Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shy Girls

It's not unusual for parents to be dismayed by signs of shyness in their children. There's nothing mysterious or baffling in that response - there's a reason the most commonly applied adjective for shyness is "painful." Shyness can be torture; it can be incapacitating. But that hasn't stopped me from feeling just a little bit smug about my daughter's shyness. Pie is the girl who hides under the piano bench when visitors arrive; she's the one who darts around the corner in alarm when the nursery school teacher says hello. I, too, was that girl, and I know how uncomfortable shyness can be. So why am I so pleased to see signs of shyness in the Pie?

Shy girls know their own power. Their very body language expresses a certain dignity, while all around them more gregarious children bounce around like puppy dogs, lapping up attention. Other children compete for attention; shy girls bestow it.

It's an honour to have the loyalty of a shy girl. Pie keeps an internal list of her "favourites" - Grandma, Mama, Daddy. The list does not reflect the vagaries of a moment's anger; it represents a psychological boundary she has erected around her inner circle, the trusted, permanent fixtures of her life. I picture her as a young Queen Elizabeth I, repelling the Spanish Armada with the help of a few trusted counsellors.

All the best children's books are about shy girls. (Except Anne of Green Gables. And maybe Little Women.) To be a shy girl, and a reader, is to be surrounded by prickly, hostile, self-contained peers. Mary Lennox, Emily Starr, Harriet M. Welsch - all of them help nurture a sense that there is something deeply fascinating about controlled, introspective young girls who do most of their living in imaginary landscapes. Talkative, popular girls have an undeniable appeal, of course, but the shy ones are more individualized. Still waters run deep.

Shy girls don't necessarily become shy women. Growing up has a way of taming shyness into a more conventional kind of introversion. In adult life, a former shy girl no longer has the option of scowling at an unwelcome greeting or scurrying for cover when a distant acquaintance approaches. The formerly shy adult develops subtler mechanisms, perfects the art of not making eye contact in the grocery store in order to evade an exchange of pleasantries. The formerly shy develop personas, often very polished ones. They ask leading questions; they draw others out; they learn the intricacies of self-deprecating humour. But inside they have a private space that others can't touch. They know who they are.

40 comments:

Bon said...

there is a part of me that envies shyness...the dignity that i too perceive there, the intrinsic sense of value. i don't think i was shy by nature, but i would never have been allowed to be, not fully - intrinsic valuations (those that did not reflect my mother's, that is) were not kosher in my house, the public face was everything. and there is great insecurity in that.

the Pie is lucky to have you for her understanding mama.

Kathryn said...

That is a wonderful way to look at it. It sounds so magical that way. :)

kittenpie said...

Oh, painful is about right, though, especially in the teen years... I think it was mostly hammered out of me by the many, many, many presentations given by requirement in library school, where I finally figured out how I worked best in front of others, and then the last bit came with all the speaking in front of groups that you do as a children's librarian and storyteller. Still, groups and grownups scare me some, and I can't say I'm not awkward any more. I'm just good at the professional setting, still not the personal.

Terri said...

You hit the nail on the head I think. I was terribly shy, but did grow out of it, or rather as you said tamed it.

I also like what you said about shy children not competing for attention, but bestowing it. How true.

slouching mom said...

you are right. though i think there is a distinction to be made between shyness and reserve. i was a reserved child, and i saved all of my kisses and hugs for my mother and grandmother. i was conscious of doing so.

but i don't think i was shy, in the painful, blushing kind of way.

Mad said...

Well, yes, and thank you but it doesn't change the fact that the shy pre-schooler does not know that there is power in her shyness. That does not dampen her pain nor the pain of the adults who watch her struggle. I believe that our daughters will become strong, confident women with complex inner lives but, but, oh the pain of getting there. Oh the pain of getting through each week of tears.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

In high school one of my teachers did a kind of personality test on the class as a whole. She read the descriptions and we were to sort ourselves -- not just raise our hands but physically group ourselves together by type. At one point she asked all the shy, introverted people to stay on one side of the room and all the gregarious people to go to the other side. Huh. I still wonder at that teacher's intelligence. But anyway: I was the only person to stay on the shy side. I think that right there proves I *wanted* to be shy but was not *actually* shy! I read too many of those books about the very interesting shy girls.

nomotherearth said...

Is there a special category for people whose seemingly outgoing personality masks an incredibly shy inner one?

bren j. said...

What about grown-ups who never started out shy but find themselves becoming more so with age?

So far we have been lucky in that the LG will readily go to anyone with a smile and a comfortable lap. It breaks my heart that that innocence can't go on forever.

Chaotic Joy said...

What a lovely perspective. I am not shy and instead feel the need to feel any awkward pause in conversation with prattle. I have always envied people content to just be quiet. Maybe it's because they are shy, but it does seem to carry dignity. And Fanny Price is my favorite shy literary heroine.

Florinda said...

I think this is an interesting perspective, and a positive way of looking at a quality that gets a bad rap these days. Shyness isn't a quality that most modern Americans seem to value highly - and if you ask this sometimes-shy adult, that's too bad.

You make a really good point about the shy girls in children's books - they definitely influenced my own shyness, but I'm not sure how fully I've recognized that before.

Sue said...

"Other children compete for attention; shy girls bestow it." Oh, I love this. How vivid and true. Pie is so lucky to have a mother who understands her so thoroughly.

I used to WANT to be shy. I thought it was romantic and endearing, and I WANTED to be romantic and endearing, so I would pretend to be shy. I never quite got the hang of it though.

jess said...

Interesting perspective. I was a shy kid, afraid of everything and practically mute in situations I didn't feel 100% comfortable in.

