Why I Refuse to Call My Child "Shy"

My son has shown introverted traits since he was a baby, ducking his soft head every time he smiled, and going straight from giggles to the most serious expression any time he saw an unfamiliar face or crowd. Now as a toddler, he's still the same way. He reserves his smiles and giggles for the people he's closest to. In a room full of people, he withdraws to watch and learn. We hear a lot of, "He's so serious. Isn't he a happy child?" and "Oh, he's shy." Usually with a lowered voice and a look of disappointment or pity.

There was a time I'd agree and say, "Yeah, he's being shy." But not anymore. It bothered me to agree and use that label for him, but it was the label I'd heard all my life and the one most people use. So it took me a long time to unpack the word and figure out why it doesn't rest easy with me.

"Shy" is a box. "Shy" is a weight. "Shy" is a reductive, negative label.

I've been labeled as shy a lot in my life, and it's never felt good. If I was afraid to speak up, and someone called me shy, the label only made it harder for me to find power in my voice. If I was afraid to make friends, the label only made it that much scarier. "Shy" made me feel uninteresting, unworthy, and unmotivated to step outside my comfort zone. "Shy" made me feel insecure. I still struggle with insecurity and social anxiety.

I don't think people are trying to be mean when they say it. It's one of those things people just say. But listen to the way people say it, look at their body language and facial expressions, and then tell me it's a positive thing for a child to be shy.

Let's think about what people really mean when they call someone shy...Uncomfortable, afraid, timid, quiet. And it may be true that the child is feeling these, but they're all negative things, and by calling it out in a child, we're drawing attention to those things. It's embarrassing, un-affirming, and dampens the spirit. Instead of calling out the negatives in these children who are already struggling in social situations, why don't we notice and call out their positive traits? Let's build them up.

My son isn't shy.

He's thoughtful. 
He's introspective. 
He's observant and a good listener. 
He excels socially in smaller circles and after he's had a chance to warm up.

These are all positive things to call out in a person. So I'm going to shred "shy," douse it with lighter fluid, and watch it burst into flames and flicker out of my vocabulary. The rest of those words are going in my back pocket, so next time someone comments that my son is being so serious and shy, I can smile and proudly say, "He's so observant!" 

Celebrate your kiddos. Build them up. Choose your words wisely because they have power.

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Janel B said…
Interesting take on the word shy. I agree very observant is a good option.
I love this. I was also called shy growing up and it's an annoying label. I get frustrated when my daughter won't interact with others because she's so dynamic and chatty when it's just us. But children (and adults) have the right to sit back and observe if that's what makes them more comfortable.
Jessie Mullins said…
Yes, much more positive!
Jessie Mullins said…
Yes! And the chattiness and smiles are reserved for the people they're most comfortable with. :)
Joe said…
Before I read this post, I was thinking being shy wasn't too bad, and while I still may think that, I think you described quite well how it can be negative.

Excellent post!
Jessie Mullins said…
Thank you! Perception of the word probably has a lot to do with a person's own experience with it too.
Leah Elwood said…
I love this! My son is pretty introverted already - I mean, he plays with his toys for a good half hour before and after going to sleep, and seems to really enjoy that time alone. He's fun and chatty with those he knows well, but takes a bit with strangers - and that's totally fine <3
Jessie Mullins said…
Yes! It is absolutely fine. :) My boy needs time to warm up too.
Jessie Mullins said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amber Mamian said…
I completely agree, I have two strong willed and determined children that are often called bossy and it drives me crazy. Their independence is a good thing. Everyone's unique characteristics are a good thing. It is what makes us unique. Keep rockin' mama! You are doing a FANTASTIC job!
Anonymous said…
I loved reading every word of this!im fed up with people having an issue with introverted people. I been shy all my life and struggled with harsh jokes and still do. Im a new mom and i already wrote a lil heartfelt note to my son for the future explaining how its ok to be whatever he wants. I had a rude comment from someone visiting my baby saying how disappointed the world would be if my son turned out like me. Screw these people! Being observant, loyal,sweet, understanding and good listeners are the best people on the planet ��
Anonymous said…
I agree completely. I have been thinking this a lot since my daughter was born. I hate it when people say she's shy.

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