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.