Parenting Style: Tune into Your Child's True Nature

"My child is painfully shy."

Four-year-old Philip is unusually withdrawn -- "the kind of kid who looks at his feet when grown-ups speak to him," says his mother. "Even with other kids, he's always on the outside looking in." Philip is reluctant to try anything new, whether it's a novel food or a different route to take to school. His mom sometimes feels sad for him, but more often she's impatient with or embarrassed by his rigid behavior.

What to Understand: Realize that your child is likely not the first shrinking violet in the family. Researchers are finding that sociability is largely an inherited trait, and a shy youngster is probably biologically predisposed to be that way. But what if you and your spouse are outgoing types yourselves? Draw a family tree and trace shyness through the generations. You may remember that your uncle Lou or your grandfather or another relative was not very social. This might make it easier for you to accept your child's temperament, which is the first step in changing your own reactions. You'll see that pushing him to join the other kids -- and feeling annoyed and frustrated when he'd rather cling to you -- will get you nowhere and can even lead him to become more anxious.

The Plus Side: The naturally withdrawn child tends to be thoughtful and levelheaded as he matures. He is likely to take stock and weigh his options before acting. Your youngster may become a good observer of people and situations. Like many children with this nature, he may have a strong ability to understand others' feelings.

What to Do: With your help, a shy child can gradually learn to become a great deal more socially comfortable. If possible, let him practice being in a new place or situation beforehand -- e.g., visit a karate class or school facility together before the class starts, to dispel some of the unfamiliarity; or you can sit in on his playdate with a new friend. Just stay in the background as a reassuring presence. Once he has a social success or two under his belt, he'll be ready for more. After a playdate, a new extracurricular class, or a party, get some feedback about how it went. You might ask, "What were some of the games you played? Who did you play with?" and then, if necessary, "What do you think would make it easier for you next time?" Children as young as 3 will often have specific suggestions. After one party, for example, Philip told his mom that he hated walking in when all the other kids were already there. "The next time we had someplace to go, I made sure he was the first to arrive so he wasn't overwhelmed by all those kids," she says. "That made a big difference. The whole afternoon went better."

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