Sometimes I felt like I was living in the movie Groundhog Day, but I was always backstage at the Tony Awards. Every night the same show, with the words, "wait, can I do that one more time" coming from my daughter's mouth as she pleaded for another do over. I was constantly working as the head of a million departments. Set Design, Costumes, Music, Lighting, Directing... and then, of course, I was also the audience. You see, my daughter was a five-year-old ham who loved to dance, sing, act and perform something on a nightly basis in our living room.
She didn't care who was over, whether it was the aunts or uncles, grandparents, friends, she just had to perform. After one long night of watching my daughter sing "Let it Snow" forty times, trying to ensure that her fake snowflakes fell just right, I called my mother to apologize. "Mom, I have something to say... I am so sorry... So sorry for every awful song, dance routine, and baton twirling new take on a Chorus Line that I made you and dad sit through."
Was it wrong, that after hearing my daughter sing "Let it Go" for the fourteenth time, that I yelled out loud, "Oh God, will you please just let it go already!"
Anyway, the purpose of this story is not to gripe about my days as a dance mom, but to point out how outgoing my daughter was. How wonderful it was that she wasn't afraid to perform for anyone at any time and how incredible it was that she wasn't shy. However, that wasn't the case.
Yes, she was Taylor Swift at home, ready to take on the world of stage and screen, but as soon as we were in public she somehow became more of Howard Hughes type. She was afraid to make eye contact, participate in the conversation or become involved in the activity at all. This was most evident and upsetting to me at birthday parties given by and filled with her friends. She was so excited to attend and talked about the party days before, but as soon as we walked into the room, she would cling to my leg and hide behind me the entire time. My extroverted superstar became an introverted wallflower.
Why did this happen? Was I not being supportive enough of her home performances? Was I a bad mom for putting a limit on how many times she could perform her rendition of Popular from Wicked before bed? What was I doing as a parent to have made her so afraid of social situations?
I couldn't remember a day when she wasn't singing or dancing or asking me to watch some type of new show she had created. She loved to dress up like a movie star or princess, and just, well show off her vivacious personality and talents. Why then, did she clam up and become absolutely terrified to participate at a birthday party or playgroup?
Just when I thought I would have to engage the services of a professional to sort this out, I realized something. The reason I had to apologize to my parents for putting them through hours of my singing, and baton twirling showstoppers, was because my daughter was just like me. I loved performing and socializing when I was with a group of people I felt safe with, but plop me in the middle of a room of strangers at a networking event or cocktail party and I was miserable.
Kids are just smaller humans, with basically a lot of the same fears, inhibitions, and habits of adults. How many times have you seen a famous actor being interviewed, who says they are actually very shy? It seems hard to believe, but when they don't have the comfort of a team of actors and directors they feel safe with, or a character they can immerse themselves in, some actors feel totally uncomfortable.
So what was to become of us? Were we destined for a life of living in the shadows, performing songs from old musicals and Disney movies in our basement?
When my daughter was five, it was sort of cute and endearing when she would cling to my leg at parties and want to spend the first hour by my side, but this was not going to be a good scenario if it continued. I can only imagine the looks we'd get if she was still doing this at the Bat Mitzvahs and Sweet 16 parties of all of her friends, and I definitely was not going with her to the Senior Prom. So, like every issue we face as adults and then as parents, I needed to come up with strategies.
So, what do we do? And moreover, what don't we do?
Don't force It
Just like adult's, kids don't react positively to being forced to do something. As parents, we want to teach our children to listen to their inner voice to help them make good choices and stay safe. Forcing a child to participate or even give Aunt Sheila a big kiss, could have some negative consequences down the road. Let your child know that their feelings are valid, that you understand why they may feel nervous about participating and let them know that if they ever feel uncomfortable doing anything, it's more than OK to say no thank you.
Give them some space and some options
In the case of the birthday party fiasco, where you know your child would enjoy participating, but just can't seem to tear themselves away from you, just let them know that its OK to watch. They don't have to participate, however, if at any point they do feel like they would like to join in, you will be happy to help them. Let them know that they have choices. They can sit with you and watch the fun. They can join in later if they feel comfortable doing so.
Set them up for success beforehand
Talk to your child before the big event, playgroup, etc. and ask them what they think the day will be like. Ask them what they are excited about and what might make them a little nervous. Let them know that you understand that sometimes parties or events with lots of unfamiliar people can make you nervous too, but sometimes, if you have one friend with you, it can make things feel a little better.
Talk to your host if possible before the event and ask them if they can pair your child up with a friend or buddy before the party even begins. And if nothing else, be early! One of the best ways to set your child up for success is being one of the first ones' there so they can become acclimated and get a lay of the land. There is nothing worse for a shy child than walking in late to a room full of kids and a party or playgroup that is already underway.
Set the stage at home
Setting up a few group play dates on your child's home turf will do a lot to help them feel more comfortable. Having a few children over together, rather than just one at a time, creates a dynamic that your child may need to get used too. With more children comes more action, noise, and stimulation. There are also more personalities to adjust too. When a child participates in a few non-threatening, comfortable group events in an environment that makes them feel safe, they are more likely to adjust quickly to parties and events outside of their comfort zone.
Ultimately, some children who are shy will grow up to be shy adults, and there is nothing wrong with that. I'm really OK being the closet extrovert that I am. But I'm pretty happy that I have gained some strategies to get me through those horrific networking events and cocktail parties that I so dread.
I'm grateful that I have been brought up to value that voice of apprehension that says, this situation is just not for me, or I don't really think this sounds like something I want to get involved with.
For now, we all just want our children to feel happy when they are invited to a party or playgroup and feel comfortable running off with their friends to play. However, what we do now to help our kids navigate their social world will ultimately help them years later.
If nothing else, feeling confident listening to their inner voice will give them the wherewithal to skip the meeting with that sketchy cellulite cream salesman or say no when asked by their best friend of two weeks, to buy their stake in an underwater timeshare.