Around strangers, teachers, and acquaintances, my four and a half year old daughter is almost completely mute. Her fingers crammed in her mouth and her sullen eyes downcast, her pediatrician asked me if she was, “a little infantile, no?”
The comment was annoying, but it did not trouble me. I know that my girl is exuberant and brazen around people she is comfortable with, which include a wide circle of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. She throws her head back and laughs like a kookaburra at the slightest thing, up and down, up and down, until tears run down her cheeks and she is gasping for breath.
But the shyness does touch a sensitive point in me. I don’t want my children to lose out on the enriching and confidence-building interactions with other adults, especially people we run into everyday like the friendly librarian, the fireman who offers to show her where they stow the hose, the pediatrician who asks what her favorite color is, and the naturalist who gives her an owl feather. I was painfully shy and awkward all my life, hiding behind books and my mother’s skirt. People assume it was because I was homeschooled, but I doubt it, since I had quite my fair share of school too. I wonder if she gets it from me. Certainly, I want to embrace my children for who they are. If my daughter is naturally shy, then I would not want to push her to be something else, but rather work with that quality and make it one of her strengths. But I also want to give her opportunities to develop the ease around people that I never had.
At karate lessons, she is the new kid in class. The teacher asks her name, and she sucks her fingers and stares. Sitting on the bleachers, I decide not to save her this time and let my daughter to be called “little lady” for the rest of the class. I suggest gently afterwards, “Let’s go up to the teacher and tell her your name, OK?” She nods eagerly, revved up, since she likes the teacher a lot.
“Excuse me, my daughter wants to tell you her name.” And suddenly, I am left in the lurch while my little girl looks as if she swallowed a frog, staring at the teacher. After at least fifteen seconds and quite a bit of nudging, I fill in for her, embarrassed.
Another evening at home, we practice asking the librarian for tickets for the storytime. The children love role-playing, and we take turns being the librarian and being the shy little girl. Sometimes, we pretend the librarian mispronounces her name or counts the wrong number of tickets or simply can’t hear very well, and she shrieks with laughter.
When we walk into the library, I stop at the book drop to empty bags filled with dozens of picture books. I let my children go ahead of me, hurrying through the aisles to the children’s desk, where my daughter blurts out, “Excuse me, may I have four tickets please?”
Sometimes, she remembers to say thank you. Other times, she is so proud that she comes bounding back to me, brandishing the hard-won tickets. I don’t know if the librarian knows how hard she had practiced that line. But I do.
Maha Ezzeddine lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and three daughters. She is a committed MAS member and worker, part-time writer, mother, and homemaker.