MY TODDLER ISN’T SHY; YOU’RE JUST TOO AGGRESSIVE

“Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

A framed print of this famous Nathaniel Hawthorne quote hung in the basement playroom of my childhood home. It was given to me as a gift when I was too young to understand its meaning. As I grew older, I came to learn that much like happiness and the butterfly, people and animals, too, might remain just beyond one’s grasp if pursued too aggressively.

I think that most adults intuitively understand this. We’ve learned, through the various relationships we’ve cultivated and lost, that everybody needs breathing room; that we need to respect peoples’ personal space.

Which brings me to the question of why this notion seems to go completely out the window when dealing with young children.

My child is not shy. He’s not antisocial. And he’s certainly not an introvert. He is bright, gregarious and talkative. He loves people.

Why is it, then, that Oliver cries, turns his head away, and demands to be picked up by Mom or Dad whenever we arrive at a social gatherings? Why is he so “rude” and “shy” when he’s introduced to new people — or re-encounters people that he doesn’t know very well?

It’s because people do not respect his personal space. It’s because, like his mother, he is sensitive to intense, in-your-face people. But unlike his mother, hasn’t had 33 years of practice in social situations, and doesn’t possess a mature adult brain with the capacity for emotional self-regulation. It’s because he doesn’t have the ability to politely excuse himself if he feels uncomfortable or claustrophobic.

When meeting a baby, toddler or small child, it’s important to remember that while they may be familiar to you, the reverse may not be true. Have you ever attended a large gathering where everyone else knew each other — and knew you — yet you knew only the person you came with? Do you remember how awkward and overwhelming it was? Now imagine being in that situation as a two-year-old, with no control over any of it.

Sometimes I feel like I’m being judged for allowing this behaviour; for not insisting that my son greet everyone politely, or go into near-strangers’ arms without complaint. I encourage Oliver to greet people, and I know it’s an important social skill for him to learn, but I’m not going to force him to do so when he is obviously uncomfortable and upset. I respect his (completely valid) feelings, and I believe that he will naturally learn what is expected by watching J and I model the appropriate way to interact with others.

Whenever someone asks if Oliver is “shy,” I find myself bumbling through a half-hearted apology or excuse, while simultaneously being angry at myself for doing that, because my son is not shy, and I really don’t want to slap that label on him and have it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes I wish I could just tell them the truth: “It’s not him. It’s you.”

So please, the next time you see Oliver, or one of his ilk, remember the butterfly, which when pursued, remains beyond your grasp. Don’t demand a greeting — or even worse — try to touch him, hug him or grab him from his parent’s arms. Just sit down quietly and wait: I promise that eventually he will alight upon you and delight you with his charm and affection.

22 responses to “MY TODDLER ISN’T SHY; YOU’RE JUST TOO AGGRESSIVE

  1. My daughter usually waves and says hello to everyone all the time, but on the rare occasion that she is in a more reserved mood people do exactly what you are describing. Oh, she is SO shy. It must be naptime. Blah, blah. I don’t understand why people always feel the need to comment on a child’s personality traits. It reminds me of the comments pregnant women constantly receive about the size of their belly.

    • It’s funny you say that, because I occasionally catch myself remarking that a child must be ready for nap time, and then I’m immediately horrified because I really don’t like when people do that to me 🙂 I do think they’re just trying to make small talk or be empathetic, but still…

  2. Love this! My 7 month old daughter is often very smiley but just starting to get a little wary of people. So I really feel for her when people get in her face and start with the oh come on give me a smile or give me a kiss.

    I’ve really enjoyed your blog, great resource for pregnancy and new moms!

  3. Carli I love this post. I have a nine month old and had a closr wedding in my family that I had to take him too. People were literally grabbing him out of my hands even though I told them he won’t like it.
    Then they said oh he is such a cranky baby you have probably not exposed him to too many people!
    Imagine the poor thing at the beginnings of stranger anxiety having to behave a certain way? It’s really unfair sometimes the way people judge the baby and mom when you do things that are so desrespectful to the baby. Anyway I have long since quite worrying about such things. My baby is absolutely fine thank you very much.

    • It’s interesting that people can think that a nine month old is “not well-socialized.” My kid has been exposed to tons of people by now and even still, at 22 months, I know that he would get *very* upset if someone tried to take him from my arms!

      Just this morning when Oliver and I were leaving our apartment building, a lady in my building (who we do not know) grabbed Oliver’s hand to help him down the stairs. While I appreciated the sentiment (she was trying to be helpful), you can imagine that Oliver was very confused by this and not at all pleased. Then she kissed him as she walked away. Can you imagine what would happen if someone did that to an adult?!

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