Children of all personality types will feel shy from time to time. It’s normal to feel this way, and it makes sense why we would see this often in young children who have so many questions about the world around them. More questions can understandably create more reservations. Many parents will encounter moments where their children feel this way, but it is usually a fleeting feeling, and life continues. It wasn’t that way for us, however. It was a looming feeling that often got in the way of life.
My once-nicknamed “serious baby” – for his lack of desire to so much as smile at others – soon became the labeled “shy toddler.” I noticed early on that it seemed to be at an intensity greater than his peers, well beyond the normalcy of the “stranger danger” phase. He was never a “doer” but a “thinker.” This became one of the things I grew to love most about him, but it was also the thing I most frequently worried about. Not because he wasn’t social to my liking, but because he wasn’t confident.
Basic outings were often stressful events. Gatherings like library story time, music class, children’s museums, and playgrounds were places marked by fear and struggle, and errands like doctor appointments or haircuts – forget it.
We hit a point where I decided I would no longer accept my son as shy. Not because I wasn’t okay with its associated implications of being someone who is reserved, cautious, introverted, or sensitive – all of which I consider strengths – but being stuck in a state of nervousness is unhealthy. I would never want to mold my son to be someone he is not, but I do want him to be confident in whoever he is meant to be.
Everything came to a halt at his 2.5-year well-check. I was bouncing baby sister in a carrier, holding his hand and trying to pry him out from behind my legs. Our pediatrician had been patiently working with my son’s refusals and tears going on 45 minutes. I just started crying. My exhaustion surfaced.
“If there is any doubt in your mind that something is wrong, I can assure you there’s not,” she told me. “Developmentally, he is behind in social skills, but I’m not worried. Have you considered starting him in preschool early to help him with these social skills?”
Preschool at 2.5? I didn’t love the idea, to be honest. I am a stay-at-home mom, and this felt like something I should be able to support and carry on my own shoulders. Also, we’re a military family and had just received new orders to move from Maryland to Texas. New home, new community and first day of school in the same breath? That’s one way to rock a toddler’s world, but that’s exactly what we did.
Eight months later, I can’t believe we can get a haircut. I can’t believe we can cooperatively navigate doctor appointments free of tears. I can’t believe we can go to a playground and actually play comfortably. He might still choose to watch rather than run to the equipment, but he’s happy in that choice – not scared. That’s all I’ve ever wanted – not for him to change, but to be comfortable.
I truly feel in my heart that this confidence didn’t come from starting school. I attribute this confidence to finding Montessori, both for what it nurtured within him and what it taught me about highly-sensitive children – what I now know is a more accurate label than shy, and one that doesn’t carry the same negative implications.
In “The Highly Sensitive Child,” Dr. Elaine Aron writes, “Highly sensitive individuals are those born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and deeply reflect on everything before acting, as compared to those who notice less and act quickly and impulsively. As a result, sensitive people, both children and adults, tend to be empathic, smart, intuitive, creative, careful, and conscientious. They are also more easily overwhelmed by high volume or large quantities of input arriving at once. They try to avoid this, and thus seem to be shy or timid.”
When we toured a variety of schools, many reacted forcefully and negatively to his personality. “Why aren’t you talking?” “Do you not like me or something?” I was used to these negative remarks from strangers in passing, but I was bewildered they were coming from staff who were supposed to be knowledgeable in childhood development. When we walked into our nearest Guidepost for the first time, the tone completely shifted.
We were met with a calm smile and patient guidance. Their priority was not to get him on their level, rather to meet him at his. That’s a snippet of the beauty in authentic Montessori, where individualized education is the norm and the biggest grouping is under the universal goal of developing the whole child, for each child.
I was worried my son would be seen as not participating enough because of his personality. Instead, I was met with refreshing feedback of, “Your son is a great observer in the classroom.” Suddenly, the thing I’ve spent three years defending became embraced, understood, and supported. Finally.
He wasn’t the type to dive in. This isn’t praised in society – especially in boys who we insist to “be brave” while downplaying their right to have emotions like fear or sadness. When we push our boys, especially our sensitive ones, to be more like their extroverted peers, we’re sending the message that who they are is not enough. That is not how we build confidence.
So, I shouldn’t be surprised how quickly confidence did come for my son when we placed him in an environment where his sensitivity was embraced.
The cornerstone of a Montessori Children’s House is the three-hour, uninterrupted child-led work cycle. He gets to choose his own work and how long to work on it, or, to sit and observe. When most people hear this, they assume it’s because I wanted to keep him in a bubble. “That’s perfect because he doesn’t have to socialize. He can just be alone!”
This is highly inaccurate. The fact that my son has the opportunity to independently navigate a classroom full of children, where they are collectively responsible for caring for their classroom, means he has more socialization than if he were limited to a same-age room led by an adult teacher.
Children who are free to be do not work in isolation; it means their interactions are spontaneous instead of planned or forced. The children form a cohesive community, reflective of the real world we live in. That is the ultimate opportunity for him to gain social skills when he has to practice using them for himself rather than under the direction of a teacher.
He realized he could do difficult things because he was given space, time and trust, and it did not come at the cost of having to conform to anything he is not. This created a boost of confidence for me as his mom, too, which further set the right tone for him to blossom. I have realized how blessed I am to have a sensitive son, and I finally stopped worrying.
Thank you, Montessori.
“There is in the child a special kind of sensitivity which leads him to absorb everything about him, and it is this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life. He does it in virtue of an unconscious power that exists in childhood …The first period of the child’s life is one of adaptation.” – Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
About the Author
Jenna Wawrzyniec is a writer and Montessori-inspired mother of two children under the age of four. Her two dogs also count as children. Read more of her work at itslittlebird.com.
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