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Shyness Answered

April 15, 2005

How do you teach a girl not to be shy? Is it right to demand self-confidence? What IS shyness?

Dear Rebekah,
A friend of mine has an eight-year-old little girl who is extremely shy. If you ask her a question or look at her directly, she turns her face away and won’t answer. It almost seems like a form of rebellion to me. I don’t want my daughter to be like that. How do you teach a girl not to be shy? Is it right to demand self-confidence? What IS shyness?

Dear Judith,
Shyness is caused by the family’s worldview. You may ask, “Then why is it that we have four children and only one of them is shy?” Children are born with different personalities, strengths and weaknesses. A family may be weak in an area that is not a problem for their first three children; they mature normally, but then the fourth child, due to innate differences, will not do as well in the same environment as did her siblings. It seems that every family will have at least one child that will test its weaknesses. Be assured, even though children come into the world quite different, they will become what we make them.

When children grow up thinking that the world was made for them (not them for the world), it causes them to be self-conscious and self-centered. Children need to be raised believing that the world was made for them to explore and discover, that their purpose in life is to create and experience, to make things better and to heal. Every-day we impart our worldview by our words and deeds. For example, when we find a lizard under a rock in the springtime, the focus becomes discovering all there is to know about that lizard–not watching to see if two-year-old Rysha will react with fear to a lizard. Our emotional response to a lizard is “Wow! How did God make this lizard?! What’s the lizard been doing all winter? What does he eat? How does he sleep? How does he feel if I touch him? Can he see me?” Ryshoni’s focus is not on herself or her own emotional or physical well-being; it’s on the lizard. If a child feels that her purpose for existing is to be looked at, made to feel better, act better, talk better, eat better, etc., then the prospect of life ahead is rather intimidating, because there is always one focus—herself. It’s all about how she feels. Thus, you end up with the selfish response of shyness: “I don’t want to look at you or tell you my name. In my safe, little world there is no place for others.”

Secondly, you must engage children in conversation from the time they first start making garbled noises. Infants and toddlers learn to interact by being spoken to, questioned, and taught in a relaxed setting. They need to hear from you continually, about what you are doing, what you are thinking, even if it is over their heads. I tell Rysha what I’m making for lunch and involve her in the process as much as possible. Throughout the day, I tell her what I think about the book, the activity, the event, and engage her in conversation to the limit of her ability and beyond. A girl who is familiar with being spoken to, questioned, and taught, will grow up to interact easily.

Also, as our children develop and mature emotionally, questions about life, sexuality, God, death, etc. come up quite naturally in their conversations. We never, never turn aside their questions with, “There are some things we’re not meant to know” or “We’ll tell you about that when you get a little older.” Parents who cop-out of giving straight answers to their children’s questions are creating fear of the unknown. These children grow up to be sexually, spiritually, and emotionally inhibited—or worse, confused. Their God-given source of knowledge has failed them, and suddenly they have no means of discerning the truth. Insecurity feeds on the void that truth might have filled. Talk to your girls all the time, about everything that concerns them.

Thirdly, it is important to “put feet on” their confidence by giving them the ability to live life as independently as possible. When my 2-year-old Ryshoni needs to go potty, I follow her into the bathroom and coach her through the process of pulling down her bloomers, climbing onto the stool, and sitting down, but I don’t do it for her. When it’s time to pick up the toys, I may remind her every five minutes to finish her job, but I don’t do it for her. When someone asks her what her name is, I may give her a nudge to prompt her, but I don’t tell the stranger what her name is unless they ask me directly instead of her. I’ll defend her like a tigress if someone tries to wrong her, but anything she is capable of doing for herself (work, play, responses), she must do it herself.

I want to work myself out of a job as soon as possible, and I will measure my success as a mother by Ryshoni’s ability to function safely and wisely in the real world as quickly as possible. I love these years of her childhood when she needs me and loves to cuddle in my lap; but I love her emotional, physical, and spiritual well being far more than these fleeting days of my own gratification. She is an eternal being, and so am I, and I will answer for the way I handle her first years of life. God give me the grace to be unselfish.

One word of caution: Some people mistake belligerence, or rebellion, for confidence. This could not be further from the truth. Rebellion and belligerence do not bring peace and enjoyment. You should know the difference. It is possible to be both confident and sweet, both independent and submissive. A confident, secure woman will be able to focus on the needs of the world around her, rather than on herself and her own problems. I want my daughters to grow up to become my friends and equals in life (as I have with my mother), people that I can appreciate and learn from. I want them to be fully equipped to raise another generation that is sweet and confident. I want my daughters and my granddaughters to be healers for this world, caretakers, givers, lovers, and examples to those who are in need.

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13 comments on “Shyness Answered”

  1. I forget how important it is to live out my worldview, and I get bogged down sometimes by the imput of other well-meaning folk. Too many other people spend their time watching my daughter's responses and being concerned for her when they are with us and she experiences new things. God help me to teach her to be other focused in spite of all that.

  2. I'm sorry but I feel a bit offended by the response.

    As a child, I was so painfully shy that I could not look anywhere near an unknown (to me) person's face. My problem wasn't

    1. Rena, I agree.

      I was not a shy child, nor was my husband, and we have done none of the things suggested by this author to cause shyness in a child, yet we have, in our four children, quite a variety on the chattiness spectrum.

      Some children are better at observing and some are better at initiating. Both strengths are needed in our world, and both should be met with understanding, appreciation, and encouragement toward developing skills in the opposite direction as well.

      Shyness is not always merely a matter of good or bad parenting.

      1. Hi Rena,
        Thanks so much for your reply! We should clarify that when we refer to "shy," we aren't trying to point to people that are naturally more reserved or quiet as a personality. Being shy is selfish. Being reserved is simply that in a a situation you may not be the first to speak, but you are there, present, and contributing.

  3. I love this response. My husband and i were just talking about how we want to always answer our children's questions even if we think they're too young for the answer. If they can ask then they must not really be too young.

  4. Sometimes, the child needs Jesus. They need to know His unconditional love and forgiveness through His work on the cross so they can stop looking at themself and live in His freedom and see others the same way they now know He sees them.

  5. You said, "Be assured, even though children come into the world quite different, they will become what we make them."
    I'll have to disagree with that statement. As the father of 10 grown children, one of the amazing things I've discovered is that all of my children were born with a basic personality that despite my attempts to mold, have not changed much into their adulthood. I remember one particular interaction between my two oldest daughters when they were just one and three years old. My three-year-old was quietly playing with a toy across the room from my one-year-old when the youngest noticed her, got a mischevious look in her eye and made a beeline crawl for her older sibling. She snatched the toy and displayed a satisfied look. It was apparent she was not interested in the toy but rather in the reaction of her sister who merely stuck out her lower lip looked as if she didn't know what to do. Fast forward 30 years and the youngest is an accomplished pot-stirrer. While the oldest is content to let life happen to her rather than take initiative or defend herself. I also know two families who have adult children who never lived with their birth parent yet have mannerisms and behaviors that mirror the parent who had almost no contact with them. Of course, this is merely anecdotal. And I'm not saying that parents have no influence on their children's behavior. However, as I get older I'm seeing much more evidence for the role nature imposes on behavior than I did when I was rearing my children.

  6. This is spot on. I have six children, ages from 12-20. As they have grown, especially the last few years, we have had younger families asking us how we got our kids to be so personable. Though I attributed it to their dad and me being people-focused and caring and personable ourselves I knew there was still more to the story. This is the "more". And even, the vital. Of all our kids our oldest child has struggled with the temptation to perform. Not with us, her family, but for other Christians. When she was a pivotal age of 10, we were rejected by our church for wanting to see the New Testament scriptures followed in our church. We loved them (and still do) and were not willing to be divisive and so we left. God has us in a beautiful body of believers now and we are so thankful for the change. But, that "rejection" really affected our daughter. Praise God we talk about it as a family and walk in love and encouragement toward those brothers and sisters. And we encourage her rest in the being "accepted in the Beloved". God has healed that hurt but as our eldest daughter has reached the age of marriageability she has become "self-aware", has struggled with easily interacting with young men, though she is personable and caring toward others of all ages. She read this article and the light bulb turned on for her and now she is so excited to be able to apply this truth in her future interactions. God has made this other person for a purpose, what is it? How can she be used as a part of God's plan to glorify Himself in their life? Even if it is to be a vessel of a person who shows the same care and interest for them that our Lord does. Woo Hoo!

  7. When children grow up thinking that the world was made for them (not them for the world), it causes them to be self-conscious and self-centered. Children need to be raised believing that the world was made for them to explore and discover, that their purpose in life is to create and experience, to make things better and to heal.

    I think I am missing something with the above passage. It says not to let chidren grow up thinking the world is for them. The next sentences says to raise children to believe the world was made for them......

    Why am I not understanding this?

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Diane,
      Thanks for your reply! Mike is warning against allowing children to believe that the world was made "for them" in the sense that they believe that the world and its occupants exist to serve them, meet their needs/expectations, cater to their desires, make itself worthy of their presence, and run according to their schedule.
      In contrast, the world was made for them to: explore, discover, create, heal, etc.

  8. You answered a letter telling someone how not to raise shy children. But what if you have a 9-year-old who is painfully shy? He does exactly what is described in the letter--looks away when someone outside the family speaks to him, or acts self-conscious. We actually enrolled him in school (a church school, not public school) and have seen small improvements since then. Part of the issue is, I think, related to how my husband has been absent so much (both physically and emotionally, due to his work that he just left in favor of a less-stressful job with better hours that starts next week), and my lack of authority, which has been hard to work on due to being sick a lot in the past few months. But how to help him when the other two kids (both older and younger) are just fine and friendly?