My daughter comes off as very shy. Whenever she meets new people she buries herself into me and pretends like she can’t see them. If they come too close to her she yells and twists away. Even with people she knows, sometimes she acts like she’s never met them before. On occasion one of her grandparents has shown up at our house and swooped in for a kiss only to be shrieked at and run away from.
I don’t know if other parts of the world have a word for this, but around Nova Scotia we call it “being odd”. It’s generally considered to be something that every kid goes through around a certain age – being “scared” of anyone and everyone who isn’t one of their parents or siblings – and that they all grow out of it.
Here’s the thing though: my daughter is not “being odd”. She isn’t even shy. She just has boundaries and she would appreciate it if you respected them.
People seem to have this impression of the way kids are at certain ages, and they assume that by a certain age (approximately where my daughter is now) they should be outgoing and outspoken, love hugs and kisses, love showing off to everyone around them, and be all-in-all little attention whores. When a kid shies away from hugs and kisses or doesn’t want to talk around people, everyone assumes that there’s something wrong, that they’re “odd” in some way, that they’re too shy or too coddled by their parents. Worse yet, some people get outright offended: “Oh, your kid doesn’t like me? Well screw all of you!”
In this, as with many other subjects, people always seem to forget the golden rule of children: they’re all different. Just because one doesn’t react in exactly the same manner as you’ve seen other kids react does not mean that there’s something wrong with that kid.
Yesterday I took my daughter to a birthday party for my cousin’s daughter who is a few months older than mine. There were a bunch of other kids at the party who were about the same age, and they were all running around like the little maniacs that they are. Anyone standing back and watching the kids could tell that mine is the “shy”, “odd” one. She was always at the back of the pack, the quietest, watching the others carefully, very concerned about the kids who were being rough or fighting with each other over a toy. And whenever an adult approached her, she would shy away, run off somewhere, or come and leap into my arms.
But then about halfway through the party my cousin’s wife nudged me and pointed down to where the kids were playing. My daughter had my uncle (a gruff man, by all accounts), by the hand, and was dragging him over to help her play on the swing set. A few minutes later she had one of my other male cousins by the hand, showing him how she could go down the slide. A comment was made that she apparently loves the men, to which I gave the following explanation: “Yeah, she does. She loves the men because the men leave her the heck alone.”
It’s a simple concept, yet I can’t seem to get it into most peoples’ heads. My daughter is not shy, nor is she odd. She just wants to deal with you on her terms. She likes to stand back and watch, to get an idea of the people around her before she lets them into her bubble. She wants to see who you are and what you’re about first, and then she’ll approach you. Instead, for the overwhelming most part, she gets people swooping down on top of her, pinching at her cheeks, trying to force kisses on her, and immediately demanding that she start doing tricks for them (“Can you say your name?”, “What’s this letter?”, “I heard you can count really high!”).
When I try to explain this to people they seem to get upset for some reason, as though I’m telling them that they aren’t good enough for my daughter and to stay the hell away. But that’s not it at all. Imagine for a moment that you are in the same situation: you’re brought to a party where you’ve never met half of the people there, and even the ones you recognize are people you’ve only met once or twice. The second you arrive everyone swarms down on top of you. One of them is talking to you in a high-pitched baby voice about how cute you are, another is grabbing you by the face and trying to force a kiss out of you, and a third is scribbling letters and numbers on a piece of paper to see if you can tell her what they are. How would you react?
Yes, lots of children love the attention, they love showing off and being snuggled and made the center of attention. But some kids don’t. All kids do not react the same to all situations, no more than you react the same way to something as your parents, or your neighbor, or the guy who mans the cash register at the gas station. The sooner people accept that fact, the sooner kids like my daughter can stop being psychologically tortured on a regular basis.
Sometimes you just have to meet a kid on their own terms and conditions.