I've never regretted it though. I had (and have) a very rich inner life and I did outgrow the shyness, but it was terribly painful and it made life frightening for me. I'm glad your daughter has a mother who understands her.

Omaha Mama said...

We have a shy niece. It comes off as meanness and is hard not to take personally. Your post helps a little, I think.

Bea said...

I thought of two more.

Shy girls see things other people miss. They are aware - sometimes too aware - of social undercurrents and conflicting tribal loyalties.

Shy girls don't grow up to make decisions based on fear of emotional pain. They're good at emotional pain; they're experienced at it. (Physical pain, however, is an entirely different story.)

Bea said...

Oops, and one more:

Shy girls are rarely bullies. They may, sometimes, be complicit in the evil that is girl culture, but they aren't the ringleaders. (They are also rarely the primary targets - they are usually neglected rather than persecuted.)

SciFi Dad said...

You know, I honestly never thought of shyness in this manner. It's definitely an intriguing perspective.

(Although this is coming from the guy whose kid will walk around his office offering fresh veggies or cookies from her lunch seemingly without a care in the world, so take my comment for what it's worth.)

Beck said...

I love shy people - my best friends and heck, my husband, are very, very shy people and dear to my heart. One of my kids - my girl - is achingly shy sometimes, too.

-The Shiny Happy Mama- said...

Indeed. Well said, Bub and Pie. Lilah is shy, but also incredibly intuitive and self-aware. Those traits will serve her well as she grows, no doubt!

Aliki2006 said...

I've never thought shyness something to be ashamed of--sometimes it can be debilitating, in extremes, but a healthy dose of it is never bad.

canadacole said...

I was painfully shy girl and only now as an adult appreciate all that went with that. My eldest was shy like Pie and I have mourned the loss of each degree of shyness as she becomes more and more extroverted in our community. It's getting more crowded in the inner circle.

Kyla said...

I think so much of this is spot on. Although, as a teenager, I'd didn't appreciate being shy much at all. I've outgrown it by and large, but still think of myself as shy, although people around me assure me I don't fall into that category any longer.

Kit said...

AS another painfully shy child and teenager, who wouldn't ever answer the phone and knew the meaning of tongue-tied, I can see that all my children have inherited a certain amount of shyness - it is definitely genetic. I've always been envious of the outgoing, socially fearless types, so it's nice to see a positive slant on shyness here! Thanks!

Magpie said...

You could be writing about me. Fascinating.

On the other hand, my child isn't shy at all. I look at her and marvel at her outgoing quality - since day one, we've been saying she'll be the Mayor. Go figure.

niobe said...

I've always been shy in a covertly hostile sort of way.

I hoped my child would be shy too. But no such luck.

Maddy said...

That's a very interesting perspective. I always thought I was shy until my teens when I heard on the radio that anyone who considered themselves shy, was really an ego maniac. I have pretended not to be shy ever since!
Cheers

Piece of Work said...

Huh. This doesn't ring true to me at all. I feel like my shyness has prevented me from so much in life--friends, opportunities, you name it. ANd I've never felt that my shyness meant I got to bestow friendship on anyone; on the contrary, I feel like I never got to choose my friends at all--they chose me. The ones who were extroverted enough to talk to me, or draw me out, those are the people I became friends with, whether I wanted to or not.

But it is nice to try and think about it from a different, more positive perspective.

Pieces said...

I love your observations here. I never thought about shyness as power but you are so right. I love the concept of shy girls bestowing attention on others. Very regal take on something that actually makes them feel that there is something wrong with them. My daughter says she is shy but she has no idea what shyness truly is.

Amy said...

This was (is) me. I have often wished I was the outgoing, life of the party type, cause it seems easier. This was a nice reminder of the positive aspects of being the listener/thinker/introspective girl.

I have a girl and two boys. They've never.met.a.stranger. All three are outgoing and funny and it just amazes me!

Moondance said...

Lovely!

Jess said...

I love this post, probably because I was a shy girl myself. And I'm not a shy woman, at all.

Occidental Girl said...

I like it! The flip side of painfully shy is thoughtful introversion. It's a careful balance, but it's there.

sweetney said...

beautifully put.

painted maypole said...

i'm not a shy girl, but I've seen this at work

Sus said...

way to love your kid. and help me love mine, too. i am not shy and never have been, but now i sorta wish i were, and am very glad my daughter is. even when great-grandpa comments that anna grace just must not like him.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. I was shy, and didn't long to be outgoing. You've articulated why.

My husband is also an introvert. I know that I prefer subtlety to that which begs to be noticed. My three and half year old daughter also is shy, and it doesn't bother me in the least.

Karla

NotSoSage said...

Ah, I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, now.

I noted the other day that I have absolutely no trouble drawing out those who are more shy than I, but as a formerly shy girl I continue to struggle in conversation with really outgoing acquaintances. Funny, that.

JCK said...

I have a shy girl and was one early on. Not now, as you wrote - I changed. I find myself rejecting the word "shy" when people place it upon my daughter. Somehow it feels intrusive, putting her in a spotlight that she doesn't want. I prefer using "reserved." Somehow that feels better. And people also seem to have a difficult time with a girl who doesn't smile on cue. You have to earn her smiles. ;)

b*babbler said...

I love this - you hit it just right.

When Peanut is withholding (reserving) her judgment on someone, I love her just that little bit more for waiting, watching and deciding.

Anonymous said...

I want to add on to what JCK said. I was a shy girl and still am as an adult (though not as bad, thank goodness), and I absolutely hated being called shy. It was only when I finally admitted openly that I was shy, that I actually started to get over it.