A few days ago, I visited a camp to do an evaluation and a staff member asked a camper why she did not want to join her sports team. The camper did not answer. The counselor said, “Are you not joining because you’re shy?”
I know with 100% certainty that the counselor is a warm and caring person, and she was trying to help the camper enjoy her camp experience. I’ve seen countless warm and caring parents say the same thing.
And while it may seem harmless to ask, “Are you shy?” or say, “She’s not answering because she’s shy” in the child’s earshot, such labeling can have long-lasting effects on a child’s self-esteem and hinder their personal growth.
Labels can be powerful, and when we consistently refer to a child as “shy,” they may internalize this label and start believing that this is who they are.
This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the child feels compelled to live up to the label, instead of discovering that they can be brave and answer questions or talk to people.
“Shyness” also becomes an excuse not to overcome anxiety in social environments since it is not perceived as a real problem.
What can we do instead?
- Don’t answer for the child. Let her answer the question for herself, even if it takes her more time to answer than the average child.
- Don’t excuse the behavior either, since an excuse implies that the child has a valid reason not to answer. Instead, expect the child to answer.
- Teach the Red and Green of Answering vs. Ignoring, and practice these behaviors.
- Give rewards and praise when the child answers nicely. This motivates her to keep practicing positive social skills, and gives her the confidence to continue to be brave especially when she has practiced and been successful.
By focusing on building confidence rather than excusing shyness, we can help kids navigate social environments with greater ease from a very young age.
Enjoy the sunshine! And when the heatwave feels unbearable, remember the single-digit weather in the winter that made you beg for the summer heat (unless you like the frigid cold…)