As long as your kid has some model of an adult with appropriate social abilities, and as long as you reward proper behavior (whether silent or talk-y) and discourage improper social behavior, your kid should be fine. Truly shy kids (those afraid of social situations) had bad parents (as appears to be your case).
posted by coolguymichael at 11:22 AM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

[I may just be restating Jessamyn's points, but they're good points...]

Spontaneously, if the situation feels right, you should feel free to encourage behavior from your son that is more social rather than less social. If you have a choice between multiple ways of handling a low-pressure situation, why not choose the one that allows your son to gain social confidence?

Also, scripts can be helpful. If you ride a public bus, saying "Good morning" to the bus driver as you board and "Thank you" as you exit is good manners, but it also builds the habit of breaking down social walls. Or perhaps more importantly, not perceiving social walls in the first place.
posted by RobinFiveWords at 11:32 AM on March 6, 2009

I'm glad my parents didn't pick up psych books to deal with my sister's shyness. There is nothing wrong with her, nor is there anything wrong with your son. I hope you don't pathologize his shyness to the point where he himself believes he's got a problem. Shyness isn't something a parent can fix. And if you have another child who is not shy, how is the shy one going to feel knowing he's got a "problem" that his parents have tried to fix, but his sibling has no such problem? Please let the child be and celebrate him for the person he is. That is what all children need.
posted by Piscean at 1:19 PM on March 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I may be completely wrong here, but my feeling is that your child will either be introverted or not, as his nature determines. Both are fine. What you want to do is avoid making him uncomfortable with being himself, either by trying to make him an extrovert when he's really quiet, or by trying to make him quiet when he's naturally loud.

Don't worry about him. He's not going to be able to tell that you're feeling awkward for a long time, if ever. Feelings often don't show on the outside. In the meantime, YOU should get comfortable with YOURSELF, both by accepting your introversion, and by changing feeling and behaviour patterns in yourself (if you want to). Then when he's old enough to look beyond "Dad said this", "Dad said that", and becomes aware of your feelings, you won't be nearly as concerned with it.

Children are amazing creatures; given any chance to thrive, they will. Just don't block him off from being himself. Encourage him to be social, but don't make him face up to your issues by trying to make him into something that you want to be.
posted by '' at 2:09 PM on March 6, 2009

Best answer: Enroll him into acting class for kids.
posted by leigh1 at 9:33 AM on March 7, 2009

If he is shy, don't announce it to all and sundry. I'm a sports coach and I always cringe a little when parents preface that first meeting with this statement (sometimes the kid cringes too). Either the person meeting them has noticed this already and will behave accordingly (which might be either boorish or sensitive depending, unfortunately) or hasn't noticed so it doesn't matter. The main thing I see with shy, introverted or socially uneasy kids is that they have an absolute gift for making themselves invisible and it's easy for a teacher to ignore them. But rather than telling the teacher "hey pay attention to my kid, he's shy" you should engage her/him "how did Sam do today? What new stuff did he learn? He's in new skates was he okay?" Anything that makes the teacher have to take notice.

I just had to give up a private student who is very very shy and quiet; she requested that she move to someone she already knows so I talked to her class teacher. He had NO IDEA who she was (despite having had her in class for more than 2 months). Now clearly, this is hugely his fault, but her mother knows she is shy and she could have been there talking to that teacher in a constructive way to help her child get noticed.
posted by nax at 6:25 PM on March 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

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