I have a kid who was born with a natural inclination to hide. I first noticed this trait when he was eight months old. A friend entered our apartment and Michael planted his baby face in the rug. When I peeled him off the carpet he clamped his hands firmly over his eyes and let out a howl. As he grew, my little guy struggled to enter groups, either clinging to me or hanging in the back. For a while, he kept a hat on his head, low over his eyes so he didn’t have to look at anyone. The opposite was true at home. With us, he was delightful and out-going. Always imaginative and intelligent, he led his siblings in their games. When we were away from the safety of our home, he seemed miserable. He refused to do simple tasks that other children were doing willingly. When I expressed concern, well-meaning parents said, “Oh, he’s just shy” and “Don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it.” I remained unconvinced. To me, Michael seemed to be a kid trapped inside himself by his fear of new people and situations.
One day at a park, I noticed him hanging back and watching the other kids going down a medium-sized slide. His little brother was gleefully climbing up the ladder and sliding down. I could tell he wanted to go down the slide, because he kept putting one foot on the ladder and then backing away. I don’t know what possessed me, but I went over and said “Come on Son, were going down” I dragged him screaming and clawing up the five foot ladder, plopped him at the top and gave him a little push. As the other mothers glared, I waited at the top to see what he would do. At the bottom of the slide, he leaped up, turned around, and yelled “That was FUN!” His face beamed as he dashed around and bounded up the ladder. That moment was my epiphany – this kid needed a push.
Pushy parents have gotten some bad press lately and rightfully so. We should never live out desires for stardom, athletic prowess or beauty through our children. With five kids who are either two or three sport athletes and involved in a multitude of artistic pursuits, I’ve attended A LOT of youth sporting and performance events. Sadly, I’ve seen some really out-of-control parents bringing shame on their families. I have personally experienced a parent celebrating over my son’s injury, because his son stood a better chance of getting some playing time. We’ve all seen Toddlers and Tiaras – where pathetic, and I believe abusive parents are displayed to the world. (I hope those people are not making any money for being on that show, but they probably are) But when you see that your child is so afraid and/or stubborn that he or she refuses to learn a skill or participate in a worthwhile activity, your child’s behavior has moved from a temperament issue to a behavioral issue. To develop a positive character trait in our son, we decided to gently and firmly help him overcome his fears and behave correctly in situations where he is afraid. Pushing a kid to be the BEST HE CAN BE – not necessarily THE BEST, is an act of love. With that in mind, I guess you can call me pushy.
We decided not to accept that our son was a fearful person with a natural lack of social skills. We refused to give him the label of “shy”. As Michael grew, we insisted that he look people in the eye and give appropriate responses. In the car, before we entered any social situation, I coached him on different scenarios, saying things like “If Mr. Smith says ‘Hi’ to you, what are you going to say?” It was embarrassing at times, but we kept at it. There were times when other parents talked behind our backs and even openly scolded us. That was hard. But my job was to raise our son, not to be popular with the Mommy and Me playgroup, so we persisted. We signed him up for a lot of different activities and required him to fully participate. At one point, I even paid him $50 to be in the choir. Bribery has it place, people!
You may be wondering if all that pushing and prodding damaged my son’s tender soul. It took a while, but by the time he was 13, he started to shine. In eighth grade, he acted in a community theater production and received fan mail. In high school, he joined many clubs and sports teams. He mastered public speaking and for four years, spoke to elementary school groups about the danger of drug and alcohol abuse. He performed in musicals, MC’d events and was the lead singer in a rock band. As a Senior, he was elected student body president and selected as homecoming royalty. A four year choir member, he sang the national anthem with a quartet and was elected choir president. He was a National Honor Society officer, captain of the cross country team and the recipient of numerous scholarships for his community involvement and leadership. Though he was popular and had a close group of friends, each day at lunch, he found a student eating alone and sat with them. He was voted by his senior class to be “Everyone’s Friend”. He delivered the commencement address at his senior graduation and now attends one of the top schools in the nation, the University of California, Berkeley.
Children come with all sorts of temperaments, strengths and weaknesses. Our job, as parents, is to do what it takes for our individual children so that they will grow to be well-rounded, hard working, healthy adults. With adulthood as the goal, some kids, like our Michael, need a little prodding for them to share themselves with the world. Some kids need more boundaries so that they will share less of themselves with the world. (I have one of those, too – more on him later) My son, Michael, is exceptional by anyone’s standard but I am convinced that if we had let him be “shy” he wouldn’t be the person he is today.