My Son Got His Shyness from Me, and I'm Determined to Help Him Push Past It

“Time to say goodbye to your art teacher!” I say to my son at the end of class. “Want Mommy to say it,” he says, ducking behind my leg and burying his face in my thigh. “It wasn’t my art class,” I tell him. “She didn’t help me make an awesome Playdoh truck.” “Want Mommy to do it,” he mumbles into my leg. Three words, kid! “Bye! Thank you!” Can you just say three words? But I get it. Oh, do I ever get it.

I’m not proud of it (and I try as often as I can not to give in to it) but I’m painfully shy. Not with people I know well, but with strangers and semi-acquaintances. My brain turns off my ability to speak normally and, instead, begins a litany of “what ifs” that drown out all coherent thought. (What if I’m boring them? What if they’d rather be anywhere but talking to me? What if I can’t think of anything to say next? What if I say something weird?) The thought of hiding behind someone’s leg doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me. It seems ridiculous, I know. But there it is.

For better or worse this is something my son and I share. This irrational fear of people. Like me, he bests it sometimes (smiling and waving at the lady in the supermarket, telling his name to the older kid at the park who asked for it, that sort of thing) but it’s there for him. Real and agonizing. The way it is for me.

“Oh look, this little girl wants to play catch with you,” I point out at the park. “Want to play something else,” he says, running off. “Can you give me a high five?” asks the bus driver as we’re leaving. He’s met with a silent, stony shake of the head. “If you want that toy truck, you have to ask if you can have a turn.” “Don’t want it anymore.”

I want (no, it’s more than that. I yearn) so badly for him to escape this. To overcome this affliction and move past it. So that, in elementary school, for example, he’ll be able to strike up a conversation with the new kid and find out that they both love musicals (or whatever). So that, in middle school, he won’t literally run away from the kid he’s liked all year who wants to dance with him at the social. (Yes. I did that.) So that, in high school, he’ll be able to talk to the math teacher and explain that he really just doesn’t get any of this at all. And on, and on, and on.

But I also totally get it. I get that pulling-into-your-shell feeling. That hide-behind-mommy’s-leg feeling. That oh-God-please-get-me-out-of-here feeling. I feel it. All the time. That feeling and I are old friends. So I know how he’s feeling. And what it would be like if I forced him to do the thing he wants to run from.

“Come on, give the bus driver a high five,” I could say. “You can do it. Go on.” Or, “No, come back please. Let’s play with your new friend.” Or, “You just told me you wanted to play with the truck, let’s go ask for it.” I could say those things (and other things like them) in the hopes that the expectation that he overcomes that crippling shy feeling will help him get past it. But I worry, then, that he’ll feel that no one understands.

So I could allow him to give in to his shyness. I could smile and shrug my shoulders at the bus driver. Tell the little girl, sorry, not today. I could let him wander off and forget about the truck. But I worry, then, that I’m reinforcing his urge to run away. Condoning it.

More than anything else I want to relieve him of this burden. To burrow into his DNA with my magical eraser and rub out this genetic quirk he inherited from me. It’s not enough for him to learn to deal with it as I have, I want him not to feel it. But this, I’m afraid, is impossible.

So, what to do? Here is the thing I believe he must learn (the thing I’ve learned. The thing that gets me through): that feeling is just a feeling. It can be pushed past. It can be endured. It can be risen above, and punched in the face, and kicked, and shoved aside. It’ll still be there. It’ll come back. But it must never be allowed to get the better of you. Because all of life (all the good parts) lies beyond the wall that feeling puts up.

“I know it’s hard,” I say to him. “But we need to say goodbye and thank you to your teacher. Do you want to say the goodbye part? Or the thank you part?” He thinks for a minute. “Goodbye part.” “Great!” I tell him. “I’ll say the rest.” And we take a deep breath. We hold hands. We lean on each other. We push our shyness somewhere out of the way. “Goodbye,” he says. I smile at him. And he smiles at me. “Thank you.”