The Timid Child: More than Shyness

January 15, 2015

Many children are quiet by nature. Some are like “old souls” – they seem to know things and sense things beyond their years. Some are emotionally mature for their age and seem perfectly happy playing alone or spending a great deal of time reading or drawing. I don’t worry about these children. The ones I worry about are the ones who may appear quiet but they aren’t happy..

I call these the timid children. Their quiet is not peaceful but fearful. They cringe whenever you speak to them. They stand helplessly when asked to do some small task not knowing how to begin. Rather than explaining why they forgot their homework they simply stand silently hoping to disappear.

I see a lot of timid children these days – more than I used to – and they dwell on my mind. I remember noticing them many years ago. The first manifestation was the child who stood in front of me with a broken pencil and said, “My pencil is broken.” I instructed him to get another but wondered why that hadn’t occurred to him.

Another child didn’t have her folder but when asked where it was simply looked at her feet without speaking. Then there are the many who come constantly to the teacher not able to choose work on their own and needing to be told what to do next. The final sign was the child who, having spilled her milk all over the table, sat in her chair letting the milk pour all over her lap instead of jumping up to at least save herself from the deluge.

For years I thought these children were just shy but now I see that in many ways they are crippled. They are so used to being micro-managed and “helped” by well-meaning adults they have never learned to act, let alone think, independently. The phenomenon is growing I believe because the adults in their lives are over protective or maybe just so busy themselves that they do too much for the children to save time and spills.

Children need to function independently! They need to find their own sneakers and clean up their own messes. They need to make choices and sometimes make mistakes. They need to see themselves as capable. They need to wear mismatched socks that they put on “all by themselves” and walk around with their shoes on the wrong feet without the adults reacting as if to a crisis over their miscue.

A child who dresses himself may have his shirt on backwards but at least his spirit is intact! The child who makes her own peanut and butter sandwich may leave behind a bigger mess than you would but walks away fed in spirit as well as body.

Parents are always asking how they can help their children at home. They are usually wondering how they can teach math or reading, or are looking for a great computer program that will give their child an academic edge. You can certainly work with your child in all these ways but I believe you will do more good if you teach your child how to hammer a nail to make a birdhouse or show your child how to build a model or sew a button. These tasks are empowering! They show children that they can create and have an impact on their environment.

All children need a way to shine. For many this comes from dance lessons, or being on a soccer team, or belonging to the Cub Scouts and earning a badge. The more a child sees him or herself as capable the more they are willing to experiment with new activities. Sadly, for some children, confidence depends on being perfect and pleasing the grown­ ups.

It does take extra effort to raise a confident, capable child but the first step is usually letting go of some of your own obsessions. The toy room is not going to be photographed for “Better Homes and Gardens.” It is your child’s domain. Organize it in such a way that your child can find what he wants and clean it up easily. That probably means getting rid of the umpteen broken toys that are missing parts and haven’t been used in years – even if you did pay a fortune for the item when you bought it!

Then look at your child’s bedroom. Can she reach the bar to hang her own clothes? Is the bed easy to make by just straitening the sheets and pulling up a quilt? Are the drawers so stuffed they’re impossible to keep tidy? Can your child get his or her own clothes on without a Jot of fuss? Pull up elastic waists and over the head shirts may not be as fashionable but they will encourage your child to be independent.

Finally look at your own routine. Involve your children in food preparation. They can set the table and tear up lettuce for a salad at a very young age. As they become more capable give them more freedom. So many lunch and snack foods today are easily prepared in the microwave. Teach your child how to use it.

How about household chores and repairs? As we give over more and more of these tasks to landscapers and decorators we are depriving our children of opportunities to feel capable. If the only one who ever dusts in your house is the housekeeper your child is missing another chance to feel needed and important.

It won’t work if you simply make these types of activities into chores for the children. They need to work alongside of you to feel important. I remember a father who, many years ago, objected to his daughter washing the tables in school after lunch (a task I should mention that is the envy of every Kindergartner …). He felt that he wasn’t raising her to do domestic chores, as if taking care of yourself and your environment was demeaning, and wanted her to spend all her time learning. If I knew then what I know now I would have pointed out that she was always learning and that the lessons he was teaching might not be in her best interest.

You don’t need to add more lessons and educational activities to your already impossible schedule. You just need to include your child in the tasks you do and let him or her feel helpful and capable. NEVER remake a bed the child has made. NEVER reset the silverware your child has misplaced. If these things bother you find ways to make the chore foolproof. For example, you might set one place at the table and let the child refer to that example when setting the other places.

Self-esteem isn’t fairy dust you can sprinkle – it is earned by completing meaningful tasks and feeling successful. It is certainly worth the extra effort it requires.

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