When I was about 6, our neighbors on the cul-de-sac
invited my family over for ice cream. The neighbors, while lovely, were
totally overwhelming to me—six boisterous kids of all ages, mostly boys. My goal at their house was to be invisible,
so I copped a squat on the living room rug, well below the radar.
Unfortunately, when one of the older boys
was crossing the room he stopped to talk to someone and inadvertently stood on
top of my hand. He must not have felt my scrawny fingers, like so many strands
of shag carpet, beneath the weight of his shoe, as he continued to smash my
hand into the floor for what seemed like an eternity.
My poor digits ached, tingled, then slowly went numb while
I said absolutely nothing—not, “Pardon me, you’re standing in my hand.” Not, “Ahem.” Not, “Ouch!” I couldn't bear to draw attention to
myself, even if I had a really good reason. That’s what you call painfully shy.
It took my entire childhood, but eventually I outgrew my shyness, arriving at
college full of unearned confidence. New friends took me for a bubbly
cheerleader type and I didn't correct them. I faked it till I made it. My transformation from caterpillar to social
butterfly was so complete that when I took one of those Myers-Briggs
personality exams, I tested as an extrovert. I also danced on tables through much of my 20s (not for money, just
When I gave birth to my daughter, the nature vs. nurture
experiment began. Which would win out?
My shyness gene or the learned gregariousness that I modeled for her? (I
discounted daddy’s contributions, since he’s middle of the road—warm and
friendly, but not attention-seeking.)
I told Viv that sometimes other kids can be shy. “What’s shy?” she asked skeptically.
Apparently, nurture dominated. My daughter Viv, now 2-and-a-half, loves to be around
people—mommies, daddies, teachers, waiters, plumbers, princesses, babies, kids
and especially older girls, whom she idolizes. Outspoken and kind of a ham, she would never sit in pained silence while
someone stood on her fingers. Yet, being outgoing seems to come with its own
Already, I’ve seen her try
to befriend other children in the park and be ignored or rebuffed. I’m sure it’s perfectly normal for another
toddler to freeze in the face of Viv chirping, “Hi, do you want to play with
me?” but it still breaks my heart a little.
I told Viv that sometimes other kids can be shy. “What’s shy?” she asked skeptically, as
though it might be a made-up thing like unicorns or snow (we live in Southern
California). I did my best to explain,
even finding a storybook about two shy pandas who struggle to become friends,
and I think she sort of got it. However, I inadvertently provided Viv with a
go-to excuse when she doesn’t want to do something.