Feeling Shy

Feeling Shy

Lizzy walked behind her mother as they approached the door of her nursery school. Just inside, the principal, Mrs. Carmichael was waiting to greet them.

“Good morning Lizzy. Good morning Margaret. How are you today?” She put her hand out to Lizzy, but Lizzy ducked behind Margaret and looked down at the floor.

“Good morning, Mrs. Carmichael,” Margaret smiled. “I think Lizzy is feeling a bit shy again today. Lizzy, will you shake hands? No? Okay, let’s go to your classroom.”

Halfway down the hall, they met Bob, the nice gym teacher. “Hey, Lizzy,” he called. “Can’t wait to see you later. I’ll bet you’ll kick the ball into the net again.”

Again not a peep out of Lizzy. She turned her head completely away. “A little shy today, Bob,” Margaret explained.

Lizzy hid behind Margaret’s blue coat as they walked into the sunny classroom. Pretending not to see Lizzy, her teacher Cathy joked, “No Lizzy today? We’ll miss her. Have a seat Margaret… Oh, Lizzy, there you are! I’m so glad to see you. Hello.”

Again, Lizzy ducked her head, and again Margaret explained. “She is really feeling shy today, Cathy. Can’t seem to shake it.”

Margaret hung around, while Lizzy clung to her legs. Margaret finally got Lizzy’s coat off and put it in her cubby. “I know you’re feeling shy, Lizzy,” Margaret said softly. “I hope you will still have a good day.”

The second her mother was out of the picture, Lizzy’s usual outgoing disposition returned. She flew to the art table and happily sat down to draw flowers using her favorite markers. Later she played doctor in the dramatic play area and operated on Tommy’s leg. At snack time, she chatted with her friends, telling them she might get a kitten. She had fun playing soccer with Bob and her classmates in the gym. 

At dismissal time, Margaret walked up to Cathy. “How was the day? Did she begin to feel better? 

“Oh, it was a great day,” Cathy replied. “She had lots of fun. Not a trace of being shy.”

As they walked to the car, Margaret took Lizzy’s hand. “I’m so glad you’re not still feeling shy, Lizzy.” 

Lizzy looked up. “Mommy, what’s shy?” she asked. 

Sometimes “shy” is a label parents to use to describe their child’s social behavior. “Shy” allows them to excuse the fact that their child is not responding politely to overtures from others. It also gives the child a license to continue that behavior. (“If I am shy, I don’t have to say good morning when an adult greets me. I can just look down and my mother will make an excuse.”)

Margaret is a respectful and understanding mother. Perhaps she is trying to avoid a power struggle with her daughter by not insisting that she respond, but she may also be setting a precedent for further “shyness.” Rather than excusing Lizzy, Margaret could quietly explain, when they are alone, that when an adult speaks to Lizzy, she should look at the person and answer. Just a “hello” is fine if she doesn’t really feel like talking. Not answering at all should not be accepted or excused. Once Margaret feels clearer herself, both will benefit.

Anne Martine Cook has 39 years experience teaching nursery school children. We welcome your comments and questions.