Kids who are shy don’t need to hear about the merits of being an extrovert. They need to hear that they are accepted and valued for who they are. Only then will the ones who really do want to stretch beyond their comfort zone be able to move forward toward new experiences with genuine curiosity and vigor.

In my therapy practice I know when it’s coming and still can’t stop it in time:

“Look at Dr. Edgette when you speak to her,” a father will say to his child, the one trying hard to disappear in the room, the one for whom direct eye contact is too much eye contact, the one who is learning that the world we live in won’t hold your place for you if you’re late to show up.

“It’s okay, he’s okay,” I say, sensitive to the thin line between presenting an alternative perspective to a parent, and countermanding. I try to respond to whatever the boy has said to me before his parents tell him again to look at me; I want him to know that there is more than one appropriate way to communicate, and that most people can recognize the difference between someone who isn’t comfortable looking a person straight in the eye, and someone who is being impolite. I want him to know that I know he was not being impolite.

We live in a world where being louder, bigger, faster, and stronger is equated with being better. Better for making the team. Better for being popular. Better for getting into a better school and securing a better job and advancing along a better career path. That’s why so many parents become concerned about their children when they see they aren’t growing out of their bashful nature.

Many kids do grow more self-assured or outgoing as they work their way through childhood into adolescence, but it’s never because anyone told them to do it. Sometimes it’s a developmental maturity, but other times it’s because they’ve had a host of confidence-building experiences over the years or have been lucky enough to have been mentored by a relative or teacher or coach who validated not only what they did, but who they were.

That’s why I suggest to parents that the best thing they could do for their shy child is first to accept him just the way he is—without feeling the need to change him or to press upon him the merits of being an extrovert. Shy kids, and especially those who have lots of anxiety, often shut down when challenged to step outside their comfort zone; they worry about saying or doing something that will bring them even more unwanted attention than they are getting. I’m all for helping kids to stretch beyond their comfort zones, but I like to come at it from the same side of the fence as the kid I’m helping. I find it more effective, and it seems much more kind.

We have lots of bold people in the world and probably a lot more in-your-face people than we need. It wouldn’t hurt at all to have around us more people who are shy or reflective or discreet, and comfortable with it. I can’t help but think how cool it would be if kids saw more of this kind of person in positions of leadership in their communities and in the media. So often, kids see conventional types of leader—forward and conspicuous and charismatic. These leaders appeal to the masses, but there are a lot of people who find them intimidating or overwhelming. These people would likely find a different type of leader, one whose personality was comparatively understated, to be much more appealing and more approachable.

In the abstract, this may not mean very much. But think about what it could mean for all these shy kids to have school principals, athletic team captains, musical theater directors, camp counselors, and coaches who they felt they could actually talk to, and who, through their presence alone, validated these kids’ own native dispositions. For children who have been told all their lives that in order to succeed they need to “get out there” and “speak up” and “look people right in the eye,” the discovery that they can matter too, just as they are, would be magnificent.

 Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette