Last week, we took my 3.5-year-old daughter to the state fair. She rode a pony, climbed through two funhouses, fed carrots to sheep and alpacas, rode with us on the Ferris wheel and big slide, and played several games. She even won a stuffie by popping a balloon with a dart, and later in the day, when she saw the game worker again, she ran up to her to tell her thank you.
While this might sound fairly normal, it is a huge step for us. Because last year, other than the Ferris wheel and slide, she refused to do any of that. She wouldn’t go near the animals, let alone feed them. She hid behind our legs when the game workers tried to talk to her. She wanted nothing to do with rides that didn’t allow her to sit on our laps the whole time. And she burst into tears when we had the audacity to suggest a pony ride.
So what made the difference this year? Time. That’s it. We didn’t ask differently. We didn’t bribe her, force anything, or make her feel bad if she said no. We just offered the options, and she felt comfortable and confident enough to say yes this year.
This experience made me reflect on how we describe toddlers and the expectations we put upon them. I can’t tell you how many times well-meaning people – including family members – have described my daughter as shy or cautious. While often said in jest, the judgment in their voice makes it clear they don’t think it’s a good thing.
And don’t get me wrong, I have fallen down the comparison hole too. Just last month, we went on a vacation with my college friends and their families, and our Airbnb had a pool with a slide. My child was the only kid there who wouldn’t go down it, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed. Another example? Last year, she moved from the parent/child gymnastics class to one where she went by herself. While other kids literally ran in giggling, I had to sit with her on the floor in the doorway for two classes while she watched, leaving me completely flustered and questioning whether to continue.
No one wants to be the parent of the “shy” kid refusing to try new things, crying on the sidelines instead of joining in, or hiding behind your legs every time someone other than an immediate family member talks to them. We want our toddlers to be outgoing and adventurous, jumping in immediately with new friends and experiences. Partly because we know they’ll enjoy themselves if they try and partly because – if we’re being honest – it makes us feel like we’re doing something “right” as parents.
Yet, as clinical psychologist Dr. Becky points out in her podcast Good Inside, being cautious in new situations isn’t a bad thing. She offers this compelling comparison: When children are young, we want and expect them to immediately do whatever their friends are doing, whether it be at a sports practice or a birthday party. If they don’t, we call them shy and act as if it’s a character flaw. When those same children become teenagers, we want and expect them to evaluate a situation and trust their gut before following their friends who are jumping off the proverbial bridge. If they don’t follow the crowd, we call them self-assured and praise them for their good character. In both situations, the child is listening to their inner voice and deciding what feels right to them in the moment. Yet, in one situation, it’s a failure; in the other, it’s a success.
So, instead of viewing shyness or caution as a bad thing, Dr. Becky encourages us to reframe the narrative by seeing it as confidence. She says a confident child is one who is “at home with oneself” and knows what makes sense for them. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage our children to try new experiences. Even adults are guilty of falling into a comfort zone that, without a little nudge, can stifle development and growth. But, as Dr. Becky points out, giving our children the confidence to trust their inner voice and act when ready is often exactly the push needed to try something new.
The funny thing about all this is that anyone who knows my daughter knows she isn’t shy. Sure, she’s slow to warm up in new situations and likes to take a minute to assess before deciding whether to jump in. But once she’s comfortable? She rarely stops talking, running, or jumping. Her daycare teacher has described her as a “chatterbox” and a leader in the classroom. When she moved up a level at gymnastics a couple of months ago, she didn’t even look back when she walked into the classroom, and her new coach told us she was shocked at how well our daughter can hold an adult-level conversation. Last night at dinner, she ordered her entire meal by herself, looking the waiter in the eye the entire time.
While these are just a few examples, I tend to focus on all the times my daughter doesn’t join in something new. By reframing this to confidence, I now see how all those times have prepared her for success when she does. So, going forward, when uncomfortable feelings about her being “shy” or “cautious” start to bubble up inside me, I’m going to remind myself how awesome it is that my daughter trusts herself and doesn’t succumb to peer (or parental!) pressure. I only hope she continues to feel this self-confidence into her teen years and the rest of her life. Because when she’s comfortable and ready, watch out world!