The Shy Child
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
SHE was a trial to her parents, and her own worst enemy. To begin with, the Shy Child was pretty, and it is a calamity to be both shy and pretty. If she had been homely she might have met contemptuous glances, it is true, but these would have been nothing to the Shy Child in comparison with Attention. The bugaboo ,of the Shy Child was Attention. To be neither pretty nor homely but plain would have been most desirable, for plain children are ignored by all but the child-lover and the conscientious adult. I mean by the conscientious adult the relative who because of kinship pats a child on the head and asks his age, or the honest, hireling type of teacher, who does her duty by all her pupils. The child-loving adult is a different proposition.
The Shy Child, as I said, was distinctly pretty, and so, wherever she went, she was noticed. This was particularly embarrassing in parlors. Did you ever stop to think how the average adult, not one who is bashful and unsophisticated and awkward, but the normal adult would feel to be signaled out from a company, stood up to show his height, lifted into giant laps to demonstrate his weight, asked his age, and treated to frank comments on his various features?
Unfortunately, again, the Shy Child was small for her age. Not that she cared, except that it caused more Attention. To be shy and either larger or smaller than the average child is deplorable.
"Five years? I'd never think it. I'm afraid you are making up a big, big story," would say the caller, and the Shy Child felt reproached. To have been very large would have won the equally mortifying comment, — "Only five? A great, big girl like you?"
However, the Shy Child had one great good-fortune. She had a shy mother. Few people even suspected this, for the mother had overcome the objectionable features of shyness and retained only the delicate sensibility and fine reticence which are its desirable outgrowths. Perhaps the most important legacy of her childhood shyness was that she understood shyness.
So the Shy Child escaped the disaster that threatened a shy child across the street, whose mother punished her for bashful behavior to callers, and who was fast developing into the Sullen Child.
The Shy Child's mother never punished her for shyness but helped her to banish self-consciousness by the magic of interest in others. With her mother in the room the Shy Child did not mind even a stranger. Her mother had a happy way of forestalling questions by saying, "This is Jane. She is five. I have asked her to color a picture for a little gift to you. It's a pretty picture, isn't it? What color shall you make the girl's dress, Jane?"
Thus the bugaboo Attention attacked the picture, and the Shy Child escaped. There developed, too, a good feeling for a stranger for whom she had colored a picture.
Sometimes Attention was transferred to the children of the relative or caller. The Shy Child was asked to show a favorite toy, so that the stranger might buy one like it for his child. Occasionally he was frankly told that the Shy Child liked to sit by quietly, while grown people talked.
Meal-times were hardest, but the mother knew so well the signs of Attention that she seized it before it assailed the Shy Child and fastened it upon the food, telling how Jane saw it cooked, or upon the flowers, which Jane picked. She helped the Shy Child to feel that other people and things were very much more important than she.
The Shy Child had a little cousin who knew she was shy. This little cousin's mother told everybody about her shyness and sympathized with it. The little cousin was rather proud of it, and she cried a great deal, for it is pleasant to cry when you will be cuddled and kissed for it. The Shy Child did not know she was shy and she did know that tears are a nuisance. When she started to cry her mother always found something interesting to do or to see that she could not do or see with her eyes full of tears.
The Shy Child's mother never laughed at her. Other people did, and one laugh made her, as far as they were concerned, the Secretive Child. Her mother considered that very dangerous. She was gratified that with her the Shy Child was less shy than with anybody else. She laughed with her, and they had merry times over funny things they did, but she never laughed at the Shy Child's questions, and she never seemed to regard the thoughts she told as funny. She did not tell them to people before the Shy Child, and never behind her back to anybody who was not sympathetic. Many quaint, intimate remarks the Shy Child made she would have as little thought of quoting as she would have quoted her husband's love letters.
She respected the Shy Child's reticence. She knew that no human being can ever know a shy person perfectly. Often she saw a far-away look in the Shy Child's eyes and she did not say, "What are you thinking about, dear?" She just put her hand in the Shy Child's, or moved a little closer. Sometimes she told what she herself was thinking.
As the Shy Child grew older her mother protected her less. She told her that people expect good manners in a child, and answers to their questions. She tried to fit her for contact with the world, by the grace of courtesy. She knew that otherwise she would be misunderstood and handicapped. She did not attempt this too early, because it was necessary first to create interest in people and things outside of herself. She recognized the fact that the Shy Child can never be the Popular Child, but that good manners will save her many a hard knock. That these formal good manners might become second nature, she had them practised at home. She knew what a protection to the Shy Child it would be to have acquired the habit of shaking hands, and to be accustomed to reply with conventional phrases.
And yet in all this drill on manners, she emphasized the other person — never the child. One shakes hands, she told her, not to appear well, but to show respect to older people, and courtesy means making others comfortable. For this mother realized that the Shy Child's great danger came from within, and that the antidote to brooding, morbid self-consciousness is interest in out-side things and service for others.
It chanced that the Shy Child's good fairy was her mother. Alas ! it is not always so. But there is at least one good fairy for every type of child. It may be a relative less near but more under-standing. It may be a teacher. It may be a friend.
Are you the good fairy to any Shy Child?