Dear Everyone: Please Stop Calling My Kid ‘Shy’
By Jennifer Power Scott
Photo © evgeniarusinova/Twenty20
Nov 3, 2020
Long, long ago, somewhere in the middle of the pubescent purgatory known as an all-girl grade seven class, a kid with a mushroom haircut and huge 1980s glasses approached my desk and prepared to pounce.
I was the silent, studious, scrupulously organized girl who barely spoke. And I think my aversion to verbal communication bugged her for some reason.
"Jennifer, can you talk?" she said. "Are you mute? Do you have a tongue?"
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In fact, I had a lovely, perfectly functioning tongue, and I should have used it to tell the pesky pre-teen to go stick her tongue to a Fudgesicle.
But I smiled, and possibly even faked a little laugh, and let her get away with it.
I always found my greatest peace and creativity in solitude. When I was seven, it was bliss to sit on the backyard swing and sing Take Me Home Country Roads. Dreaming up stories, dance numbers and Barbie’s life scenarios came naturally to me. I loved the way the summer wind rustled through the red and green maples by my window at night.
The problem was that the world seemed to think there was something wrong with being a quiet, contemplative, socially awkward kid. And right up until my final year of high school, I walked around feeling like a certain dirty word was scrawled on paper and stuck to my back with Krazy Glue.
That word was ‘shy.’
Many people think it’s harmless and cute to say a child is shy. But if a kid hears herself described that way three-million times by the time she’s 12, ‘shy’ can feel like a loathsome label she will never escape. It can start to define her, drag her down, dig at her self-esteem. It can make her feel like ‘shy’ is what she will always be.
"It’s hard to know what to say in these uncomfortable situations."
I know this because I lived it.
Now that I am a mother, I bristle when anyone uses the S-word to describe Rose, my soft-spoken, intelligent, introspective 13-year-old daughter.
"Oh, she’s shy," they say, speaking about my child in the third person as if she isn’t standing right in front of them.
It’s hard to know what to say in these uncomfortable situations. But my daughter has come up with the perfect retort for the S-bomb.
"I don’t want to talk to people who would call me that," she says. "Tell them that."
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A few years ago, I rejoiced (in silence, fittingly) when author Susan Cain came along and became a rock star of introversion. In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she points out that extroversion became a cultural ideal in the 20th century.
“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait,” Cain writes, “somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”
In a world that celebrates the outgoing, the bold and the almighty team player, people don’t always recognize that introverts have many gifts. But I would argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is making those gifts more obvious – and more valuable – than ever.
In social isolation, we introverts are slaying it.
For one thing, we thrive in solitude and find joy in our own company. There is always another idea to contemplate, another book to read, another goal to imagine, another song to sing.
The online chef preparing pandemic chicken legs with peppered carrots is probably an introvert. So is the young woman singing Ave Maria from her window in Milan. Or the Nova Scotian fiddler playing plaintive pieces on a Facebook kitchen party.
'I don’t want to talk to people who would call me that,' she says. 'Tell them that.'
Many introverts can find meaning and beauty where others find boredom.
“I like that it’s now socially acceptable to stay home all day,” says Rose, who seems to find untold joy in writing in her journal with a pencil, composing music on her computer, and sipping jasmine green tea from World War II-era bone china cups.
My 16-year-old daughter is a firecracker of an extrovert with a frat boy sense of humour, encyclopedic knowledge of the discography of Led Zeppelin and a desire to dance on tables at parties one day. For her, being cut off from her friends and school has been more agonizing.
“I feel like crap,” she says. “I feel appreciated when I’m around people. If I’m just with you and Dad, I’m kind of bored.”
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To those of you labelled 'shy', I say this:
If you are happy being a quiet person, that is perfectly OK. Introverts are some of the coolest, most creative people in the world. You have the potential to take all of your ideas, depth and sensitivity and do great things with them.
You will meet people who understand you. You will find a way to express yourself and shine.
If you are not happy being labelled ‘shy’, take pride in your introversion, but find your voice. When I was that silent, insecure girl in grade seven, for example, I dreamed of being good at public speaking. So I kept trying and trying – even when it terrified me to give a speech in front of a class.
In Grade 12, I was voted valedictorian and won the public speaking trophy.
Suddenly, the girl with the mushroom hairdo and the big '80s glasses knew I had a tongue – and so did everyone else.
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